Economics, not religion, drives ownership of cattle in India
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Given the increasing incidents of violence under the garb of cow protection in the country—these are driven largely by the belief that Muslims engage with the cattle economy mostly for meat (as butchers, commission agents or beef eaters)—it makes sense to view the cattle economy in the country through the prism of religion.
An earlier Plainfacts column had shown that non-Muslims also eat beef in India, although Muslims account for the majority of beef and buffalo meat eaters in the country. Around 63.4 million Muslims (or 40% of the Muslim population in the country) eat beef or buffalo meat. Overall, 80 million Indians eat beef or buffalo meat.
But what of cattle ownership?
It emerges that economics rather than religion drives cattle ownership in India. After adjusting for wealth inequality, cattle ownership shows a similar pattern across religions. Expectation of milk yields is what drives cattle ownership in India.
The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) conducted the All India Debt and Investment Survey (AIDIS) from January to December 2013. The survey looked at more than 110,000 households in both rural and urban India. It collected information on cattle ownership by households.
Headline numbers suggest that cattle ownership is much higher among Sikhs and Hindus than Muslims. Among Muslim households, 18.6% own cattle in India. The figure is 40% for Sikhs and 32% for Hindus. For Christians it is only 13%. The all-India average of households owning cattle or buffaloes is 30%.
There is expectedly a variation across states.
In Kerala, 7.5% and 5.5% of Hindu and Muslim households respectively own cattle. These numbers are 52% and 21% respectively in Uttar Pradesh. In Jammu and Kashmir, 57% Muslims own cattle. For Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir, this number is 37%. State-specific economic and climatic conditions have a role to play in cattle-owning decisions.
Economic status of different religious groups also matters.
To deal with this problem, we classified all cattle-owning households by wealth. We looked at cattle ownership by the wealth quintile. It emerges that a poor Hindu and poor Muslim household have the same likelihood of owning cattle in India. For each wealth quintile, chances of owning cattle are more or less the same for Hindus and Muslims.
There is another piece of evidence to show that livestock decisions are based on economics rather than a love for cows.
AIDIS has further information on the nature of livestock. Young stock up to two years of age is classified into male and female. Female animals older than two are classified as breeding cows and others. Male animals over two years are classified as those for work/breeding and others.
Female animals under two years would be expected to grow into milk-giving cattle. Breeding cows are still in their milk cycle. Everything else apart from these two categories can be described as non-milk animals.
Only 15% of households own non-milk animals in India. This is half of the overall cattle ownership figure of 30%. Again, the figures are not very different across religions.
One does not need to be a rocket scientist to guess where the non-milk bovines end up. They are the supply for India’s multi-billion dollar beef industry. It has been an unacknowledged but convenient arrangement. Most owners sell their non-milk cattle without asking questions about the end use.
This is why the local cattle trade is crucial for India’s livestock economy. A government ban on sale of animals for slaughter in local markets, and vigilante mobs attacking those transporting cattle in the name of gau raksha, can destroy this arrangement.
Everybody with stakes in the livestock economy would suffer as costs go up due to a pile-up of non-milk animals.
Roshan Kishore is a data journalist with Mint and Ishan Anand, is a PhD scholar at JNU.