Last month, Ramasamy, a 60-year-old small farmer in Sivaviduthi near Pudukkottai district, sacrificed two goats to the rain gods at the village temple. The Mettur dam, the lifeline of farmers in the Cauvery delta region of Tamil Nadu, is traditionally opened on June 12. But this year, as in the previous five, lack of supply from Karnataka has left the dam almost dry in the crucial month of June, when farmers prepare their fields to plant the Kuruvai summer paddy crop.

Dejected at losing the crop for the sixth year in a row, Ramasamy decided to sell two of his cattle to raise some money. But in late May, the Narendra Modi regime had notified new cattle trade rules. They have hit farmers like a lightning bolt.

“If we are not allowed to sell our cattle, will the government come and feed them?” he asked, angrily. He held the nose rope of one of his oxen, which he had brought to sell at the Sunday cattle market in Thiruvonam, a small town in Thanjavur district.

At the market, one of the largest in the region where nearly 1,000 animals are traded every week, were hundreds of farmers like Ramasamy who are hoping to tide over the financial crunch caused by the worst drought in 140 years. With their fields empty and the price of fodder shooting up, holding on to cattle has become a great burden for many. And with fellow farmers not inclined to buy cattle given the absence of farming, their only buyer is the meat industry. The new rules, the farmers fear, will strangle the rural economy as selling cattle to abattoirs will soon become almost impossible.

Crippling ban

On May 25, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests notified new rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. The rules banned the sale of cattle for slaughter in cattle markets and put in place a complex web of regulations that expanded the role of bureaucracy. There is no ban on slaughtering bulls, oxen and buffaloes in Tamil Nadu, but the new rules brought these animals, too, within the definition of “cattle”. The state also allows butchering of infirm cows but there is a ban on slaughtering healthy cows.

None of the farmers at the Thiruvonam cattle market on June 18 had a clue that such a law was about to be put in place although the environment ministry had uploaded the draft rules on its website back in January, inviting suggestions from the public. In fact, farmers thought it a joke that the Centre expected them to log on to the website and look for the draft rules. “Some of us do not even know how to use a calculator, leave alone a computer,” said Prakasam, a farmer.

At the Thiruvonam market, bargaining is still done in the age-old way: the buyer and the seller hide their hands under a towel and hold out different fingers indicating the prices.

The costliest are draught oxen with large humps. A pair can fetch as much as Rs 1.25 lakh. Small-humped oxen, used for ploughing, go for between Rs 60,000 and Rs 70,000 a pair. This worth, of course, is linked to the state of agriculture. When there is enough water and cultivation is in full swing, farmers buy animals to help in the field. Usually, small farmers with less than two acres of land prefer animals for ploughing because renting a tractor will eat significantly into their profits. Therefore, in a bumper year, animals fetch higher prices.

In a drought year, the situation is reversed. Farmers at the Thiruvonam market said most of them sell draught animals only when there is no cultivation. “In this region, there has been no Kuruvai crop for six years,” said Manickam, a middleman who facilitates transactions at the market. “Hardly any farmer wants to buy.”

During drought, therefore, the meat industry becomes crucial for the rural economy. On Sunday, brokers who procure cattle for the meat industry were the main buyers at the cattle fair. Palani, a middleman, said there was very little consumption of beef in Tamil Nadu. Most of the cattle bought in such fairs are loaded on trucks and are sent to the Kerala border. But it is this industry that the new rules are aimed to strike at. They stipulate that once cattle are bought at the market, they can not be sold for meat.

“Since not many in Tamil Nadu consume beef, there are very few who procure directly from farmers,” he added. While the new trade rules do provide the option for the farmer to sell directly to the abattoir without coming to the market, lack of beef processing units in the state will bring the demand down almost instantaneously if the intermediaries are taken out of the picture at these cattle fairs.

According to data from round 68 of the National Sample Survey Organisation for 2011-2012, about 39 lakh people in Tamil Nadu consume beef compared to over 79 lakh in Kerala. The overall population of Tamil Nadu as per Census 2011 was 7.2 crore compared to just 3.3 crore in Kerala. Despite the lower population, Kerala consumed about 36.81 lakh kilograms of beef in 2011-2012 compared to 13.13 lakh kilograms in Tamil Nadu.

The farmers said if the meat industry is stopped from buying cattle from the markets, the prices will crash as there are no other buyers. “We will have to sell the animals at throwaway prices to whoever buys,” said Ganapathy, a farmer from near Thiruvonam. “Even now, we are getting much lower prices than what we get in a good farming year.”

Costly feed

In times of drought, the price of cattle fodder goes up. Since paddy farming happens only in fields with borewells, the total area under cultivation comes down (there was a 41% drop in cultivation in 2016-2017) and there is little straw after harvest to feed the cattle. The farmers said an acre of paddy straw is sold for as much as Rs 10,000, usually to feed traders. The traders, in turn, sell one load of feed – a few bales of straw that is barely enough for one animal for a week – for Rs 800-Rs 1,000. Oil cakes, which is also fed to cattle, sell for as much as Rs 800 per 50-kg bag.

Many farmers cannot afford either paddy straw or oil cakes, so they let their draught animals loose in the fields to graze whatever they can find. Any feed they buy is fed only to the cows to ensure the milk yield does not diminish.

In some areas, the government supplies feed for a lower price. But quite inconsistently, the farmers said. For every ration card, the government provides about three bales of straws for Rs 250. The market price of the same quantity is about Rs 1000, the farmers added.

Further, the Tamil Nadu government, under a scheme launched by former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa in 2011, provides milch cows to the rural poor. By 2015, close to a lakh families had benefited. There is a flip side to the scheme, though: the cows, which are all tagged, can not be resold unless they became infirm. So, farmers are forced to keep the cows even if they no longer give enough milk. Moreover, in 2014, the Comptroller and Auditor General had found that hasty procurement of animals for distribution under this scheme resulted in farmers getting “poor quality animals”.

Dalits worst affected

Most Dalits who come to the cattle fair in Thiruvonam are marginal and small farmers. Many are landless agricultural labourers and they sell milk to supplement their income. In drought years, when the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme becomes the lone job provider, money from the sale of milk is a vital source of income.

Kumar, a Dalit labourer in Thattankoil, said Mnrega work is now available only for a few days a month. Other avenues of employment are not looking bright either. “In the last two months, there has been little construction work,” he said. “We almost entirely depended on milk sale to meet expenses.” The slump in the construction sector has been attributed to the Centre’s demonetisation policy.

Kumar said once a cow becomes too old, the only way to buy a new cow is to sell the infirm one to raise the money. “Who else but the abattoir will buy a sick or an old cow,” he said. “We are also religious. We too consider the cow holy. But we cannot let our children go hungry to feed a sick cow.”

Officials of the Animal Husbandry department in Thanjavur said they have been instructed not to implement the rules for the time being as the Madras High Court has stayed them. The state government informed the Assembly on Tuesday that it will go by the instructions of the court in the matter.