By P.K.Balachandran/South Asian Monitor
Colombo, September 18: The Sri Lankan government is expected to take a decision on banning cow slaughter in October after consulting the relevant stakeholders. Though the ban proposed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was accepted without demur by MPs of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), objections had apparently been voiced outside and the government spokesman had to say that a final decision will be taken after a month.
Meanwhile, the Buddhist and Hindu right wing is jubilant. A section of Buddhist monks and the “Siva Senai” a clone of the Mumbai-based radical Hindutva party Shiv Sena, hailed Mahinda Rajapaksa as a savior of Buddhists and Hindus. The Muslims, who will be the most affected by the ban being the main beef consumers and beef stall owners, described the ban proposal as a way of hurting them economically at a time when they are already marginalized politically due to the multiple bomb blasts in 2019.
Although the cow is not considered to be “holy” by the Sinhalese Buddhists majority community in Sri Lanka, it is highly regarded in folk culture due to the Hinduistic influence from neighboring India. And though there is no expressed injunction against eating beef, it is considered a sign of “a good Buddhist” if a person abjures beef and protects the cow. Dr. James Stewart in his paper Cow Protection in Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka, University of Tasmania, 2013) says that in popular Sinhalese Buddhist culture the cow is referred to as “Kiri Amma” or Milk Mother, a life giver and nurturer, which should not be violated.
However, in the last part of the 19th., and the early years of the 20th., Centuries, when there were Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic revival movements in Sri Lanka, cow protection and beef eating took on a communal political color. The famous Sinhalese-Buddhist revivalist and political activist, Anagarika Dharmapala, launched a mass contact movement appealing to people to abjure beef. It is significant that Sri Lanka had the worst anti-Muslim riots in 1915.
After a lapse of decades, the ethnic conflict revived the anti-cow slaughter movement. In 2009, the Sri Lankan parliament discussed a private member’s bill calling for a total ban on the slaughter of cattle presented by a Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist MP Wijedasa Rajapakshe. In September 2012, the Kandy Municipal Council passed a resolution banning animal slaughter within the municipal limits. In 2013, a 30-yearold Buddhist monk, Bowatte Indraratna Thero committed self-immolation in Kandy protesting over the killing of cattle by Muslims. These happened at a time when anti-Muslim issues like Halal certification and wearing the Burqa were becoming issues due to the exertions of radical Buddhist organizations like the Bodu Bala Sena.
Cow protection and anti-cow slaughter sentiment have been a hot political matter in India too. Mahatma Gandhi made cow protection and beef avoidance part of his agenda for a free India. Ban on cow slaughter found mention in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Indian constitution passed in 1950. Article 48 said the State shall “organize 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.”
But this dictum was not put into practice by successive secular Congress party-led Indian governments until violent agitations by the Hindu Right wing organizations forced governments to comply. Several States banned cow slaughter or controlled it through laws. With “Hindutva politics” becoming the dominant mode in the 1990s and the 2000s, and especially after the establishment of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi backed by a huge parliamentary majority in 2014, cow slaughter was banned in 2017. Public lynching of Muslims suspected of taking cattle for slaughter, carrying beef or even keeping beef in the refrigerator became common in North India.
Ban Is problematic
However, there is a huge amount of literature in India about the ill-effects of a ban on cattle slaughter which would be of relevance to Sri Lanka now contemplating a ban on cow slaughter.
Jawaharlal Nehru University economist Dr. Vikas Rawal had warned in 2017 itself, that India might have to spend 1.5 times the then defense budget to take care of an additional 270 million unproductive cattle annually if the ban on culling came into effect.
“Each year, 34 million male calves are born in this country. If we assume that they live for eight years, which is actually on the lower side, there would be nearly a 270million additional unproductive cattle by the end of eight years,” the media quoted Dr. Rawal as saying.
According to Rawal’s estimate, the additional financial outgo for looking after these cattle would be 35 times the annual animal husbandry budgets of the Central and the State governments put together. Millions would have to be spent on feeding and housing cattle past their prime or productive age. They will have to be prevented from straying and eating away crops. Besides, 500, 000 acres of land would be required to provide shelter to these animals. Maintaining these animals would require about 700,000 million tonnes of fodder. But India does not have enough land to produce so much additional fodder. Even if each animal drinks one bucket of water a day, the amount of water needed would be much more than the amount required by the human population, Dr. Rawal pointed out.
The poor Indian farmer just cannot afford to bear the cost of unproductive cattle. Therefore, governments would have to divert billions to keep them alive. If governments fail to do the needful, farmers will shy away from dairying and entrepreneurs will not enter dairying if they cannot dispose off useless cattle. This will result in a grievous reduction in milk production and that will have an ill-effect on the health of an already malnourished population.
“Already one-third of children born in India suffer from stunted growth due to protein deficiency and this can only aggravate,” Rawal warned. India has 62 million stunted children, one third of stunted children in the world, according to the agricultural economist.
There are other wider economic implications of a ban. According to official statistics, only 30% of cattle slaughtered in India is used for meat – either local consumption or export. Seventy percent of the carcass is traded for use in various industries. The hides and bones of slaughtered cattle are used in a variety of industrial products, leather being the biggest consumer. Units making soap, toothpaste, buttons, paint brushes, surgical stitches and musical instruments depend on cattle slaughter for their raw material.
A ban on cattle slaughter will badly hit exports. India exported 2.4 million tonnes of buffalo meat to 65 countries in 2014-15, or 23.5% of global beef exports said the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. The US Department of Agriculture said that Indian beef/buffalo meat industry had an export volume of over US$ 4 billion.
According to India Brand Foundation Equity’s website, the Indian leather industry accounts for around 12.93% of the world’s leather production of hides and skins. The cattle slaughter business in India supplies hides and skins to the tune of US$ 5.5 billion to leather units in that country. India ranks second in terms of footwear and leather garments production in the world. It also accounts for 9% of the world’s footwear production.
In India, about 22 lakh people are employed in the cattle slaughter business directly or indirectly. The leather industry, which is heavily dependent on cattle slaughter, employs 35 lakh people.
A similar warning has been sounded by Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana in Sri Lanka. Writing in Colombo Telegraph in 2019, he said that Sri Lanka, being a densely populated country, cannot afford to set apart land for animal husbandry.
To placate the Muslims, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said that government would allow beef import to cater to beef eaters. But the government is facing a foreign exchange crunch, and imported beef could be too costly for the common man.