On December 9, the Karnataka state assembly passed the Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill (2020). Given the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s focus on cow protection as part of its politics of Hindu nationalism, this move is not surprising.

However, even compared to similar acts passed by other BJP states, the Karnataka version is especially harsh. Not only does it ban the slaughter of all cows, bulls, bullocks and calves, it also outlaws the slaughter of buffaloes below the age of 13. Smuggling and transporting animals for slaughter is also an offense.

The bill prescribes punishments of between three to seven years – which is more than the punishment prescribed in Indian law for causing the death of a human being by negligence. It also gives the police powers to conduct searches based on suspicion.

Though the bill has yet to be passed by the state’s Legislative Council, the government has said it will pass an ordinance to implement its provisions.

Muslims and farmers

The legislation, based on Hinduism’s reverence for the cow, undermines the food practices of many Indians, for whom beef is a cheap source of protein. Already, Indians are some of the most malnourished people on the planet and, remarkably, nutrition standards are worsening. The bill also penalises people working in the meat and leather industries that depend on cattle slaughter, many of whom are Muslim.

However, the sector that will take the largest hit from the the legislation is the dairy industry. India’s dairy industry is massive with an annual turnover of Rs 6.5 lakh crore – making it by far India’s largest agricultural product. India’s farmers earn more from dairy than wheat and rice put together. India has almost as many bovines as people in the United States with one for every four Indians.

Dairy economics

The problem with the bill is that that slaughter is integral to the dairy industry’s economic functioning. Dairy farming in India functions on small margins. As a result, the upkeep of unproductive animals would throw their bottom lines out of alignment.

This is because when a male calf is born or a milch animal stops giving milk (or yield falls), farmers need to be able to get rid of the animal. In normal times, this sale is also a source of capital for the farmer. In 2014, the size of the used cattle market just in Maharashtra was valued at as much as Rs 1,180 crore per year.

Verghese Kurein, founder of Amul and the architect of India’s White Revolution, that supercharged India’s milk production from 1970, opposed any ban on cow slaughter all his life in spite of pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Kurein was clear that the economics of dairy demanded slaughter.

“It was important for us in the dairy business to keep weeding out the unhealthy cows so that available resources could be utilized for healthy and productive cattle,” he wrote in this autobiography I Too Had a Dream.

To a proponent of a cow slaughter ban, the Shankaracharya of Puri, Kurein asked rhetorically, “Your Holiness, are you going to take all the useless cows which are not producing anything and look after them and feed them till they die? You know that cannot work.”

The Shankaracharya had no answer to Kurein’s question.

Representational image. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

Cowed down

He was of course right – and vindicated by the destruction that the BJP’s harsh cow slaughter laws have caused to the dairy industry over the past decade. The statistics produced by the 2019 Livestock Census are clear: cow slaughter laws have actually ended up harming cows.

Take cattle numbers, for example. Between 2012 and 2019, states with cow slaughter laws such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh saw their cattle numbers fall (by 10.07%, 4.42% and 3.93%, respectively). On the other hand, West Bengal – one of India’s rare states where cattle slaughter has no restrictions – saw a massive increase of 15.18%. As a result, Bengal now has the Indian Union’s largest cattle population.

To repeat, the state in the union with no cow slaughter laws and easy availability of beef also has its largest cattle population.

If keeping unproductive cattle is unavailable for the farmer but they are also not getting culled, what happens to the animals? Farmers simply let them loose, giving rise to the problem of large herds of feral cows which have caused economic havoc and pose a danger of citizens – a problem unique to India. In the countryside of many states, famished cattle herds now pose a danger to crops and cause accidents. In just Haryana over two years, 241 people have died with motorists crashing into roaming cows.

Buffalo nation

Naturally, stray cattle numbers are directly linked to cow slaughter laws. States such as Uttar Pradesh (17.34%), Madhya Pradesh (95%) and Gujarat (17.59%) have seen substantial rises in their stray cow population between 2012 and 2019. On the other hand, West Bengal has seen a sharp fall by 73.59%.

To illustrate the effect of the cow slaughter laws even more starkly, even as states where cattle numbers fell, buffalo numbers went up. Between 2012 and 2019, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh saw their buffalo numbers rise (by 0.71%, 25.88% and 7.81%, respectively). Since the buffalo – not seen as sacred in Hinduism – could be slaughtered legally, dairy farmers were clearly preferring it over the holy cow.

What makes the Karnataka bill so alarming even compared to the devastation caused by the earlier cow slaughter laws is that it even targets buffalos. Thus the Uttar Pradesh farmer could take a hit but then still change course and rear buffaloes. When this bill becomes law, the Kannadiga farmer will not even have this option.

Making it worse

Karnataka’s stringent laws against cow slaughter is part of a pattern where the BJP often passes policy that – rather than make India’s already precarious economic situation better – makes Indians worse off. Recent examples include demonetisation, the new Goods and Services Tax as well as putting in place the world’s harshest Covid-19 lockdown, making sure India’s was the worst affected country economically during the pandemic.

An anti-slaughter law would be bad at the best of times. But India is going through a rural crisis. With poor yields due to unscientific farming methods and lack of support structures like irrigation, the average monthly income of the Indian farmer stands at only Rs 6,427 per month. To make matters worse, for small farmers (defined as owning less than a hectare of land), their farming income is too low to cover their expenses and they are in debt. Note that this describes the situation of 83% of Indian farmers.

It is these very conditions that have contributed in part to the massive farmer protest underway on the borders of Delhi. Bafflingly, rather than make things better, the BJP in Karnataka is thinking of making the farmer worse off by even throttling their income from dairy.