In the land of the holy cow, fury over beef exports

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Reuters / One night last August here, an angry mob ran amok on the Delhi-Jaipur highway, burning trucks and government property and forcing traffic to halt and factories to shut.

The rioters were incensed over an issue arguably as old as India itself: the eating of beef, which the country’s majority Hindus have considered sacrilegious for at least 1,000 years.

Perhaps surprisingly in a country where so many people view cows as sacred, India could soon become the world’s biggest beef exporter, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Most, though not all, of the beef India exports is buffalo, an animal less venerated than the hump-backed indigenous Indian cow. But the trade, even in buffalo beef, still evokes revulsion among Hindu nationalists.

The sharpest criticism comes from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition in parliament. Its candidate for prime minister in next year’s elections, Narendra Modi, has slammed what he calls the government’s “pink revolution,” (a play on the original agricultural or “green” revolution in India) and its “secret agenda… for export of beef.”

India’s vegetarian traditions and the Hindu aversion to beef mean only 2.1 million tonnes of beef are consumed domestically a year. That compares with 11.5 million tonnes a year in the United States, which has just a quarter India’s population.

But exports of beef from India are likely to hit close to 1.8 million tonnes in 2013, second only to Brazil, according to an April forecast by the USDA. The value of India’s exports has nearly doubled from $1.9 billion in 2010-11 to $3.2 billion in 2012-13, according to the government’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA).

Beef production in India is dominated by Muslims, a minority in the country.

This year’s unrest along the Delhi-Jaipur highway shows how quickly beef can stir anger.

Passersby reported a foul smell coming from a truck that had broken down; rumours spread that it was loaded with cow meat. Slogan-shouting youths swept through the town of Dharuhera, some 40 km (25 miles) from Delhi, ransacking the truck and tearing out its cargo of ice-covered meat. By the time police calmed the riot, 74 trucks and buses had been burned.

In the end, the cargo turned out to be buffalo meat, not cow. But Sailesh Soni, a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a powerful Hindu nationalist group that backs the BJP and wants stricter enforcement of a ban on cattle killing, said all Hindus should be ready to defend all cattle.

“If somebody targets my mother, what would I do? I will stand and save her. Likewise, you should get up, gather and save our mother cow,” he said.

Mythology

Hindus believe that Nandi, a bull, is the steed of powerful deity Lord Shiva, and that Lord Krishna was born as a cowherd.

Many rural households in India, the world’s biggest producer of milk, own at least one cow or buffalo. Female buffaloes, in particular, are prized for their creamy milk, while the males are used for pulling carts and plows, and their dung keeps home fires burning in villages that have little or no access to power.

Statistically, there are enough cows and buffalo in India for every rural household to have about two. But once cows are past their productive life, owners will often simply turn them out, unwilling to spend on fodder for no return.

Buffaloes and cows are increasingly ending up in abattoirs mushrooming across the country, according to industry participants and officials interviewed by Reuters. Buffalo makes up by far the bulk of India’s beef exports. Cow meat is banned from export, but animal rights groups say some finds its way abroad.

In all, India has half the buffaloes in the world, according to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, and the largest number of cattle, with 327 million head, according to the USDA. The United States has around 89 million cattle.

Booming beef industry

Sitting in his airy ground-floor office in an abattoir about eight km from the town of Aligarh in northern India, Mahendra Singh says business is booming. His production of buffalo meat has increased to 150 tonnes a day from 100 to 120 tonnes around a year ago.

His employer, Hind Agro Industries Ltd., has sought the local government’s permission to lift its daily output limit to 250 tonnes to meet rising demand.

“Earlier there was only our plant but now there are more than five units in this area alone,” Singh, the plant’s general manager, said.

Hind Agro sells most of its meat to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, but the government says India’s biggest beef buyers are Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Egypt.

China, where beef consumption is growing rapidly, could soon be on the official customer list after the two countries signed a framework deal earlier this year.

Global demand for exports of buffalo — leaner and cheaper than cow meat — is growing at around 30 per cent a year. The lack of growth hormones in Indian beef provides an additional attraction for health-conscious consumers, said M. Kalim Khan, vice-president of exports and marketing at Hind Agro.

High stakes and hijacks

The rapid expansion of the beef meat sector, rising prices and demand have encouraged cattle smuggling, animal activists and officials say.

“Abandoned animals are picked up from the streets for slaughter. No one is bothered because everyone, including the police, get their share from the agents,” says Arvind Shah, a founder of Karuna, a charity for animal welfare in the city of Mumbai.

Shah, whose tall and thin physique has made him a well-known figure among residents near his tiny office, describes violent clashes between truck drivers and animal rights activists.

“Stopping trucks on highways in the middle of the night is a very risky business. I was chased by masked men and threatened,” the 49-year-old activist says.

Activists get tipoffs from villagers and even rival suppliers about the route and timing of vehicles carrying meat or animals, and then they work out a strategy to stop them.

“We go in a group of 30 to 40 people and carry wooden sticks. Most of the time, we succeed in stopping the trucks and releasing the animals,” says Brijesh Shah, a 34-year-old member of Jiv Rakshak Dal, which literally means animal protection group. “Sometimes… they attack us with iron rods and other sharp weapons.”

The group has stopped 120 trucks since 2002 and saved around 8,000 animals, he says.

Truck drivers, for their part, have stories of beatings and robberies.

“We are fed up with paying bribes to policemen and getting beaten up by animal rights people and political party members,” said Mohammad Gulfam, a driver at the Gulaothi market.

While government regulations on the transport of animals are strict, implementation is often weak and cattle are squeezed into trucks to cut costs. Animals often make the journey to the slaughterhouse without food or water and are sometimes left in the baking heat while drivers take their breaks.

Playing politics

And there are dangers for beef traders even when they are operating legally.

“On my way to make a delivery at Hind Agro, our truck was stopped by about 15 people belonging to some political party,” said Mohammad Yusaf, a driver waiting to load up at Gulaothi market. “They beat me and my co-worker and robbed us of 25,000 rupees ($408),” he added.

After the outbreak of violence outside New Delhi, Muslim elders and clerics decided that preserving the peace was far more important than eating beef.

Anyone killing cows, including the ones left to stray, will now be fined 115,000 rupees, they announced. Since then, tensions have eased in the area, where Hindus and Muslims live side by side and chat in each other’s front yards.

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