Guwahati: When Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma’s BJP government enacted the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, 2021, in August, not only did it all but ban beef in the state but also ended up throttling the supply of the popular meat to its neighbours such as Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.
While Assam’s move was in keeping with the BJP’s pet political project of cow protection and opposition to beef consumption, it sent prices of the meat soaring in the neighbouring tribal states and threatened to damage the BJP’s larger project of growing roots across the northeast and becoming a serious political contender.
Now, in a clear bid to fix the collateral damage, the Assam government is drafting new rules to facilitate cattle transport to other states through a new system of permits under the purview of this six-month-old law. The new rules are expected to come into force soon.
Under the fresh regulations, private suppliers transporting cattle to the neighbouring states will have to register with the Assam government’s Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Department, ThePrint has learnt.
An Assam state government official said that according to the rules being formulated, only government consignments being transported at the behest of any state department would be allowed to pass. “If cattle is being sourced through private agencies, they (the agencies) will have to be registered in Assam,” the official, who didn’t wish to be named, said.
The Assam Cattle Preservation Act
The Assam Cattle Preservation Act stipulated that cattle can be transported from one district to another and outside Assam only when proper documentation is available. In December last year, the state further amended the Act and made it more stringent.
According to Rule 7 of the Act, “no person shall transport or offer for transport or cause to be transported any cattle, without valid permit from… any place of other state through Assam to any place outside state of Assam” and “any place within the state of Assam to any place outside the state of Assam where slaughter of cattle is not regulated by law”.
An amendment allowed the movement of cattle from one district to another provided they do not border Bangladesh.
The Act also bans cattle slaughter and sale of beef in areas where Hindus, Jains and Sikhs are in a majority or within a 5-km radius of a temple or satra (Vaishnavite monasteries) or any other institution as may be prescribed by the authorities.
Assam CM Sarma had said the new laws were meant to check the smuggling of cattle outside the country and not “legal trade”.
But “lack of clarity” on documentation for transport has led to various problems, said an Assam government official, and affected cattle procurement in the nearby beef-consuming states.
How permit system worked so far
Officials in the Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Departments in Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh confirmed that ever since Assam’s cattle preservation law came into force, the state governments had been issuing permits to suppliers “so traders don’t face problems bringing their cattle into the states”.
“The permit is valid for one month. It is issued after verifying the traders and their background. We have been trying to streamline the cattle trade so that our people do not face any problem in transporting cattle,” a high-ranking Meghalaya government official, who didn’t wish to be named, told ThePrint.
Prior to the Assam legislation, cattle transport permits were issued under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act by the origin state.
Referring to the recent permits, an official in the Arunachal government told ThePrint: “The permits were valid documents for a few months, but I don’t know why the movement of cattle was stopped later.”
An Assam government official said permit problems cropped up because of “lack of clarity”. “We are not allowing any private agency unless they are registered,” the official said, adding that once the Assam Cattle Preservation Act was made more stringent, suppliers had sought “authority letters” from the respective departments in Meghalaya. “And with those letters, they started taking cattle to Meghalaya – and then to Bangladesh,” the official said.
Supply troubles in other states
The tough rules have been hitting meat supplies in states like Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the recent past, ThePrint has learnt, shipments of cattle meant for Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh were frequently stopped by the Assam Police at the state’s Srirampur border with West Bengal, despite suppliers furnishing permits or “authority letters” provided for passage by the respective state governments. They were only allowed forward after “high-level” talks between the respective state governments.
An official in the Assam government’s Animal Husbandry & Veterinary Department, who didn’t wish to be named, said that on at least two separate instances, cattle being transported to Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh was barred from passing through the state.
The official mentioned an instance from three months ago when a consignment of bulls was stopped. “They were stopped at the border, following which a doctor travelling with them contacted us. The director of the Assam animal husbandry department told them to send us an email from Srirampur. We forwarded that email to our state Secretariat.”
The official added: “They were big, strong bulls, and it had become difficult to feed them. Eventually the matter was discussed and resolved at a higher level. The (supplier) had all the documents, but the police stopped them.”
A cattle shipment for Arunachal Pradesh was also stranded “despite the paperwork (from the state government) being in place”. Again, the matter was resolved only after intervention by high-ranking government officials.
An official in Meghalaya’s animal husbandry department said the number of cattle coming into the state has decreased. “From what I learnt, we are facing serious problems, because the number of cattle coming into the state is really less. The price of meat has gone up because of this,” the official said.
President of the Khasi-Jaintia Butcher’s Welfare Association, Generous Warlapih, told ThePrint that since the cow protection Act was introduced in Assam, prices of beef had shot up by 60-80 per cent.
“Earlier we would get beef for Rs 300-330 per kg, now we are getting it for Rs 500-600 per kg,” he said, and added: “Cattle coming to Meghalaya is only for agricultural purposes now. We have local cattle here, but it’s not enough… customers are also dwindling because of the increase in beef prices.”
People in Arunachal Pradesh’s capital city of Itanagar reported that beef rates had risen from Rs 300 to Rs 400 in the past few months.
In states like Mizoram, the Assam legislation has had little effect. An official in the state’s animal husbandry department, who didn’t wish to be named, said that although cattle being procured from states beyond the northeast cannot reach Mizoram “without crossing Assam”, the majority of their supply comes from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
ThePrint tried to contact officials from the animal husbandry departments in Manipur and Nagaland, but there was no response till the time of publishing this report.
Bhabesh Kalita, president of the Assam BJP, said the cow protection Act was “essential” to “avoid conflicts”. “If people cut up beef around namghar and satra areas, then a conflict will start. We need to give respect to religions… there’s no issue if Muslims eat it, but not in our area. That’s where the conflict will start,” he asserted.
He further asked: “For the Hindus, there’s bharat mata, gaumata and Ganga mata. How will we bring about this culture otherwise?”
(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)