A law is not a law unless everyone debates it without reading it. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon, not specific to only India. The media and the social media has been abuzz with arguments for and against the new Cattle Rules over the past one week. Some say it is a de facto ban on animal slaughter. Others say that slaughter is not banned per se and the rules are only to ensure that the sold animals are healthy. And the government say that it just did what a Supreme Court order directed it to do. There is a difference in the interpretation of the rules by even the courts.
What are these rules anyway?
Most of us prefer to rely on News or, worse, Social Media posts. Itís not like we understand the farrago of a bureaucratic document. Here are the important points of the ĎPrevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) 2017í as published by the government on 23rd May:
All the animal markets must be registered to Animal Market Committee of respective districts.
The committee has the right to cancel the registration if the following are not followed:
The markets should have facilities housing, shade, toilets, multiple water taps, and non-slippery floor.
Every market must have veterinarian whose approval of the animalís health is necessary for selling the animal.
Cruel treatment of animals is prohibited. (There is a long list of prohibited activities in the Act.)
The market should not be within 25 kms. from state border and 50 kms. from international border.
To sell an animal, the seller must register himself (with ID and Address proof) and his animal (with identification) at the market. The buyer must give an undertaking that he will not resell the animal within 6 months from purchase.
The cattle should not be sold for slaughter.
The Supreme Courtís Role
The government has defended the rules in saying that it is but following the Supreme Court directive of 2015. In 2014, an animal rights activist, Gauri Maulekhi, approached the Supreme Court seeking a ban on the across the border cattle smuggling, especially to Nepal and Bangladesh. According to the Foreign Trade Act of 1992, export of live cattle is restricted. One has to have a license to export the cattle. Cattle smuggled into Nepal was used for sacrifice in the five-yearly Gadhimai Festival in 2014. The Supreme Court, then, asked the Central Government to formulate rules to prevent cattle smuggling.
The Two High Courts
The Madras High Court stayed the implementation of these rules saying that:
The ban on selling cattle for slaughter in the market greatly affects the slaughterhouse business. And this violates citizensí right to liberty [to eat] for a considerable amount of time.
Animal markets is a state subject. And central government should not formulate rules on them. (However, is argued that prevention of animal cruelty is in the concurrent list and the center does command legitimacy in formulating rules to prevent animal cruelty.)
The Kerala High Court, on the other hand, orally dismissed a petition to stay the implementation. It noted that the rules donít ban the slaughter per se and that cattle can be bought and sold at places other than an Animal Market (like home, slaughterhouses etc.).
While the rules explicitly say that animals should not be sold in the market for slaughter, it also doesnít prevent a seller and a buyer to engage in an out-of-the-market purchase of cattle for slaughter. However, there are potentially detrimental consequences these rules have on the economy and the society. I will deal with each separately:
There are two dimensions in the economic consequences of the new rules.
Firstly, all the markets have to come under the purview of the Animal Market Committee. There is, therefore, a chance of an increase in the transaction costs. The animal has to be registered, has to be certified by the veterinarian, and the buyers and sellers will have to do mandatory paperwork of registering themselves with ID and Address proofs. Add to this, the possible corruption like, for example, the veterinarian says, ĎI will certify that your animal is healthy only if you give me 500 bucks.í The livestock industry (which includes, but is not limited to, cattle) accounts for 5% of Indiaís GDP ($45 billion). A threat to this industry in terms of transaction costs is real.
Secondly, India is the second largest exporter of beef. Of course, sellers can sell the cattle at the slaughterhouses. But again, it will increase the transaction costs because the sellers, especially in the rural areas, have to search for a buyer. It might act as a bottleneck in the delivery of beef from the rearing farmers to slaughterhouses.
The social consequences of the rules might be mixed. The restriction on the sale of cattle for slaughter would decrease the incidence of cow slaughter (which is an important issue for the practicing Hindus). At the same time, it will adversely affect the supply of meat (not just of the cow but a range of other cattle) in the country, specifically the North-East where it is part of the vernacular culture.
It is true that the Supreme Court judgment asked the government to curb illegal export of cattle. But it didnít talk about not selling the animals for slaughter. So, the question of why that clause has been added is to be addressed.
Contrary to what the discourse in media and social media seems to be, these rules do not protect cows. It seems highly likely that the government is trying to curb the rising cow vigilantism by passing these rules (which do not curb cow slaughter per se, but might send a signal so that the Gau Rakshaks cool down).
The new rules increase government regulation Animal Market Committees. This is surprising given the governmentís ideological commitment to laissez faire system. As has been explained, there is a probability of an increase in the transaction costs. Livestock is farmersí way of tackling the uncertainty of monsoon. The new transaction costs are a burden on the farmer.
Another important point we ought to ponder over is: Would the discussion have been around the Cows and Peacockís tears if a Communist regime passed the exact same rules in the name of Animal Rights? Or would the discourse have been around the ethical and environmental issues of non-vegetarianism?
There are questions, both on the future of the rural economy and the direction of the government and the country as a whole. But not answers yet. Search for them. Donít take a position just because you have to.