The Union government has decided to revise the controversial livestock market regulations that banned sale of cattle for slaughter in open markets across the country. There has been confusion ever since these new rules under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act were notified on May 25. But, the administrative process to revise these could take some time.

In July, the environment ministry plans to kickstart a review of the rules by consulting state governments. On July 11, the Union environment, forests and climate change ministry will inform the Supreme Court that it is going to sit with the states, particularly the ones that have complained against the regulations, to address their concerns.

The Union government has internally acknowledged that the rules require a revision and will inform the apex court that the review is underway, two senior officials told “There is a case for amending them,” said one of them. Neither of the officers wished to speak on record.

The controversial regulations, known as Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, put the onus on both potential sellers and buyers to ensure that cattle – cows, buffaloes, bullocks, calves and camels – sold at animal markets are not slaughtered. They also set in place a deep bureaucratic process to oversee and regulate the cattle trade at markets.

Rethinking regulations

The rules instantly generated controversy and opposition. But, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had initially defended the regulations rather staunchly, softened its stance after shrill protests from its own leaders in the North East. The party, however, continued to blame opposition parties and others for sowing confusion about the rules. But, at the same time, the Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan recalibrated the government’s stance. “The order has been misunderstood. We will put the positive action in place to address every concern,” he told the Times of India. When asked if that meant an amendment to the regulations, he hedged, stating, “We need to see whether it would be done through language or substance. We are critically examining all the issues. I think it would be premature to spell it out at this moment.”

Earlier, on May 30, the Madurai bench of Madras High court imposed a stay on the implementation of the rules. The stay became applicable across the country. Thereafter, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two petitions against the cattle trade rules and asked the Centre to respond. The case is slated for hearing on July 11 when the environment ministry will clarify its position.

Officials speaking to Scroll said that it was understood within the government that the only one way to address the concerns raised by different stakeholders was to amend the regulations. The ministry would do so, the officers said, but it would go through a consultative process this time around.

“While the regulations were put out for comments as mandated by law before formal notification,” said one official, “the environment ministry did not proactively consult state governments, which is the usual practice. Several of them wrote to us later and we shall inform the Supreme Court that we are going to address their concerns.”

The second official added that the problem went beyond what made headlines. “Not just the ban on sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets but some other provisions of the regulations too could be termed as draconian,” this officer added. “The rules quite literally put an end to the role of intermediaries in the trade of cattle for slaughter. They require owners to sell directly to those buying cattle for slaughter. But, the situation of many farmers and economics of cattle trade essentially requires aggregators, intermediaries and transporters.”

In contrast to the emerging clarity and an admission of error within the government, the constant and careful hedging by the BJP in public reflects its political compulsions. The rules stretch far beyond the party’s cow protection agenda to choke trade of buffaloes as well. In the past, the party has run shy of proactively defending trade of buff (buffalo meat) while seeking a ban or restriction on cow slaughter, which critics believes is also targeted at Muslims.

“I cannot comment on the political consequences of retaining or amending the regulations,” said the official. “But I can tell you the government is concerned about how it will impact people,” he added.

Different motivations

The rules came into being more from a tangle of individual interests at the political level in the government rather than a clear political intent of the party.

As has been reported, the foundation of the rules lay in a Supreme Court case about cattle smuggling across the national boundaries. The petitioner in the case was Gauri Maulekhi, who works at People for Animals, a not for profit organisation headed by Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi.

“During the case the Animal Welfare Board of India through its lawyer also presented a draft of these rules to the court,” explained an official. “At that stage the draft rules had not been cleared by the ministry.”

Although the board is administratively controlled by environment ministry and has officials on board it tended to act independently at that time, the officer explained. “The Supreme Court in its orders did say that the government should notify the livestock market regulations but the ministry had the mandate and legal space to scrutinise them thoroughly and not just accept the Animal Welfare Board draft,” he added.

But the draft, prepared by the Animal Welfare Board of India, lingered in the ministry for more than a year without a proper scrutiny and eventually got an unqualified approval from the then Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave.

“Mr Dave cleared it quickly even in midst of his illness but yes, officials too perhaps did not red flag some of the serious concerns that have now emerged,” said the official. The minister passed away from a second heart stroke soon after approving the notification of the rules and Harsh Vardhan is now in saddle. The saddle is strapped to an animal that his party now finds difficult to ride. And, as difficult to dismount.