All Commentary
Monday, June 5, 2017

India’s Cow Police Are Bad for Cows

And farmers and poor people and people who like burgers.

The government of India has banned the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets across India. Anybody wishing to sell their cattle will have to sign a declaration stating that the cattle are not for slaughter, while the buyer would have to present a document showing that he or she is an “agriculturalist”.

The ban also makes proteins more expensive for Dalits who rely on beef as an inexpensive source of protein.

People have already pointed out the political motivation behind the move, namely to appeal to the ruling party’s Hindu voters. The ban will hurt the (mostly Muslim) meat and leather traders, as well as cripple the $4 billion meat export industry and the nearly $15 billion (one trillion Rupees) domestic industry. It will also make proteins more expensive for poor people, such as Dalits, who rely on beef as an inexpensive source of protein.

But all of this misses one crucial point. The regulations that are intended to protect cows will end up hurting cows more than anyone else. They will reduce the number of cows in India, and might eliminate certain breeds altogether. 

Declining Cow Populations

The government claims that the rules are purely for the purpose of animal welfare. Let us see what those rules entail. The first rule, that cattle may be sold only for agricultural purposes, drastically shrinks the potential market for cattle. This will lead to a sharp fall in prices, discouraging farmers from rearing cattle.

The breeds raised specifically for beef will be affected more drastically than milch breeds.  Since milch breeds are used to produce milk, there might be some value in rearing them, while the other breeds are of little value since they cannot be slaughtered for their meat.

The number of cows has declined due to the ban.

The government has essentially sentenced non-milch cattle breeds to extinction. This is especially true in the light of increasing mechanization of farming, so those cattle are not needed even to pull the plough.

This is not mere speculation. A study from the state of Maharashtra, where cow slaughter has been outlawed for a while, shows that the number of cows has declined due to the ban. Extending the ban nationwide and to more species will only make the problem worse.

What about the other regulations? The government has mandated such amenities as fans, bedding, veterinary facilities and 27 other comforts for animals at all markets. Young and “unfit” animals cannot be sold. And what is the definition of “unfit”? That depends on the mood of the government inspector present at the site of sale.

What happens when the cattle get old and cannot produce milk any more? The poor farmer is saddled with the expense of maintaining a useless animal that he can neither sell nor slaughter. All of this increases the cost of maintaining milch cattle. It could happen that the costs might outweigh the value of the milk produced throughout the cow’s lifetime.

Indian cows could become extinct since it would now be cheaper to have foreign breeds.

It is a well documented fact that Indian cow breeds produce far less milk than their foreign counterparts. While the Indian cow produces 6 or 7 kg of milk per day at best, their American cousins yield around 25 kg a day, and the English cows 32 kg a day.

Unintended Consequences

We are faced with the possibility of Indian cows becoming extinct since it would now be cheaper to have foreign breeds or simply import milk.

All of this brings us back to the stated intention of the government. Will these burdensome and ham-fisted regulations help prevent animal cruelty and ensure animal welfare? Not if the experience in Maharashtra is anything to go by. In 2015, following the blanket ban on beef in the state, farmers threatened to abandon their unproductive cattle on the streets, where they would be both a road safety hazard and in danger of being hit by vehicles.

The only other option for unproductive cattle would be government operated cow shelters, which are already cramped with previously abandoned cattle. Clearly regulations intended for the welfare of cattle proved to be the biggest danger to them.

With the cattle gone, poor farmers will have to switch to expensive chemical fertilizers.

There is yet another adverse effect that might take place because of this regulation. Currently a lot of farmers in India use organic manure from cattle to fertilize their fields, for free. With the cattle gone, these already poor and indebted farmers will have to switch to expensive chemical fertilizers. Apart from crippling the farmer’s finances, chemical fertilizers come with serious environmental and health concerns.

It is shameful that Narendra Modi and his government would cripple industries worth billions of dollars and ruin countless livelihoods in the process, create environmental problems, and endanger the survival of entire cattle breeds; all for a handful of votes.

  • Jairaj Devadiga is an economist. His work mainly deals with public policy and economic history. Apart from FEE, his writings have been published by the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute of Economic Affairs and Pragati among others. He is on twitter @JairajDevadiga. Readers can also email him at [email protected].