Assam’s cow protection law could devastate state’s already stressed rural economy

Barely three months after the re-election of the Bharatiya Janata party in Assam, the state government passed the Assam Livestock Preservation Bill 2021 to protect cows, a sacred animal to most Hindus .

On July 12, Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma introduced the bill to replace the Assam Cattle Preservation Act 1950, claiming that the old legislation lacked sufficient safeguards to regulate slaughter, consumption and livestock transport. The bill was passed on August 13, the last day of the budget session.

The new legislation prohibits selling and buying beef in areas inhabited by non-beef eating communities and within 5 km of a temple or satra (as Vaishnavite monasteries are called). The legislation further specifies a ban on interstate transport of livestock to and from Assam, without valid documentation, ostensibly to stem the smuggling of livestock into neighboring Bangladesh.

The new legislation also banned the slaughter of cows of any age, as opposed to the age of 14 specified in the previous law.

Declining livestock sector

Many fear that the passage of the law will make trading in livestock nearly impossible because law enforcement agencies are likely to interpret it arbitrarily and ambiguities in the clauses encourage self-defense.

With the passage of new legislation, Assam has become the latest addition to the growing list of states to amend or introduce laws to protect cows since the government of the National Democratic Alliance-led came to power. by the BJP in 2014.

Assam is the latest on the growing list of states to change or introduce laws to protect cows since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government came to power in 2014. Photo credit: Anivesh. agrawal, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Between 2001-2013-’14, the livestock sector was a major driver of farmer income growth, recording annual growth of 4.5% over the period. However, the fortunes of the sector have taken a nosedive since the mid-2010s. IndiaSpend detailed the harmful effects of these laws on the livestock economy.

The growth of beef and leather exports has stalled since 2014. The growth of beef exports has increased from 35.93% in 2013-’14 to 3.06% in 2017-’18. India is responsible for 13% of global leather production, but the growth in exports of leather and leather products has increased from 18% in 2013-’14 to 1.4% in 2017-’18.

As more than 70% of the state’s population still depend on the agricultural sector for their livelihoods, compared to less than 50% for India as a whole, the new law could have a particularly negative effect on the rural economy of Assam.

The latest data set from the national sample survey shows that the state has experienced negative growth in the overall income of farmers (-0.34%). The livestock sector is one of the few bright spots in the state to have recorded a 9.47% revenue growth rate. The sector’s contribution to rural income is 12%, alongside agriculture (63%) and wages / salaries (21%).

“Demonetization of assets”

The new legislation is expected to change the role the livestock sector plays in the besieged rural economy of Assam. As it stands, more than 97% livestock is in the unorganized sector. Most of the state’s farmers say that although the livestock they own are native breeds with low milk yield, they depend on the additional income they earn from the sale of livestock after fallowing and stopping. milk production, usually after 10 to 12 years. of the life of a cow.

According to the 19th livestock census cycle conducted in 2012, the state has a cattle population of 1,037,700, of which only 3.84% are exotic or mixed. The national figure is 20.81%. However, native cattle still represent 54.41% of total milk production in the state.

A recent study by Go Anusandhan Sanstha, a cow research institute in Mathura, reported that a dairy cow brings in an economic return of Rs 85 per day. Unproductive cattle, on the other hand, report a loss of Rs 60 per day.

Unable to get rid of these cattle after the expiration of their production period, the farmers have no choice but to abandon the cattle. Such a disturbance, in the words of environmentalist Sunita Narain, is equivalent to “the demonetization of agricultural assets because farmers cannot sell livestock to traders, which results in a serious loss of their income from this endowment”.

The economic burden of the fallout from these laws will fall disproportionately on smallholders, many of whom are owned by disadvantaged communities. In the state, small and marginal farmers together account for 93.62% of households reporting significant sources of income from self-employment in the livestock sector. Many of them belong to disadvantaged communities such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes. In Assam, these communities represent 22.73% of households against 4.42% nationally.

In India, the growth of beef and leather exports has stalled since 2014. Photo credit: PTI Photo

Turn to buffaloes

Evidence from the latest livestock census shows that new legislation in Assam is unlikely to achieve its long-held goal of protecting sacred cows, as states with stricter laws against the trade and slaughter of cows have been witnesses of a sharp decline in their cattle herd.

Stuck with cattle that cannot be eliminated, farmers are increasingly turning to buffaloes, which, like in other states, are being kept outside the scope of the Assam Cattle Preservation Bill 2021 However, such a move towards more expensive animals such as buffaloes and hybrid breeds would be more likely to be concentrated among relatively better endowed rural households, leading to increased rural inequalities.

The shock to the state’s livestock sector has come at a most inopportune time. A recent World Bank document entitled “Assam: Poverty, growth and inequalities”Prepared for the state notes that rural poverty is stubbornly high in the state at 34%, which is little changed from 36% in the previous decade.

The state also recently got the ignominy of one of the worst performing states along with Bihar and Jharkhand in the third edition of Niti Aayog Sustainable development goals which was unveiled in June.

Most of the rural areas of the state under duress have increasingly seen resource-poor rural households undertake seasonal migration from rural to urban centers, many even outside the state to support their fragile livelihoods.

If the shock of the Covid-induced lockdown is not enough, the new cow protection legislation could drive a final nail into the coffin of the state’s already battered rural economy.

Rajib Sutradhar teaches economics at Christ Deemed to University in Bangalore. His email id is [email protected]

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