The order of the Central government banning sale of cattle in public markets for slaughter is another disruptive measure of Modi government after demonetisation. It will strengthen the organised sector to the detriment of the unorganised sector.
Of course, it has political objectives as the decision will please the Sangh Parivar outfits. The decision will be hitting a large number of people, including middlemen, who are engaged in trading of cattle and meat. A large section of them are Muslims. This will provide political capital for the BJP to go for its larger objectives.
The ban has been brought in a devious manner under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act as the Centre did not have powers to regulate trade in meat directly. That power rests with the State governments. Reasons being offered by various quarters for banning trade in cattle for slaughter through markets such as Supreme Court order, need to prevent cruelty against animals and ensuring of the source of meat (traceability) are bogus or devious.
The Supreme Court order did not say that trade through markets should be banned. It will not ensure benign treatment of animals. Traceability of meat reaching slaughter houses could have been ensured through the market mechanism itself. (Note that the farmers are now required to produce several documents to trade in cattle). Ensuring traceability of both agricultural and meat products is a positive measure towards consumer protection and food safety. However, it is wrong to argue that traceability could be ensured by bypassing the market.
The BJP government do plan to ensure traceability and that is the larger story. As the meat business moves into big hands, their sourcing would become traceable. They will do it for their own interest and enforcement of regulation in this respect is easy.
However, small traders, their workmen and farmers who have to sell cattle for slaughter will be the victims. Like demonetisation, the results are not entirely predictable. Middlemen will find new ways to carry on their trade. A new network may emerge for purchase of cattle for slaughter from homesteads. However, the shift will hit those in the business of meat trade on a small scale and farmers at least in the short term. Farmers will not get remunerative prices until a mechanism that could fetch them competitive prices emerge. Prices of even the draught cattle sold though markets may come down as prices in markets are determined, to a great extent, by the value of meat.
However, meat prices are not going to come down. In fact, it is likely to go up in States such as Kerala, which is dependent on inter-State movement of cattle for slaughter, owing to shortages. These movements could be stalled because of restrictions imposed by the Centre.
The requirement of documentation will dissuade farmers from selling even draught animals through market. Eventually, cattle markets, as we know today, may die out with mechanisation of farm sector, and the trade will pass on to organised sector.
The net effect of all these is that meat production will move into the hands of meat production and marketing companies. The positive and negative effect of this shift is another issue. The point is that the measure will cause disruption affecting thousands of ordinary folk. The Centre had done it without even consulting the State or arriving at a consensus.
Opposition parties in the State are protesting against the measure on the ground that it hurts people’s food choices. This is not very true as sale of meat has not been banned, though Kerala may face some shortages of meat on a short-term.
It is high time that the politicians cared to study the larger objectives and implications of the Central government’s policy before reacting to this. In a country like India, a quick shift of meat from unorganised to organised sector is not desirable. The farmers are already committing suicides owning to wrong policies followed by governments. Similar thing is going to happen to small traders though we can expect that they would be resourceful enough to survive.
As to the farmers who find it difficult to market their cattle for slaughter at remunerative prices, formation of cooperatives on the model of Amul may be an option. Kerala government will be better advised to develop such a cooperative set up instead of going for a legal battle with the Central government. This is not to say that the government should not oppose the Central government’s policy.