Indian Beef Workers Fight to Bring Back the Bull Market

 A grim video has been circulating among farmers across the sunbaked plains of Maharashtra, a vast Indian state, traveling from one cellphone to the next via WhatsApp. In the video, a man stands with his two trusty bulls at a cattle market. A crowd surrounds him, transfixed by his emphatic lamentations.

He cries out that his beasts of burden are old, unable to work, and his meager savings are nearly gone. He needs to sell the animals, but none of the usual buyers — the Hindu middlemen who sell the bulls to Muslims for slaughter — are buying. Without the money from the old bulls, he says, he will never be able to afford new ones.

“How am I supposed to keep farming?” he shouts. “Should I just hang myself here in this market?”

The threat does not feel empty. This particular expanse of central Indian hinterland has achieved international notoriety for suicide — since 2011, about four farmers a day, on average, have taken their own lives. Onion and cotton fields wilt under the scorching sun, helped little by barely functioning irrigation infrastructure and unpredictable weather. Crop failures are frequent. Farmers often take out annual loans, and many pay them back in part by selling bulls that have outlived their working years. Though most of these farmers are Hindus, who venerate the cow as a selfless, gentle and sacred mother, they care little what happens to the bulls, seeing them in more practical terms, as an insurance policy.

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A buffalo for sale at a slaughterhouse in Mumbai that was once the biggest in Asia. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

That insurance, however, ran out last October when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., which had already swept into power across much of the country, also won elections in Maharashtra, a state that includes the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai. By March, the party had revived and passed a long-stuck piece of legislation — the Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Act — that bans the slaughter of “cow progeny” and makes the sale and even possession of beef punishable with prison sentences of up to five years.

The law has closed off the cattle supply chain, a source of livelihood for more than a million Maharashtrians of every religion, according to labor union representatives. To non-Indians, it may come as a surprise that there is much of a beef industry in India at all. Roughly 80 percent of its 1.25 billion people call themselves Hindus, a third practice some degree of vegetarianism, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, India has the lowest meat consumption rate in the world.

But India also has the world’s largest “bovine inventory” — as it is called by industry analysts — with just over 300 million cattle and water buffalo. Buffalo meat, known as “carabeef,” is India’s most valuable agricultural export, recently beating out basmati rice by a slim margin.

Muslims, Dalits, Christians and some Hindus also eat beef from cattle. Before the ban, it was common in Mumbai to find roadside beef kebabs, as well as beef stews or steaks at upscale restaurants. According to India’s National Sample Survey Office, consumption of beef and buffalo meat rose by over 40 percent in Maharashtra from 2004 to 2012.

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The cattle market in Savda, a remote town in Maharashtra’s arid interior. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

The cattle market in Savda, a remote town in Maharashtra’s arid interior, used to be bustling with traders who bought bulls from local farmers as well as nomadic herders from the nearby Satpura Range of hills.

By the time Bhanudas Bhaviskar, a 38-year-old farmer from a foothill village, made it there in April, he had already spent two weeks visiting more than half a dozen markets in the region with his pair of old bulls. He had yet to sell them. He had seen the WhatsApp video and sympathized with the exasperated farmer. Each time he had to transport his bulls to a different market, it cost 1,600 rupees, about $25, and his savings were dwindling, too.

“Everything is clogged,” Mr. Bhaviskar said. He had expected to use the income from selling his old bulls to help pay off loans he had taken out to buy expensive fertilizer. His white cotton kurta was drenched in sweat, and he was visibly exhausted. He leaned against a pile of feed sacks, shooing flies away from his face.

“If I can’t pay back my loan,” he said, “then I’ll have to borrow more, and then …” He didn’t finish the thought. He simply shrugged and spat onto the ground.

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A bill of sale for bulls at the Savda market. The market used to be bustling with traders who bought bulls from local farmers as well as nomadic herders from the nearby Satpura Range of hills. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

A Community Threatened

The ban on beef was upheld in April by the Bombay High Court, which still uses Mumbai’s old name. The petitioners argued that India’s constitution guarantees a right to eat what one pleases, but the judges agreed with the state of Maharashtra’s lawyer, who made the case that there is a general right to food but not a right to specific foods.

While those who ate beef could adjust their diets, the legal defeat was particularly deflating for the hundreds of thousands of members of the Qureshi community in Maharashtra.

In India’s jigsaw puzzle of castes, many of which are linked to specific jobs, the Qureshis, who are Muslim, are the piece responsible for cattle slaughter.

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Boys and men who used to work as butchers hanging around and playing cricket at the Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai in the hopes of picking up a day’s work. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Almost all members of the community use Qureshi as a last name, so many go by a single first name.

Badshah, a 50-year-old father of two who used to sell offal to local restaurants, hasn’t made money since the ban took effect. “I can’t even write my own name. Most of us can’t,” he said, referring to Qureshis. “I’ve spent my whole life doing the same thing. When there’s a beef ban, it’s like saying there is a Qureshi ban.”

Badshah and hundreds of other Qureshis work in the Deonar slaughterhouse in Mumbai and live in the slum across the road. When Deonar opened in 1971, it was Asia’s biggest slaughterhouse, with state-of-the-art machinery. But upkeep was not a priority, and the machinery has deteriorated. Now killing and processing in the 16 cavernous slaughter halls are done by Qureshis using butcher knives and sheer muscle.

The unsuspecting animals enter the hall, where their legs are tied. The animal is pushed over, its throat slit, its blood left to collect on the marble floor. The body, from head to hoof, is then divvied up and sold to other Qureshis for distribution. Deonar’s deputy general manager said that before the ban, 80 percent of animals slaughtered were bulls, an average of 450 a day. The rest were buffalo. While Deonar’s Qureshis struggle to enter the buffalo meat business, which until now has mainly been controlled by large, export-oriented companies, many have slipped into a precarious existence.

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Sharif Qureshi, who drives an auto-rickshaw without a license after losing his job at the slaughterhouse. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Qadar, whose job was to slit the animals’ throats, took a loan that had predatory interest rates. With nothing else to his name, he gave the papers of his home as collateral. Sharif, who is 29 and has worked at Deonar since he was 12, now drives an auto-rickshaw without a license; he has been able to make only enough to send two of his four children to school since work at the slaughterhouse slowed. Ramzan, a butcher, still works at a small shop, but he is the only employee left. “We were selling 250 kilos of meat a day,” said Ramzan, who predicts the shop will have to close by year’s end. “Now that it’s only buffalo, it’s down to 40. People think beef is better because bulls work hard in the fields and develop better meat.”

Mohammed Ali Qureshi, the head of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Association, said he had no solution for those who are now living hand-to-mouth. “This is work we have done for centuries,” he said. “We are experts in this. We don’t know how to do anything else.”

‘This Is a Hindu Nation’

The shelves of Vyankatesh Abdeo’s office are lined with 48 potions, pastes and powders, all made from cow dung, cow urine or a blend of the two. One collection of large bottles is filled with bright yellow liquid and bears the label “Fresh urine (purifies and rectifies the body).” Tins of “dung pack,” with instructions to apply on the face and body while bathing, fill an adjacent cabinet.

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Vyankatesh Abdeo, the central secretary of the World Hindu Council, at his office in Mumbai. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

The third-floor office overlooks the Grant Road railway station, a buzzing locus of commerce and traffic in central Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra, a state with almost as many people as Mexico. Mr. Abdeo is the central secretary of the World Hindu Council, commonly referred to as the V.H.P. for its Hindi name, Vishva Hindu Parishad. It has a grandiose mission statement — “to consolidate, strengthen and make invincible the global Hindu fraternity”— and immense leverage on Indian politics. The group has organized mass actions around social issues that matter deeply to the kind of voter who brought the B.J.P. to power: discouraging Hindus from converting to other religions, preventing interfaith marriages, and stopping the slaughter of cows and their progeny.

“This is a Hindu nation. In Hindu society, we see the cow as our mother. Its killing or the killing of its progeny is intolerable,” said Mr. Abdeo, a stocky, balding man, dressed that day in flowing white cloth, his forehead dashed with the wide, red streak of “tika” that denotes piety. “This ban is one of our biggest wishes fulfilled. People must be re-educated as to the many uses of cattle products as well.”

The cattle products Mr. Abdeo is referring to are those that can be harvested from both cows and bulls while the animal is alive, primarily urine and dung. He believes that over the course of the next decade, the market for those products could soar, rivaling the amounts made on the parts taken from slaughtered cattle such as meat, leather and gelatin.

Mr. Abdeo and Maharashtra’s minister of agriculture, Eknath Khadse, said in interviews that they see opportunities for a new and thriving industry in which urine and dung from cows and bulls can be used as fertilizers, herbal medicines, cosmetics, nutritional supplements and, as cow dung has been used for eons, a cooking fuel and building material.

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The line at a small shop meat shop, which has fewer customers since beef was banned. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

As for those who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the bans, Mr. Khadse suggested that Qureshis should have understood that the B.J.P. was serious about its campaign promises.

“Pakistan can make its own laws, just as we can make our own,” he said. Others in Mr. Khadse’s office who were waiting to speak with him murmured their assent. Mr. Khadse urged Qureshis to join the dung and urine business instead of complaining. “People are waiting in line to buy those products. A line, I tell you! Why get money from meat when you can sell that?”

Changes on the Farm

While no official survey has been done, Mohammed Ali Qureshi estimated that 500,000 or more people, a large chunk of whom are Qureshis, have lost their jobs because of the Maharashtra ban. Milind Ranade, a senior organizer for Sarva Shramik Sangh, one of India’s oldest and most established labor unions, agreed with Mr. Qureshi’s job loss estimate but stressed that while most of those who lost their jobs may be Muslim, far more Hindus’ livelihoods may be put in jeopardy by the ban.

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The entrance to a factory in Malegaon that used to crush cattle bones and sell them to gelatin manufacturers. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

“The B.J.P. wants this to be seen as a communal issue because it rings well with their vote base. And of course, it is a way to punish Muslims,” Mr. Ranade said. “But what of the millions of Hindu farmers who sold cattle as a key source of income?”

The ban has come into effect as the rhythms of life in rural Maharashtra are undergoing subtle changes. The changes make bulls less necessary on the farm, and the ban, as a result, even less palatable. Tractors have become less expensive, and many farmers have either bought them or rent them from other farmers, which costs less than feeding bulls through the planting season. The government also subsidizes artificial insemination, and for about $1.50 a procedure, farmers like Sanjay Tupkar say they are not only saving money on feeding bulls but also getting more productive progeny. Selling bulls for slaughter is sometimes their most economic use.

Even so, Mr. Tupkar still keeps six bulls. He pays about $80 a month to feed each one and to pay a boy to mind them while he does other work. While the bulls are healthy, he can justify the expense, but as they become less productive, selling them is the only prudent option. Now, without that option, he is unsure what to do. Ravikant Tupkar, his nephew, was seated beside him in their family’s home in the village of Sawala, sipping on fresh milk brought out by Sanjay’s wife. Ravikant leads a farmers’ welfare association and admires civil disobedience.

“We’ve been telling people that one of these days, we’ll come together and unleash the old bulls in front of government offices,” he said. “Then they can roam the streets like dogs.”

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Buffalo meat inside a small shop in Mumbai. Credit Tom Jamieson for The New York Times

Hindus also participate in the cattle product industry, but further along in the supply chain. Jaweed Iqbal Quraishi, the owner of a business in the city of Malegaon that used to crush cattle bones and sell them to gelatin manufacturing companies, claimed that all his customers were Hindus. “They are calling me every day and asking why such a rash action was taken by the government,” Mr. Quraishi said.

If that is true, it is not something many people are comfortable discussing in India today. Of the three customers mentioned by Mr. Quraishi, two declined to comment, and Deepak Kapadia, a procurement executive at India Gelatine & Chemicals, denied that his company had ever bought cattle bones from Mr. Quraishi or anyone else.

The Rise of Buffalo

There have been bans on beef in other Indian states for decades — the Maharashtra ban was the 11th — but there is no body of research on the economic effects. One result could be more buffalo slaughter. Exports of buffalo, which are not revered, rose 16 percent during B.J.P.’s first six months in office, compared with the same period a year earlier. According to India’s most recent livestock census, buffalo make up just over a third of the national bovine inventory, yet their proportions are significantly higher in states like Haryana and Punjab where beef bans have been in place since shortly after independence in 1947. States that do not prohibit cattle slaughter, such as Kerala and West Bengal, have almost no buffalo.

At Deonar, the number of buffalo being slaughtered is rising: about 300 a day, up from 90 before the ban. Indian buffalo meat is already prized in the Arab and East Asian markets. Last year, India exported $4.3 billion of beef, ostensibly all from buffalo, because India has never allowed the export of cattle meat, even before the recent law was passed. Still, a Mumbai exporter of buffalo meat with 25 years of experience said that it was well known in the industry that cattle meat regularly made its way into exports.

“India is such a country that water finds an outlet,” said the exporter, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussions. “With the ban in Maharashtra, the beef export hub will shift to Chennai.”

With the Bombay High Court’s imprimatur now on the ban, the sense that a popular movement or legal attack can overturn it is waning.

Before the appeal in the high court was rejected, Sarva Shramik Sangh and the statewide Qureshi community were able to draw thousands of protesters to the center of Mumbai.

On May 5, the union planned another rally, advertising to journalists that it expected 100,000 to descend on the city from all over the state. Fewer than 100 people showed up.

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