Two years ago, when the Maharashtra government introduced a ban on the sale and consumption of bull, bullock and calf meat in addition to cow beef, Rizwana Sheikh and her family reluctantly switched to eating buffalo meat. It was not as appetising as bull meat, but it was still cheaper than mutton or chicken and over time, the Sheikhs got used to the new beef.

But for the past two weeks, buying even half a kilogram of beef from their local market in South Mumbai’s Dongri area has been a strain on the family’s finances.

“Bade ka gosht [beef] used to cost Rs 180 or Rs 200 a kilo earlier, but suddenly for the past week, the price has shot up to Rs 280 or Rs 300 a kilo,” said Sheikh, a housewife from Dongri’s Motiwala Chawl slum. “My husband is just a driver earning for six people. How often can we afford such expensive food?”

Although she did not know it, Sheikh’s food woes were a result of a new central government notification regulating livestock markets, issued on May 23. The notification bans farmers and traders from selling and purchasing cattle for slaughter at animal markets, and includes all cattle – even buffaloes and camels – in the ban.

While the new rules are ostensibly meant to prevent animal cruelty and smuggling at big livestock markets, they are also having a ripple effect on meat supply and consumption across the country. For low-income families and marginalised communities like Muslims and Dalits, who traditionally depended on beef as an affordable source of protein, this could deliver a major blow to diets and budgets.

‘More expensive than before’

Sheikh usually buys her meat from a local beef stall where Chand Qureshi has worked as a butcher for 18 years. With an income ranging from Rs 250 to Rs 300 a day, Qureshi has almost no savings and is forced to accept monthly aid from his father-in-law in order to feed his wife and three children.

“But all these years, at least I didn’t have to worry about meat – my boss would give me half a kilo of beef every day for our meals,” said Qureshi, whose family has also struggled with the switch from bull meat to buffalo meat since 2015.

The government’s new livestock trade regulation, however, has knocked off this daily perk. “Beef supply has been lower than normal in the Deonar abattoir, and prices have risen by a good Rs 100 per kilo,” he said. “Customers bargain a lot, because they are desperate, and we are desperate to sell all our stock too. So for the past week, there has rarely been any meat left for my boss to give me.”

According to Qureshi and his colleague Mohammed Azad, beef prices have increased even though farmers are now forced to sell their buffalos at a lower rate to scouting cattle traders. “Farmers are not getting a good deal, but for cattle buyers, it takes a lot more time and effort to go to multiple farms and village markets to buy a just handful of animals,” said Azad. “And even when all the receipts and papers are in order, we are hearing stories of police harassing transporters much more than before. This makes everything more expensive, including animals and meat on the black market.”

Not just about nutrition

Qureshi and many other regular beef-eaters are now unsure of how long this situation will continue and how long they will have to scrimp on other household expenses to be able to continue bringing beef on their plates.

“This week, I have been buying less quantity of beef than usual even though it is Ramzan,” said Ayan Khan, a Dongri resident who runs a small glassware business. “We can’t replace it with mutton, that would be too expensive, and we need some meat to give us protein. We are used to it.”

Gazala Sheikh, a housewife from Mumbai’s Bandra suburb, has tried to replace buffalo beef with chicken, fish and pulses. “But they are not exactly cheap either, and dal gives my family acidity if we have it every day,” said Sheikh, whose husband delivers tiffin boxes. “Buffalo meat itself is not very tasty, but we were having it when the government stopped other beef. Why does the government keep doing this to the poor?”

Kamal Faridi, a tuition teacher from Dongri, is clear that his regular consumption of beef has nothing to do with nutrition. “This is our diet, our food culture,” he said. “This is what we have been eating for years. And now it is getting more and more unaffordable.”

Meanwhile, Chand Qureshi is bitter about the communal colour being given to the controversy around the 2015 Maharashtra beef ban and last month’s livestock regulation. “Why do people keep saying only Muslims eat beef?” he asked, before whispering a snide joke: “Most of my clients at the beef shop are Hindu. Maybe if they all stopped eating beef, supply would rise, prices would fall and it would be more affordable for the rest of us.”