How India’s buffalo trade has been battered by vigilantes
On 24 March, Mohammed Nayeem, 28, a livestock trader, woke up before sunrise and rode to the animal market in Pinjri, about 20km from his home on the outskirts of Aligarh city in Uttar Pradesh. He claims he bought six buffaloes—spent, unproductive animals no longer in milk—to supply to a slaughterhouse which would process the meat for exports.
Nayeem says he loaded the animals in a hired light truck and left for Aligarh around noon, riding alongside on his bike. According to Nayeem, a few kilometres down the highway, a mob of about 20 men stopped the truck, pulled him off his bike, dragged him to a nearby field and began punching and kicking him. He says they hit him with iron rods and hockey sticks, and discussed aloud whether to burn him alive.
Fortunately, claims Nayeem, a police van reached after a while—although it was only to arrest him. By then, he says, the mob had stolen his buffaloes, taken away Rs1.5 lakh in cash and two mobile phones. After two days in jail, Nayeem was granted bail by the local court.
A supplier in the meat trade, Nayeem had broken no law. Trade and slaughter of buffaloes is legal in India, unlike cows which cannot be slaughtered in 21 of India’s 29 states. But it’s not just traders like Nayeem who are affected by vigilantism. After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the rising tide of vigilantism has disrupted the entire animal trade in India’s most populous state. Cutting across religion, farmers, dairy owners, export units and local meat sellers have been badly hit.
India’s meat industry is a by-product of a thriving dairy sector. India does not rear cattle for slaughter, instead opting to only put to the knife only old and unproductive animals. Restrictions on slaughter of unproductive animals is likely to show up in higher prices of milk and milk products, besides hurting employment, export revenues and farmer incomes, say experts, affecting the entire bovine economy.
It is an economy where the buffalo plays a central role.
Why farmers prefer buffaloes to cows
Uday Ram, 52, is a marginal farmer who owns five buffaloes and just about an acre of land. While the land helps him grow enough food for sustenance, it is sales from buffalo milk that pays for household expenses. He does not keep a cow for two reasons. First, cows give less milk—three to six litres a day for indigenous varieties compared to buffaloes which yield eight to 12 litres. Rich in fat and solids, buffalo milk also sells for more, about Rs50 per litre compared to Rs35 for cow milk.
Secondly, after five-six lactation cycles (each lasting about nine months), Uday Ram can sell the buffalo for slaughter, fetching him anything between Rs25,000 and Rs 35,000 depending on the health and weight of the animal. Most farmers plough this amount back into purchasing another milch animal. In comparison, an unproductive cow is a liability and farmers often let them loose—one reason stray cattle foraging on garbage is such a common sight in India.
Data from government reports point to the changing pattern of livestock ownership in India.
According to the Livestock Census, between 1992 and 2012, buffalo numbers rose 29% from 84 million to 109 million, while the overall cattle population fell 6.7% from 205 million to 191 million.
India is the world’s largest producer of milk, with an annual output of 155 million tonnes (in 2015-16), and buffaloes contribute 55% to total production. The rising importance of buffaloes to the Indian dairy industry is also due to the fact that unlike cows, India has the best of high-yielding milch buffaloes in the world—precious local breeds such as the Murrah, Neeli Ravi and Jaffarabadi.
Since the 1960s, Murrah bulls have been taken from India to Bulgaria, Brazil, China and several East Asian countries to help improve their native breeds and increase milk yields.
With growing vigilantism in Uttar Pradesh, Uday Ram says he is now stuck with his spent Murrah buffalo, which gives barely a litre of milk per day; that’s an earning of Rs50 while feed alone costs at least Rs150 per day. On 4 April, Uday Ram made his way to the animal market of Khair, about 30km from Aligarh. The weekly market had reopened that day after being shut since the new government took over, but there were few takers for his buffalo.
Traders who deal in spent animals offered Uday Ram about Rs15,000 for the animal—less than half what it would have fetched in normal times. Traders say they are offering less because transporting animals has become risky.
“Rs15,000 is too low a price and I will have to walk back to my village. I also have to postpone buying an in-milk buffalo (priced between Rs60,000 and Rs80,000),” said Uday Ram. A month’s delay means spending at least Rs3,000 on feeding the animal.
The loss for a marginal farmer like Uday Ram gets magnified many times over for a large dairy owner like Fazlur Rehman. The 55-year old owns 108 buffaloes and 30 cows. To keep his business going, he has to regularly recycle his herd. He wants to purchase about a dozen buffaloes but doesn’t want to take the risk of buying and transporting the animals.
“High yielding buffaloes which I get from Punjab or Haryana cost over Rs1 lakh each. Will a mob listen if I try to explain that the animals are for dairy and not slaughter?” said Rehman, perched in a chair outside his Pahalwan Dairy Farm on the outskirts of Aligarh city.
How it began
How did the situation take this sudden turn? One of the reasons is that the crackdown on unlicensed slaughterhouses by the state’s new government also seems to have extended to the transport of animals. On 24 March, less than a week after Yogi Adityanath was sworn in as Uttar Pradesh’s new chief minister, Rahul Bhatnagar, the state’s chief secretary, wrote a letter to all district magistrates and senior police officials telling them to take strict action against any unauthorized transport of milch (in-milk) animals.
“For the state government a ban on illegal slaughter and unauthorised transport of milch animals is a top priority,” the letter said. “Slaughter of milch animals at times disturb law and order and communal harmony.” Mint has seen a copy of the letter.
Almost at once, it became dangerous to transport spent animals for slaughter, or milch ones for dairy farming.
According to trade lobby All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association (AIMLEA), the circular created a confusion. Milch buffaloes are used by the dairy industry and not by export units (it is too costly to purchase and cull a productive buffalo).
In a letter to the chief minister on 29 March, AIMLEA wrote that “there is a fear amongst traders that their vehicles would be stopped and livestock confiscated”, urging it to allow transport of spent buffaloes with usual checks carried out by veterinary officials.
Police and district officials were not the only ones keeping a vigil. Mint spoke to members of a local vigilante group, the Gau Rakshak Sena (cow protection army), which claims to have units across the state. “On the Mathura Hathras road in the past few days we have assisted the police in seizing over 100 buffaloes,” said one member, Rahul Bansal, on the phone from Mathura. According to Bansal, the suppliers were charged under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, similar to what Nayeem in Aligarh was charged with.
“We keep a constant watch on animal movements. It is due to us that 98% of transport has stopped now,” Bansal bragged. Asked how they can be sure whether the animals being ferried are for dairy or slaughter, he replied, “One look at them (transporters) and we know if the animals are stolen and for katai (slaughter).”
Rs26,000 crore trade at stake
One important reason buffalo owners like Uday Ram and Fazlur Rehman, and traders like Nayeem have done well is the boom in exports of buffalo meat where India is a global leader. India’s buffalo meat exports grew at a compound annual rate of 29% between 2007-08 and 2015-16, from Rs3,533 crore to Rs26,685 crore.
There are 78 exports units in India, and over half of them (41) are in Uttar Pradesh. Together these 78 units directly employ over 150,000 people. Indirectly, industries such as leather and those which depend on utilization of its by-products employ more than two million people.
One of the largest export units is run by Frigerio Conserva Allana Pvt. Ltd in Aligarh. The state-of-the-art plant employs more than 2,000 people, about a third of them Muslims. On a normal day, the unit processes between 1,500 and 1,800 animals to export to countries in West Asia, Africa, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Russia.
The change of guard in Uttar Pradesh was followed by a spate of inspections by state government agencies. Nine export units have been temporarily shut down on what industry lobby AIMLEA alleges are flimsy grounds—non-functional CCTV cameras or a lapsed groundwater use licence. Still, rules are rules.
A bigger problem is choked supply lines. Spent buffaloes come to these units from across Uttar Pradesh and from states such as Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh and Gujarat. In Aligarh, five of the seven export units have had to shut down because supplies have dwindled. At the Allana processing unit, after a week of no work, supplies have trickled to about 400 animals per day.
“About 40 government officers from 15 departments visited our plant but found everything was in order,” said Ayaz Siddiqi, general manager (operations) at Allana. “But due to lack of supplies we had to lay off 500 casual workers. Our contractual workers are now working on rotation (a day’s work followed by a day’s rest).”
On the shop floor, workers are a worried lot. “The government should give export units incentives for generating employment and income for farmers than turn a blind eye to those who are stopping transport of animals,” said Pramod Sharma, head of the packaging unit, a Hindu and vegetarian who has been working at Allana for almost nine years.
“It is worrying to see so many of us sitting idle. Where else can illiterate people like us earn Rs8,000 per month?” asked Savita Hembram, a tribal woman from Bihar who has been working at Allana for more than a decade.
Allana is a state-of-the-art unit—far from the blood and stench commonly associated with slaughterhouses. The assembly line, from the animal resting yard to the packaging unit, is neat and clean. From a raised steel platform that runs around the shop floor, one can see hundreds of men and women in protective masks debone skinned buffaloes. The abundance of white (workers in white coats and boots working against spotless white walls) is interspersed with the pink of the flesh, lending the shop floor the look of a giant laboratory.
Allana’s is a zero waste integrated unit where every bit of the buffalo is put to use. Leftovers are processed and supplied as chicken and fish feed; the fat is used by cosmetics and soap manufacturers; the gelatine extracted from bones goes to pharmaceutical companies; the hides are sold to the leather industry and makers of cricket balls .
“We hope the centre and state governments will get their priorities right,” said Fauzan Alavi, a director at Allana, and spokesperson of AIMLEA, the exporter’s association.
“If India can be made free of the foot and mouth disease, our exports can grow at least threefold by opening up markets in the US, EU and China. This will earn more value for farmers, as close to 80% of our export revenues go directly to them. Some ‘ease of doing business’ for the industry will also aid the centre’s goal of doubling farm incomes,” Alavi said during a meeting in Delhi.
Why small-time butchers are angry
Legal units such as Allana have largely escaped the wrath of government officials. That’s because these establishments tend to be meticulous about government clearances (about 21 approvals are required from state and central agencies) and follow the stringent quality standards required by their foreign clients.
The “illegal units” that the new government has been shutting down and those that the National Green Tribunal (NGT) ordered shut across the state in a May 2015 judgement are either small local establishments or larger ones run by the government itself.
“We appealed to the NGT in 2013, fed up with certain communities stealing animals for culling and polluting the environment—rivers and water bodies—by open slaughter and dumping of untreated waste,” said Kuldeep Nagar, a petitioner in that case. “But neither the (previous) government nor officials enforced the judgement. We are happy that the new government is on the job.”
The problems of the local butcher, however, are more complex. For instance, there are around 350 licensed meat shops in Aligarh, and another 150 who don’t have any papers. “Sometimes they operate by the roadside on a plank of wood,” said Tariq Anwar, president of the local butchers association.
“Since an individual butcher cannot afford a slaughterhouse, it is the government’s responsibility to run one. In Aligarh, the municipal slaughterhouse downed shutters three years back and people took to slaughtering in godowns and closed spaces,” he said.
Anwar agrees this creates pollution and inconveniences to ordinary residents. “We want to comply with the law but how can the government shirk its responsibility?” he asked.
According to the Uttar Pradesh Municipal Corporation Act, 1959, “construction and maintenance of public markets and slaughterhouses” is the responsibility of the local administration. But going by a “list of seriously polluting industries which have not installed anti-pollution devices” drawn up by the state pollution control board in 2015, of 129 establishments surveyed, 40 were government-owned municipal slaughterhouses that did not have effluent treatment and solid waste management facilities.
In Uttar Pradesh, most of the municipal slaughterhouses—where butchers can go to cull an animal for a fee—are shut because they don’t have effluent treatment facilities. Currently, of the 86 municipal slaughterhouses in the state, just two are functional. “This means (many of) the so-called illegal slaughterhouses are actually the government-owned ones,” said Anwar.
Anwar is angry with the previous Samajwadi Party government and its urban development minister Azam Khan. “It is they who forced us to do our businesses ‘illegally’ all the while ensuring we vote for them,” he said.
In Aligarh, facing an acute shortage of meat for local consumption, exports units are now selling limited quantities to local butchers and to the Aligarh Muslim University mess , following requests from district authorities. “But what about other cities and towns in the state?” asked Anwar.
ALSO READ: Going overboard with cow protection
Data shows that more than 10 million Hindus and 60 million Muslims in the country consume beef and buffalo meat. State-wise, beef consumption varies from more than 80% (of total inhabitants) in Meghalaya, to over a fifth of the population in states like Assam and Kerala, and more than 9% in Uttar Pradesh.
Last week, hearing the plea of a meat vendor from Lakhimpur Kheri municipality whose licence had not been renewed, the Allahabad high court directed the state government to ensure adequate supply of meat, reminding it that “an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood”.
The judgement is small comfort for Mohammed Nayeem. The trader who faced the mob’s ire in Aligarh is barely able to walk due to a fracture in his right leg. The injuries on his skin need to heal before doctors can make a cast. “I am lucky to be alive,” Nayeem said. He is unsure if he wants to go back to work. “Himmat toot gayi meri (I have lost my confidence).”