Cattle sale ban: The small dairy farmers are the ones left in the lurch

Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
The recent notification on May 23, 2017, by the Ministry of Environment under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 has evoked strong responses from different perspectives. 

The right to ‘choice of food’ has been the focus of most protests. Some have pointed to the potential loss of foreign exchange through buffalo meat exports, leather among others. There have been political arguments about a serious adverse economic impact on the livelihoods of certain communities and groups.

It is abundantly clear that the notification referred to in the earlier paragraph does not ban the slaughter of cattle. The ban/restriction on the slaughter of animals has been done under the respective state laws wherever they exist. 

Let us look at the issue from a farmers’ perspective. Given the continuing efforts at strengthening the restrictions on beef, dairy farmers started to learn to cope with the new reality in the market. 

They started to shift their preference to buffaloes that suited their dairy economy more than the cow. 

Buffalo milk fetches a better price because of higher fat content, and they could sell the male buffalo, after it attains the age of two or three, for meat. 

There is no ban on buffalo meat in most parts of India. The dairy farmers’ options are limited because every time a buffalo (or cow) gives birth, there is a 50 per cent chance that it is a male calf. 

Dairy farmers have no utility for the male calf since their agriculture work does not need these animals. Neither do they have enough land to cultivate nor do they have the machines required for cultivation. 

Therefore, they are compelled to sell the male buffalo at the earliest. Now, a buffalo can weigh about 300 kilograms at the age of two and proper feeding can help it gain weight faster. The animal is normally taken to the nearest market and sold to whosoever wants it, be it for agriculture or meat. 

For the farmer, it is the price that matters.

Let us not forget that ownership of dairy animals is more equitable than ownership of land. A large number of landless people in India depend on dairying to sustain themselves. 

Since these farmers have limited resources, feeding the animals is often a challenge. It costs about Rs 150 per day to feed an ‘in milk’ animal which gives about 7.5 litres of milk. Most farmers do not feed the male calf the same amount of feed or fodder as the “in milk" animal. They tend to let the male calves loose to graze in vacant fields to reduce the cost of feed. 

Even in these conditions, it costs on an average about Rs 25-35 per day to feed the animal. The price of milk does not and cannot cover this cost. His financial condition gets under severe stress. 

The current regulations make it almost impossible for the small farmer to sell his animals. There is hardly any animal market in India which is organised as per the provisions of the rules. 

Most animal markets are traditional “hats” which have existed for long. The agricultural produce market committee (APMCs) do not normally handle bovines, goats, sheep etc. In any case, do we want to repeat the APMC model?

Buying animals directly from farmers is a noble idea. But, we have not been able to do this even for cereals. We just have the infrastructure for such direct buying. Forcing the farmers to sell outside the marketplace will deprive them of the modicum of price discovery that they have now. 

What these rules have done, though unintentionally, is to snatch the market from the farmers leaving them in the lurch with no options.

No one has any issue with prevention of cruelty to animals. If the rules are written with bureaucratic apathy and insensitivity to farmers’ conditions, it is bound to create deep resentment among the farming community. 

Anyone who knows dairy farming conditions in Rajasthan, parts of Gujarat, drought prone areas of Maharashtra would understand this. 

Let us not pretend that we love the animals more than the farmers — we do not. 

If someone had bothered to spend time with dairy farmers in places like Banaskantha (Gujarat), before drafting these rules, they could have come up with a better, more acceptable and sensible set of rules, which could have achieved the objective of prevention of cruelty without affecting farmers’ interests.

It is not the large farmer with a herd of 100 plus animals who will get hurt — it is the small farmer who has to sell one animal to send his daughter to school who will be deprived.

The larger environmental question whether there will be enough fodder for 300 million plus bovines (and growing every year) will remain unresolved. But, we might see more and more farmers abandoning unwanted cattle? 

Will the government support a large number of new cattle camps, may be one in each taluka (district)? Or will they have to subsidise farmers who are compelled to keep such uneconomic animals? A disturbing thought for the Finance Ministry mandarins.

Whatever the outlook, these set of rules need to be rewritten after consulting the dairy farmers, most of whom live on the other side of digital India.

Let us, however, not underestimate farmers — they are ingenious. They will find ways to circumvent this, but, can we afford to ignore the spectacle of dairy farmers pouring milk on the streets on World Milk Day because there are no buyers at reasonable prices? 

Maybe this is the right time for another large ‘Amul’ model co-operative of farmers which can create value by organising a digital platform for sale of animals for meat. After all, let the new "farmers’ organisations" bloom.

T Nanda Kumar, Former Secretary Food & Agriculture, Govt. of india and Former Chairman NDDB

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.