Locking horns over culture and business
Are cattle commodifiable without loss of traditional farm-life?
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June 2002: India has a livestock population of 500 million (20% of the world's total), more than half of which is cattle, forming the backbone of Indian agriculture. Mechanisation of agricultural operations has pushed cattle to redundancy in large parts of the country. Short hybrid grain varieties and harvester machines have reduced the availability of cattle fodder. Alongside, meat export almost doubled between 1990 and 95, while livestock population only increased by half that rate. Further, indigenous breeds of cattle have been taken over by foreign breeds introduced during the white revolution, which are treated as milch and meat machines.

From all these changes, India's cattle population is increasingly viewed as a mere economic resource for optimal returns, a transformation that is greatly impacting traditional farm-life. Recognizing this, the government instituted the National Commission on Cattle in August 2001, to suggest ways and means for the preservation and protection of the nation's cattle wealth.

But from the outset, the government's other actions have undermined the commission's work. Within the 10th five-year plan, the government has been constituting sub-committees to design policies on various sectors. Under this scheme, the sub-group on Animal Husbandry -XI - Meat Sector, constituted by the Department of Agriculture, came into being. Even as the cattle commission was drawing up policies for cattle protection, the policy recommendations of the 'meat-sector' were released; these are clearly at odds with the commission's role and objectives. The document, in which these policy recommendations are stipulated, is peppered with phrases like "in the interest of the farmer" and "cow protection with economic spirit". The actual recommendations, however, show no such interest or spirit. Among the recommendations:
  • Removal of all bans on meat export and all restrictions on processed meat import and slaughter machinery.
  • Removal of all restrictions on slaughter of buffaloes.
  • Reduction in the minimum age for slaughter of bullocks.
  • Removal of the ban on beef exports.

The policies clearly provide a thrust towards the creation of a significant meat market supplied by industrial abbattoirs and corporate food marketeres. The main questions that arise from this are:
  • What are the pros and cons of industrialising slaughter houses and raising more cattle for meat?
  • How will these policies impact the typical Indian farmer?
  • Who stands to benefit by breeding cattle for meat and expanding the meat-consumer market in India?

The answer to that last question is evident - corporations. Twenty five cattle-slaughtering factories can effectively replace all the existing 140,000 slaughter houses in the country. Next come the corporations that have built their services and products around the meat-consuming market - processors of meat into various forms of fast food, processed meat transporters, deep freezer manufacturers, cattle feed 'enhancers', drug manufacturers who sell 'meat growth hormones' and antibiotics for cattle and even agri'business' banks that will give loans only for cattle 'producing'. Not to forget the fast-growing biotech industry.

Dimming prospects in the West:

An interesting phenomenon in the globalisation scene is that as the West is waking up and rejecting many harmful technologies like the use of certain chemical pesticides and waste incinerators, the private companies that have invested in them are frantically looking for markets in the less regulated, developing countries. India, with its more than one billion people, is naturally an attractive market.

Inefficient and uneconomical choices:

The sub-group's document explains the need for India to become a livestock economy thus: "Increase in productivity of land and productivity of definite number of livestock is a necessity to meet the growing needs of human population. Thus the need for increased efficiency in livestock production and utilization is far greater today than in the past". But nothing could be farther from the truth! Vandana Shiva says in her book, Stolen Harvest "Europe's intensive livestock economy requires seven times the area of Europe in other countries for the production of cattle feed. In a complementary economy, the cattle eat the straw and agricultural waste that humans cannot. But, in a competitive model such as the livestock industry, grain is diverted from human consumption to the intensive feed for livestock. It takes eight kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat."

This inefficiency - eating meat that must first be fed grain that could instead be itself eaten directly - is well known. The Meat-subgroup's proposal will move India away from her primarily complementary economy to a competitive livestock economy. By growing the cattle here for unrestricted export, India will be subsidising the meat-based industries dominated by foreign firms. By permitting them to use the natural resources in India to produce meat for export or even inefficient consumption models within India, we are creating the sort of imbalance that will divert resources away from adequate food production for our own people.

In other economic terms, too, the new policies inlcude significant dangers. A story from Stolen Harvest is instructive. "Al-Kabeer, one of the biggest abattoirs in Andhra Pradesh, slaughters 182,400 buffaloes every year, animals whose dung could have provided for the fuel needs of 90,000 average Indian families of five. Kerosene imports quadrupled in 1993 from 1988. If livestock were not slaughtered in AP, farmyard manure would cultivate 384 hectares producing 530,000 tons of food grain. The state of AP must now spend Rs.9.1 billion to import nitrogen, phosphorous and potash previously provided by livestock over the duration of their lives. The projected earnings of Rs.200 million by Al-Kabeer is actually leading to a drain of billions of rupees in foreign exchange. Finally, in a law-suit against Al-Kabeer, the courts ordered a 50% reduction of its capacity, in order to save the cattle wealth and the rural economy of AP."

An especially anti-democratic move is the recommendation that "animal husbandry Departments under State Govt. should be entrusted with licensing of slaughterhouses as at present, local bodies who are the owners, are also license providers". This proposal essentially asks for the decision-making power to be taken farther away from the people and centralised, so the hassle of manipulating 50 (or so) local bodies in every state could be reduced to that of manipulating just one state department.

The cow has been a symbol of prosperity in India since ancient times and is deeply respected. Indian agriculture is almost philosophically built on integrating cattle into the human lifestyle. Besides helping the farmer, the livestock are the source of many important products (which is different from the factory mindset of man as the 'producer' with the cow just being a machine) - ghee for medicine, dung for fertilizer, milk for food, urine for pesticide and many others.

The Indian farmer has already been pushed to a state of despair by the government's agricultural policies. With the promotion of short stemmed hybrid varieties of paddy and wheat (which have deprived the cattle of their natural feed), agrochemicals, artificial insemination of exotic breeds, hormone injections for more milk production, the government of India has systematically converted the 'localised, environment-friendly, energy- and water-efficient, knowledge-driven agri'culture' into a centralised energy- and water-inefficient, technology- and private-profit-driven agri'business'.

Sangeetha Sriram
June 2002

More information on this issue and an online petition to stop the move towards industrialisation of slaughter is available at www.chennaiorganicfood.com/cow.htm