NEW DELHI – Every morning just before dawn, hundreds of trucks loaded with buffaloes trundle into New Delhi’s sprawling slaughterhouse complex where young men rush to unload the bellowing cargo. Skidding on heaps of fresh dung, they pull the animals out of the trucks, herding them for daily auction and eventual slaughter. The work is hard and the money at the end, poor.
But the business is big. Despite Hindu beliefs that cows are sacred – and the fact that their slaughter is banned in most of the country – India is the world’s fifth-largest consumer and second-largest exporter of beef. The meat, which in India comes from bulls and buffaloes, is widely eaten in some communities, particularly by low-caste Hindus and millions of Muslims and Christians.
With the victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party last year, hard-line Hindu groups are pushing to expand the slaughter ban to include all types of cattle, male or female. Meat traders, many of whom have carried their trade for generations, are worried about their jobs.
“This is a political decision,” said Mohammed Aqil Qureshi, president of the Buffalo Traders Welfare Association in Ghazipur, the New Delhi neighborhood where the slaughterhouse complex is located. “They want to gratify the Hindus and harass the Muslims.”
A beef ban would hit the poor the most, Qureshi said.
“This is poor people’s food and is a key source of nutrition for millions of people,” he said.
Beef is far cheaper than most meat in India, often half the price of chicken, making it a key food for people struggling with poverty.
Fears among meat traders grew last month when India’s second-most-populous state, Maharashtra, extended the slaughter ban to include bulls. While buffalo was not mentioned in the new law, buffalo meat quickly disappeared from most of the state’s butcher shops, amid fears of communal violence if it was confused with cow meat.
The ban carries a stiff punishment: Bail is not allowed and anyone convicted of selling or possessing beef faces a five-year jail term and a $200 fine, a huge sum for poor Indians.
Economists say a complete ban on cow slaughter could prove counterproductive as farmers would abandon their animals once they stop giving milk. Worse, farmers may consider it economically impossible to keep cows altogether if they must feed the animals for the rest of their lives, said Harish Damodaran, an economic analyst.
The ban could also spell disaster for India’s beef exports, which have grown quickly over the past decade, increasing annually in recent years at 17-19 percent.
“Is the government going to tell us what we can eat and what we cannot eat? We’ve been eating beef for generations,” said Danish Qureshi, a young trader at Ghazipur. “It’s like telling people they can’t eat sugar. This ban won’t work.”
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