New Delhi: A possible trade deal with the US has been hampered by a host of issues, and now with President Donald Trump set to visit India, it is set to face another hurdle — religious concerns.
While Trump has made it clear that he will not be signing a deal during his two-day visit starting Monday, the RSS now says that it will not allow the import of US dairy products.
Negotiations over the US dairy products have gone on for years and have been one of the major stumbling blocks towards a possible deal.
The RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch has now thrown its hat into the ring, saying it opposes US dairy products on religious grounds.
“We worship cows as it is like a mother for Indians. The US needs to understand that this (importing dairy) is an unjust demand,” the manch’s general secretary Ashwini Mahajan told ThePrint.
The view finds resonance in the Modi government — Vallabhbhai Kathiria, the chairman of Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog, which falls under the Animal Husbandry ministry, shared a similar concern.
“For centuries we have worshipped cows. So how can we allow uncertified dairy products from the US whether it’s butter or paneer or another byproduct?” Kathiria asked.
“Our religious sentiments are associated with the cow. The Modi government would never allow US dairy products without certification,” he added.
The non-veg diet conundrum
Another bone of contention is the diet that American cattle are fed on.
American cattle are fed a non-vegetarian blood meal, a protein-rich dietary supplement that is said to be both cheap and effective. Procured from blood and other remaining body parts of slaughtered animals, the mix is turned into powdered fodder that compensates for the amino acid diet supplement of cattle.
“Milk is part of vegetarian diet in India,” Mahajan said. “Since in the US cows are fed with blood and meat, the import of milk from such cows is prohibited in India. India wants US exporters to certify that milk is from cows that are fed only vegetarian feed.
“The US needs to understand that this demand is not only unjust; it can’t be accepted also due to religious reasons,” he added.
But this view has been held by other Indian governments as well.
New Delhi has reiterated for over a decade that it requires dairy products derived from cattle that have been fed a vegetarian diet their entire life.
The US dairy sector, meanwhile, has described these requirements as “scientifically unwarranted”.
India has defended its position by citing Article 20 (a) of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), to support its argument for conserving religious sentiments based on public morality.
The article allows each nation-state to give its definition of public morality and protect its cultural sensitivities with respect to trade and tariff.
The US attempted to sort the dispute in 2015 and 2018, by proposing consumer labels indicating the diet of dairy animals.
This was, however, outrightly rejected by India. Following this, the National Milk Producers Federation and the US Dairy Export Council sought India’s removal from the Generalized System of Preferences programme, which provides duty-free treatment of designated articles when imported from beneficiary developing countries.
New Delhi’s stand may have some scientific backing.
Some studies prove that cows can get diseases such as the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy from meat additives in their food.
“There is ample proof that Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), which is also known as the mad cow disease, is the result of animal tissue being fed to cattle,” Guru Prasad Singh, a dairy expert at the Institute of Agricultural Sciences of Banaras Hindu University told ThePrint. “It is a fatal nervous disease, commonly known as the mad cow disease that spurs degenerative changes to an otherwise calm animal.”
He added that it could affect humans too.
“There is substantial scientific evidence that links contaminated cattle products from non-vegetarian diet-fed cows to infectious agents spreading to other species and eventually humans,” Prasad said. “An epidemic in Britain in the 1990s had over 185,000 reported cases in cows, which spread to humans with a variant called Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease killing over 170 people.”
Why dairy products are a stumbling block in trade deal
The US is a net exporter of dairy products — its share in global exports stood at 4.9 per cent as compared to import share of around 2.8 per cent in 2018.
India, meanwhile, had a global dairy products export and import standing at just 0.3 per cent and 0.06 per cent respectively, in 2018.
New Delhi, however, has a surplus when it comes to bilateral trade of dairy products between the US and India.
While Indian dairy exports to the US have increased by almost seven times, to $14.9 million in 2018-19 from $2.1 million in 2015-16, imports from the US have increased abysmally to $0.22 million from $0.07 million in the same period.
On the whole, there is a skyrocketing jump in a trade surplus for India to $14.41 million from $1.94 million during the corresponding period against the US.
Rural economy dependency on the dairy sector
Another reason that India has been quite skeptical of opening up its dairy sector to US imports, or to any other country for that matter, is the overt dependence of already stressed Indian agrarian communities on the sector.
In India, the majority of farmers rear livestock under the subsistence and cooperative model and are small landholders, owning up to two or three cows/buffaloes.
As per the National Sample Survey Offices 70th round survey, 23 per cent of the households with less than 0.01 hectare of land had reported livestock as their primary source of income. The average milk production per animal in India is also very low, up to 5.53 litres from an animal per day, as compared to industrialised countries wherein it’s nearly 30 litres from an animal per day.
Besides, the dairy sector also contributes immensely to the national economy along with providing employment and income to the rural workforce.
The share of livestock to the gross value added to the country’s economy has also increased from 4.4 per cent in 2014 to 4.9 per cent in 2019.
According to a report by the Agriculture Skill Council of India, crop cultivation generates employment for an average of 90-120 days in a year but dairy at the same time has provided an alternate mode of employment throughout the year.