It takes extreme events, sometimes, to expose laws that are counterproductive and ill-conceived. This is precisely what the Maharashtra government’s legislation banning the culling of all cattle — be it cows, bulls, bullocks or female and male calves — has shown itself to be amidst a back-breaking drought. As Bhimrao Dhonde, a BJP MLA, has noted, meeting the fodder requirement of productive animals itself is a huge challenge in times such as these. The Devendra Fadvanis administration’s comprehensive cattle slaughter ban law may have only made things worse by forcing farmers to take on the additional burden of maintaining even “spent” animals — those not yielding milk or unfit to work already parched fields. Such open criticism by a ruling party legislator, whose constituency falls in one of the worst-affected districts, Beed, of the Marathwada region, may not be viewed kindly by backers of the controversial law within and outside the government. But Dhonde’s statement only reaffirms the worst fears that have now come true.
The stated intent behind the Maharashtra law, which received presidential assent in March 2015, may have been to protect and preserve the cow and its progeny. But what it has actually done is to make it difficult for farmers to dispose of unproductive cattle. Earlier, there was a market for such animals, comprising primarily of traders supplying to slaughterhouses or raw hide processors and tanners. The existence of such a market provided a buffer for farmers, especially during crop failures. This secondary market today has collapsed for lack of buyers; even transport of animals has become a high-risk activity, inviting official (and non-official) harassment under a law that invites up to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment and requires the accused to prove they aren’t engaged in facilitating slaughter. The ultimate sufferer has been the farmer. There are reports of cattle prices falling by up to 50 per cent compared to last year, as farmers have resorted to distress sale of animals in a scenario where there is not enough fodder and water for even young milch animals.
While the drought may have revealed the inherent deficiencies of Maharashtra’s anti-slaughter law — it is not the only state to pass or plan to enact such legislation — the dangers go well beyond the short term. For farmers, regular replacement of old and infirm cattle with new productive stock is essential for sustaining dairying operations. Butchers and skinners have always been an important part of this process, providing an avenue for disposal of the animals redundant for the farmer. A narrow view that ignores these intricate links, vital to the functioning of the cattle economy, has the potential to derail India’s White Revolution.