Bengaluru: On 14 August last year, when uniformed policemen knocked on his door at 7.30 in the evening, Hanumantha was confused. The policemen told the farmer, who lives in Nandihal village, Raichur District, that by selling his cattle, he had committed a crime under the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act, 2020.
The law, enacted by Karnataka’s BJP government, came into effect in January 2021 and makes it illegal to buy, sell, transport, slaughter, trade all cattle (cows, bulls, buffaloes, oxen). The only exceptions are for buffaloes above the age of 13 and terminally ill cattle, but only after certification from a veterinarian. Those found guilty can be imprisoned for up to seven years, and fined between Rs 50,000 and 5 lakh.
Hanumantha as well as four others from his village were arrested under the law by the Lingsugur police based on a complaint from a worker of the fringe Hindutva group Hindu Jagaran Vedike.
Hanumantha’s younger brother Shivaputra Gowda told ThePrint that the law had come as a blow. “My brother has never recovered from that trauma (of being arrested). For generations, farmers have been trading in cattle, especially when they are unproductive or sick, or as a means to raise money. It’s my cattle. Why can’t I sell it?” Gowda said.
More than 500 people have been booked in the state since the anti-cattle slaughter Act was enforced in the state, according to Karnataka Animal Husbandry Minister Prabhu Chavan. The aim, Chavan has said, is to “replicate the Gujarat model of cow protection” in Karnataka.
Law has been a major blow, allege farmers, traders
The law against cattle slaughter, a poll promise of the Karnataka BJP before it came to power in 2019 (a year after the elections, when the erstwhile JD(S)-Congress government fell), has pleased a section of the population but others claim it has caused them severe distress.
These include cattle traders, leather workers, and those engaged in the skin-curing and tannery industries. The worst hit are the small farmers and poor labourers — most of them Dalits and Muslims — who worked at slaughterhouses and curing and tannery units.
Stakeholders allege that industries that were already suffering due to the Covid-19 lockdowns were further burdened because of the law.
Chowdary Rizwan-Ul Khureshi, owner of a tannery unit in Bengaluru, told ThePrint that traders are struggling to stay afloat, while labourers who earned Rs 10,000-15,000 per month are now out of jobs.
“From 70 labourers, all Dalits and Muslims, working at my tannery firm last year, I could only retain 15. After this Act was enforced, my business took a huge hit since hides were no longer locally available. Now, I import animal hides from Kerala and Andhra Pradesh,” Khureshi said.
A November 2021 report by researchers Dr Sylvia Karpagam and Siddharth Joshi on the impact of the anti-slaughter law in Karnataka pointed out that Dalits and Muslims employed in leather production are disproportionately affected by the law.
“Hides, animal skins and carcasses are labelled as unclean, polluting or impure and handling these have been largely left to the Dalit and Muslim communities,” the report said.
Cattle farmers and traders are also facing the brunt of the law. In Raichur, Hanumantha and two other farmers — Shivarayappa and Hulagappa — were booked by the Lingsugur police based on a complaint by S. Somashekhar, a Hindu Jagaran Vedike worker. Cattle trader Fayaz Khureshi and mini-truck driver Mohammed Ghouse were also booked under the same FIR.
Shivaputra Gowda told ThePrint that both the other farmers sold their cattle to meet urgent needs. “Shivarayappa sold his cattle to raise money for hospital bills. His daughter had undergone a caesarean delivery at a private hospital. Hulagappa was to undergo a heart surgery the next day with the money he got from the cattle trader,” Gowda said. The farmers got between Rs 11,000 and Rs 16,000 for their cattle.
“Each of us paid Rs 9,000 as bail money to the court when we were already cash-strapped. Cattle are supposed to supplement our agricultural income. With this law, this government has destroyed our livelihoods. This will make it impossible for farmers to rear cattle or depend solely on agricultural income,” Gowda said.
When asked where the cattle are now, Gowda said that, of the six that were sold, one had gone “missing” from the police station, while the other five were shifted to a cow shelter owned by a Hindu ashram trust.
“We visited the cowshed and the situation is pathetic. There’s no one to even pick up the cows that collapse due to sickness,” Gowda claimed.
Speaking to The Print, Karnataka Husbandry Minister Prabhu Chavan denied that the law has affected farmers. “No farmer has been booked under the law,” he said. However, after ThePrint pointed to an FIR from August where three farmers were booked, the minister said: “Maybe they were booked. But I have never received any memorandum from farmers expressing opposition to the bill.”
ThePrint then pointed to a petition filed by the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha challenging the law in the Karnataka High Court. The minister responded saying: “They aren’t farmers. Our Muslim brethren have filed petitions against the act that it has affected their livelihood and business but we are defending the law in court.”
Adding that the law will enhance farmers’ profit, Chavan said that once the government’s cattle sheds begin functioning the ex-chequer can benefit. “Even after the cattle die, the government can stand to gain upto Rs 7 lakh per cattle for their skin, teeth, bones etc,” he said.
When asked who benefits if cattle die in private sheds, the minister said “not the government”, adding that many temple-run sheds do not sell the remains but give the cattle a religious burial.
ThePrint also reached Karnataka Social Welfare Minister Srinivas Poojari through multiple calls for a comment on the impact of the law, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.
‘Only people benefiting are goshala owners’
Despite the law being in force for a year, there is not even one functional government cattle shelter in Karnataka.
“Government goshalas (cattle shelters) are being constructed in all 30 districts. Farmers can leave their old, sick, unproductive, and male calves at the nearest private goshala for which government is providing financial assistance,” the state Animal Husbandry Ministry said in response to a query by The Print.
Farmers allege that they lose out on even distressed sale prices when they are forced to give away their unusable cattle for free to such shelters.
In July last year, just before he was asked to step down as Chief Minister, B.S. Yediyurappa’s cabinet had approved Rs 15 crore to begin construction of goshalas, but for now, some 186 cattle sheds run by temples, trusts, and religious institutions get assistance from the government to care for cattle seized under this Act.
“A farmer needs three things to survive: Land to cultivate, market to sell his produce, and livestock to supplement earning. With the land reforms Act, Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act (the state’s version of one of the now-repealed three controversial farm laws), and cattle slaughter Act, the BJP government in Karnataka has finished off farmers,” Kodihalli Chandrashekhar, president of the Karnataka State Farmers Union, told The Print. “The only people benefitting from this Act are goshala owners.”
An expensive Act for cash-strapped Karnataka
When the prevention of cattle slaughter bill was presented before the legislative assembly on 9 December 2020, the Karnataka government had claimed that the financial implications of the proposed law could not be “quantified at this juncture”.
A cabinet note dated 28 December 2020 accessed via RTI and in possession of ThePrint punches holes in this claim.
By 5 December 2020, the finance department had already warned the government about the financial implications of such a law.
“This decision may be reconsidered in view of the huge financial implications. We cannot agree to this kind of expenditure when we are struggling to make both ends meet,” the finance department told the Karnataka cabinet on 5 December 2020.
According to the cabinet note, the total cost of implementing the anti-cattle slaughter Act was estimated at Rs 5,240.18 crore. The cabinet estimated an expense of Rs 3,512.32 crore to maintain 4.84 lakh head of cattle over four years. The anticipated expenditure to build 2,417 cattle shelters was Rs 1,208.50 crore, and another Rs 519.36 crore was the requirement assessed to offset the loss of 27,250 metric tonnes of beef due to implementation of the Act.
The finance department’s opposition to the Act came in the backdrop of Karnataka’s liabilities increasing multi-fold since 2019. In fiscal year 2020-2021 alone, the state’s total debt went up by Rs 78,000 crore, taking the total debt to Rs 3.97 lakh crore, according to a comptroller and auditor general (CAG) report.
The state cabinet, however, said that the new law was necessary in view of Karnataka’s dwindling cattle population.
Karnataka’s Economic Survey for 2020-2021 noted that the cattle population was 95.16 lakh in 2012 but had dropped to 84.69 lakh in 2019.
The state government had also pointed to the dwindling cattle population in response to a petition filed against the Act in the Karnataka High Court, stating that dung from cattle “unfit for milch and draught” could still be used as biogas or as an organic fertilisers.
Dr Sylvia Karpagam, a public health expert who co-compiled the report on the impact of the law, told ThePrint that the law might have the opposite of the intended effect of increasing cattle population.
“Studies have shown that such a ban and punitive measures will only discourage farmers from rearing cattle and that will lead to further decline in their population. The government should focus on providing citizens with nutritious and affordable food. Beef is one such,” Karpagam said.
‘Adverse impact on everyone in business chain’
According to the state’s 2020-2021 economic survey, Karnataka’s leather exports were at Rs 521.81 crore in 2017-18, Rs 562 crore in 2018-19, Rs 502 crore in 2019-20, and Rs 166.84 crore in 2020-21 (April to November), with the decline attributed largely to Covid-19 restrictions.
By the state’s own estimate, there are about 3.5 lakh leather artisans just from Dalit communities. There are currently 91 factories in the tanning and leather dressing industry in Karnataka. The new law has impacted everyone in the business chain adversely.
Siddharth Joshi, an independent researcher who compiled the report cited above with Dr Karpagam, said the slaughterhouse on Bengaluru’s Tannery Road had “pretty much” shut down.
“Some 30 per cent of meat shops selling beef shut down right when we were compiling our report. It isn’t as if the Act has stopped cattle trade. It has made life difficult for farmers and traders but has turned the business into a criminal enterprise, where people with links and political patronage are benefiting,” Joshi said.
Khasim Shoaib Ur Rahman Qureshi, president of the All India Jamiatul Qureshi, an organisation of butchers, told ThePrint that where the Bengaluru slaughterhouse at Tannery Road once employed 5,000 workers, there were just 150-200 now.
“A head butcher would earn about Rs 700-800 per day for a strenuous 12-hour job. Skinners and cleaners earned a measly Rs 200-500 per day. All of them have lost their jobs and have migrated to neighbouring states,” Qureshi said.
“Since slaughter is banned, we started procuring beef from the neighbouring states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh, but now they are stalling that too,” Suhaib Rehman Qureshi, owner of online meat store Protein Fresh, told ThePrint.
While the anti-cattle slaughter Act does not prohibit sale and consumption of beef, issues are arising even in this due to the new terms of the trade licence given by the Bengaluru municipal corporation. Until December 2020, the licence would read “meat, chicken, fish, pork and beef”. After the Act was enforced, the word “beef” was replaced with “buffalo meat” in the licences. This makes it illegal for stores to sell beef even if it is procured from outside Karnataka.
According to Khasim Qureshi, there seems to be a “ploy” to harm the livelihoods of butchers and meat traders.
“Hallikar and Amritmahal breeds are worshipped and we support a ban on their slaughter, but since when did European cattle become holy cows? This is nothing but a ploy to destroy our livelihood, but what the government didn’t realise is that it impacts farmers, Dalits and poor labourers,” Khasim Qureshi said. He added that even when traders procure meat from other states, their vehicles are stopped and staff harassed.
“Members of Right-wing organisations beat up our staff, tear up permits, and accuse us of violating rules. The police book us and we run from one court to another. Farmers are suffering, we are suffering for one party’s political gain,” Qureshi alleged.
Multiple petitions — including from farmers, activists, meat traders — challenging the Act have been filed before the Karnataka High Court.
This report has been updated to correct a typo in the name of the JD(S)
(Edited by Asavari Singh)