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India’s meat industry under threat

Muslim communities feel the pinch as stringent new regulations on cow slaughter hit thousands of workers

  • Pedestrian cross a beef shop in Kolkata, India. A new ban imposed by India’s government on the sale of cows anImage Credit: AP
  • Raghunath Chudari ploughs his field with a pair of cows he has owned for 15 years in Faijapur. New regulationsImage Credit: Tom Jamieson/NYT
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When Uttar Pradesh’s state government began a crackdown on unlicenced slaughterhouses in March, Sanjay Chaturvedi, a local veterinary inspector, celebrated. For years, Chaturvedi said, the government had protected the lucrative, predominantly Muslim-owned buffalo meat business, making it difficult for him to enforce environmental codes. But Chaturvedi has spent the past two months watching the local economy collapse. And now he is beginning to worry.

Of the 10 slaughterhouses and meat-processing factories operating in March on the stretch of road he patrols in Meerut, seven have shut down, putting much of the local population — 10,000 people, by his estimate — out of work. Migrant workers have packed up. Factory owners are defaulting on bank loans.

What alarms him most, he said, is the government’s recent announcement of stringent new regulations effectively banning the sale of cattle — a category that includes buffaloes as well as cows — for slaughter. The rules threaten to all but cut off the supply of animal products for the lucrative leather and buffalo meat industries, which together account for about $10 billion (Dh36.7 billion) in annual exports.

Three years into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term, the two agendas that were woven together in his 2014 campaign — economic development and Hindu cultural revival — are becoming more difficult to reconcile, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, which was India’s top meat-producing state. Chaturvedi has concluded that the government does not intend to clean up the meat industry but to eliminate it.

“These policies are headed towards a disastrous situation,” he said. “Instead of using state machinery to shut down the industry in a roundabout way, why not shut it down openly?”

Far-right Hindu groups have long opposed the slaughter of cows, which are considered sacred in Hinduism. Only recently have they expanded their opposition to include the vibrant buffalo trade, claiming that cows are smuggled into the slaughterhouses to be killed.

In March, when the governing Bharatiya Janata Party named a far-right Hindu cleric, Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, among his campaign promises was to shut down “illegal” slaughterhouses, a simple enough task in a country with dozens of overlapping laws governing the handling of meat.

New regulations on cattle slaughter, issued last month by the central government, would go significantly further, requiring any person selling livestock to produce a written guarantee that the animals will not be slaughtered. The new regulations were almost immediately challenged in state courts, with petitions arguing that measures on animal cruelty are subjects of state law, not federal law.

A safety net

If they survive, the regulations would sharply diminish the supply of animals for the leather and buffalo meat industries, which were surprised by the announcement. The changes would also strip small farmers of the opportunity to sell livestock when they are too old to work or give milk, a safety net in hard times.

Protests erupted in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where supplies of cattle to markets had fallen sharply, by three-quarters in some places. Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, criticised the new rules as “undemocratic and unconstitutional.” Livestock markets in Kerala, in the south, were reported to be facing closure. The initiatives have disillusioned some of Modi’s early cheerleaders, economic liberals who supported him for his pro-growth economic agenda. R. Jagannathan, editorial director of the conservative Swarajya magazine, called the new regulations “politically stupid, economically unsustainable, morally and ethically unacceptable and communally dangerous.”

Jagannathan argued that the regulations would damage the governing party in the critical regions of India’s south and the northeast, where beef is commonly eaten, and he warned Modi against “allowing rogue elements to circumscribe its political future by repositioning the party as a violent champion of Hindutva,” a movement that seeks to establish Hinduism as India’s intrinsic culture.

For Chaturvedi, the veterinary inspector, the crackdown initially seemed promising.

He had hoped that a large, efficient government slaughterhouse would replace the constellation of small, unsanitary facilities. But after helping to shut down seven meat-processing plants — in one case, because the smell emanating from inside “seemed to indicate that there were cow parts there” — he realised that no new permits were being issued.

“If the authorities do not find any other loophole, they get the city development authority to say that so-and-so factory did not get its building plan passed, so let’s shut it,” he said.

Twenty-six slaughterhouses have been shut down for violations since March, said Rahul Bhatnagar, chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. Forty-one remain open. No new licences have been issued. “There is something called the law of the land,” Bhatnagar said. “It has to be implemented, then, whatever effect it may have.”

The economic blow has rippled through Muslim villages surrounding the meat factories. Villagers said they had sharply cut back their expenses — cutting out meat, eating only one meal a day and forgoing the usual celebration of Ramadan. Many said they were terrified of being singled out by Hindu vigilante groups, who patrol villages hoping to spot and punish anyone found illegally slaughtering cows.

Membership in the far-right vigilante organisation founded by Adityanath, the Hindu Yuva Vahini, has expanded rapidly in the western part of the state, with the organisation adding 2,000 new members in the past two months, said Anoop Rastogi, who leads its Meerut chapter.

“We are totally committing our time to building the Hindu base,” Rastogi said.

Altaf, a Muslim who uses only one name, said that four of his brothers who lost their factory jobs had tried to make some money by selling a buffalo. They were going to sell it to a dairy farm, he said, but then the buffalo broke its leg, and they slaughtered it for meat. A Hindu neighbour called police, who said it was cow’s meat.

The men in the family have gone into hiding, he said, and they leave the family home locked from the outside, to avoid frequent visits by police.

“There is an atmosphere of fear in the village,” he said. “First the jobs were taken away, and then the brothers, too.”

Murtaza, 40, who also uses only one name, said that his family used to earn money by selling buffalo but that after he was stopped by a cow-protection gang several weeks ago, he had been too frightened to try it anymore. His son, who is 20, lost his factory job in the licensing crackdown.

The family is celebrating Ramadan by drinking milk, because they are unable to afford mangoes, fruit juice or meat, as in previous years.

“We are scared of this Hindu government,” said his wife, Rehana Khatoun. “The meat business is predominantly run by Muslims. What does this step mean? That they want to drive us out. To render us jobless, or drive us out.”

–New York Times News Service

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