Legislation that Fails to Take into Account Serious Adverse Economic, Social and Nutritional Consequences
In February, 2021, the Indian state of Karnataka legalized a complete ban on the slaughter of cattle via the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act-2020. The Act defines cattle as “cow, calf of a cow, bull and bullock of all ages and he or she buffalo below the age of thirteen years” and beef as the flesh of cattle “in any form.”1 While the Act—according to some, “one of the most stringent laws in the country”2—does not specifically prohibit the consumption of beef, the prohibition of slaughter of all animals whose flesh is defined as beef effectively translates into a default ban on beef consumption derived from the flesh of any cattle and buffaloes below the age of thirteen within the state of Karnataka.
The stated objectives of the new Act prohibiting the slaughter of cows, bulls, bullocks and buffaloes are to preserve and improve the breed of cattle and to organize agriculture and animal husbandry in terms of Article 48 of the Constitution of India. Article 48 states, “The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”3
Along these lines, a Cabinet note by the Government offered the following reasons as justifications to pass the bill:
- Citing the 2019 cattle census, Karnataka’s Animal Husbandry Minister stated that roughly two hundred thirty-eight thousand cattle (2.38 lakh) are slaughtered every year. Arguing for the bill’s passage, he said, “Even a single day’s delay [in bringing the bill] will lead to the slaughter of 662 cows [per day].”4
- Cabinet members described prevention of illegal slaughtering and illegal transportation of cattle as the “need of the hour.”
- Arguing that the state’s livestock is decreasing instead of increasing, in a manner both drastic and alarming, the state government promoted the bill as essential to stopping the decline.
- Instead of continuing the present trend of selling mule bullocks, aged cows and unwell cattle to illegal slaughter, the government made the case that the bill would be good for bioenergy, promising that bull power, cow dung and urine would make available a cheap source of fertilizer, energy and rural products as well as being good for health and hygiene.5
- The bill’s proponents argued that it would represent a milestone in preventing farmer suicides by providing cheap agricultural inputs and additional sources of income generation.
- Finally, the bill was put forth as an instrument for the conservation of India’s cattle breeds.
The Act now allows authorities to conduct search and seizure operations merely on suspicion and to stop transport of cattle out of the state. In addition, the law includes a clause offering impunity to anyone acting “in good faith” to implement the law. The new Act also stipulates steep penalties and punishments for contravention of any of its provisions. These include strict provisions for imprisonment (not less than three years and up to seven years) on conviction, and fines of not less than fifty thousand and up to one million rupees. For repeat offenses, the penalty is one hundred thousand to one million rupees “along with imprisonment which may extend to seven years.”1
Beleaguered Communities Dependent on Cattle Trade
Many vulnerable communities in Karnataka—such as Muslims, the Adivasi and Dalit (officially the “Scheduled Tribes” and “Scheduled Castes”)6 and other minorities—are dependent on cattle trade for their livelihood. Before the law’s passage, they were already in a terrible situation because of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns.
In addition to taking away their livelihood, the law that has been passed is eliminating essential nutrition for these communities, which now face both acute and chronic hunger as well as several nutritional deficiencies. A news report said, “If the state decides to ban the consumption of beef then it is hindering access to nutrition for a large number of minorities. . . for whom bovine meat is a major source of protein.”2 The groups affected by the ban have categorically said that while they respect Hindus’ veneration of the cow, bringing a blanket ban to cover oxen, bulls and buffaloes suggests that targeting minorities and Dalits (the lowest or “untouchable” caste) seems to be the bigger agenda.
There are other instances of these same communities serving as targets by communal and casteist forces, leading to physical, social and psychological stress. Karnataka has already had several such incidents of communal violence, and instead of making all efforts to protect vulnerable citizens, the government has instead passed a law that further victimizes the same communities and makes them economically insecure, while enabling lynch mobs and self-appointed vigilante groups to take action under the bill’s legal protection for persons “acting in good faith” to prevent cow slaughter. Speaking of this provision, the state’s deputy chief minister stated, “Vigilantes or anyone who is working for a cause and the law of the land should definitely have a scope to work in this provision.”2 This does not create faith in the government.
Among the many groups for whom the law has led or is leading to adverse physical, social and psychological consequences are farmers, transporters, slaughterhouse workers, tannery workers, loaders and unloaders, cleaners, sanitation workers, butchers, small and large eateries and street vendors, as well as a whole gamut of services associated with these.
Beef is the cultural food of these same communities, and the right to consume meat from cattle is protected by Article 29 of India’s Constitution. Article 29 assures minorities of protection of their distinct culture, stating: “Any section of the citizens residing in the territory of India or any part thereof having a distinct language, script or culture of its own shall have the right to conserve the same.”7 Given the diverse food culture of Karnataka, it is evident that bringing this ban will take away from the rich and nutritious diet and eating culture of the state.
The claims that consuming beef will reduce the indigenous cattle population and lead to illegal slaughter and transportation, or to farmer suicides, is not borne out by the facts. On the contrary, in states that do not have rigorous cattle slaughter bans, the indigenous cattle have thrived. Not only that, but criminalizing a normal, essential activity is what will lead it to go underground and become illegal rather than the other way around. In essence, the law itself will lead to a rise in illegal activities. As a farmer leader said, “This law is making criminals of all of us who have been in the cattle economy for generations. We get targeted, fined and punished for doing the activity which has contributed to the thriving dairy economy of the State.” The same farmer also said that there is a genuine risk of more farmers committing suicide if they are unable to sell their unproductive cattle and buy younger more productive animals.
Making a Bad Situation Worse
Karnataka already has very poor nutrition indicators (see Table 1), which likely have worsened considerably following the prolonged Covid lockdowns. During Covid, midday meals and rations and meals provided through maternal and child health programs called anganwadis have not been provided to children either in adequate quantity or quality. In the context of this already dismal scenario, further taking away a cheap and highly nutritious food such as beef is not scientific. Beef, and especially the organ meat, is a nutrient-dense food that can go a long way in addressing anemia and deficiencies of vitamin A, B-complex, zinc and protein (see Table 2).
It is crucial that the government of Karnataka—elected by the people—take cognizance of the enormous damage to livelihood, nutrition and mental health that this poorly thought-out Act has caused. The Act has to be withdrawn immediately. Further, the government should commit that no person attached to the cattle business will be harassed, threatened or abused for their occupation or their cultural or nutritional choices. Those citizens of Karnataka who have been devastated by the Act should be compensated at the earliest in the interest of justice and due process.
- Nanjundaswamy C. Karnataka anti-slaughter law neither protects cows, nor the poor who tend to them. The Wire, Feb. 10, 2021. https://thewire.in/communalism/karnataka-anti-slaughter-law-neither-protects-cows-nor-the-poor-who-tend-to-them
- Karnataka Cabinet clears anti-cow slaughter ordinance. The Daily Guardian, Dec. 29, 2020. https://thedailyguardian.com/karnataka-cabinet-clears-anti-cow-slaughter-ordinance/
- “Dung is useful”: K’taka govt backs cow slaughter ban before HC. Hindutva Watch, Jun. 9, 2021. https://hindutvawatch.org/dung-is-useful-ktaka-govt-backs-cow-slaughter-ban-before-hc/
- Ramakrishnan A. Caste realities and the struggles of India’s Adivasi and Dalit population in accessing groundwater. In: Kahan SA, Puthucherril TG, Paul SR (eds.), Groundwater Law and Management in India. Singapore: Springer; 2021.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2021🖨️ Print post