Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Stake in Beef

India is a predominantly vegetarian country, right? A place where the cow is worshiped as a holy animal?


Take a closer look at this graphic:

Amongst all the states in India, meat is consumed by more than 60% of the population in just four Westerns states - Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. In all the remaining 24 states, a vast majority of the population is non-vegetarian.

Dig a little deeper and you find that the meaning of "non-vegetarian" changes from state to state. While you can have eggs, chicken, fish and mutton anywhere, if you are inclined towards beef, legal slaughter of bovines is permitted only in nine states: One in South India (Kerala), and all the remaining ones in East India. In some states you could be jailed for up to 10 years for cow slaughter (!!).

This touchiness with cows is a fairly recent phenomenon. According to historians, "Brahmins who once had no compunctions against slaughter of animals, including cows, and were the greatest beef-eaters themselves". The elevation of the cow as a "holy animal" came as a political strategy to counter Buddhism which was predominant across India, until a 1000 years ago. It was the means of stealing the thunder from the non-violent Buddhists, and it worked like a charm.

Cut back to India today, and you find the government trying to push through a new policy that places severe restrictions on the use of agricultural markets for the sale of animals for slaughter. Over the past two weeks there has been an uproar in many states - protests by the meat and leather industries, political protests ending with the killing of a cow in a public square, and #beefcurryfestivals in South India - culminating in a High Court judgement yesterday, staying the latest government order for a few weeks.

Now that we have a breather, it may be worthwhile to examine both sides of the raging debate, which can be divided into two categories - emotional and rational.

The emotional argument is simple. It just states that "Cow is a holy animal for Hindus from time immemorial"; Cows are referred to as "Gau-Mata" (cow-mother), equated with human beings, and implies that harming the cows would hurt the religious sentiments of the Hindu community. There is little you can do to counter an emotional arguments hinged on hysterics, so let us move over to the next category.

The rational arguments come in different categories:

* Constitution, Law and Public Policy:
In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled that a ban on cow slaughter violated of the fundamental right of butchers to carry on their business under Article 19(1)(g). Then in 2005, a bench of seven judges upheld the total ban on slaughter of cow and cow-progeny and stated that cattle never became “useless”, at the most, they became “less useful” (!).  The latest rules to regulate the cattle market - framed under section 38 of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960.
By bringing in all farm animals under the new rules, the stage has been set for challenging the SC ruling that was aimed only at protecting cows. Should some animals be more equal than the others?

* Public Health:
Excess of protein consumption - especially red meats - has been proven to have bad effect on health. Also, according to WRI, reduction in meat consumption can lead to lead to a per capita food and land use-related greenhouse gas emissions reduction of by 15 and 35 percent, by 2050.

* Animal Rights:
Clearly, there is a case for humane treatment of animals. As of now, cumbersome rules and regulations make cattle trade a surreptitious activity. This only worsens the condions in which the animals are transported, stocked, slaughtered and traded in different states.

* Economic Value:
Farmers invest in animals after considering life-cycle costs. Once cows stop giving milk, the farmers see no point in spending scarce resources for feeding the animals, so they are sold to the local butcher. In India the going rate is between INR 15,000 and 40,000, depending on the age and weight of the animals. If the animals cannot be sold they would be just abandoned on our roads and highways, resulting in traffic accidents. 

Ultimately, rational arguments seem to matter only if they can provoke a powerful emotional counter-argument that makes people vote in a certain way. As of now the argument on religious sentiments seems to have the upper hand.


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