Wildlife & Biodiversity

India has a failed salvation policy on the not-so-holy buffalo

India’s only scheme to leverage the expanding buffalo meat exports has been in doldrums. To make it work, the government must first get rid of restrictive slaughter regulations

By Abhishek Rajan
Published: Friday 07 June 2019

Buffaloes have long been treasured by India’s farmers as a superior dairy animal. In the last decade, however, they have made news more for meat than milk: India has become the largest beef exporter, selling 1.48 million tonne (MT) buffalo meat in 2014-15 — a big jump from 0.31 MT in 2000-01.

The low-priced Indian buffalo meat has created strong demand in low- and middle-income developing countries of South East Asia and the Middle East. But most of it is of relatively low quality, compared with other major exporters like the United States and Australia.

The meat India exports are produced largely from spent and unproductive dairy buffaloes, kept by farmers, mostly small land-holders. The export boom has created income opportunities for them. At the same time, it has also drawn attention towards 108 million buffalo herds that are underutilised for meat production.

The male calf

India’s buffalo herd has a strong female bias for their prized ability to produce high fat-content milk. Females account for 90 per cent of the total buffalo population. Males, which have limited utility, are either starved to death or slaughtered shortly after birth.

The mortality rate of India’s male buffalo calves is 60-80 per cent, according to studies by Rabobank and the US Department of Agriculture. Some 13-15 million male calves perish annually without their full economic potential being realised.

The Centre started the Salvaging and Rearing of Male Buffalo Calves (SRMBC) scheme in 2010 to augment income opportunities of poor livestock owners, considering strong global beef demand and the untapped potential of India’s large herd.

The centrally sponsored scheme offered capital subsidies to individual farmers, collectives and commercial entities to rear male buffalo calves for meat, hides and by-products. It intended to encourage farmers to save their young male stock, rear them and develop linkages with export-oriented slaughter houses.

Nine years on

SRMBC was to be implemented by National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) in the last two years of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan (2007-12). The scheme was allocated a paltry Rs 1.92 crore in 2011-12, against an announced initial outlay of Rs 121.62 crore.

It was swept under the carpet for the next three years, with no grant or any transfer to beneficiaries. In 2014-15, the scheme was brought under the umbrella of National Livestock Mission. Since then, it has shelled out Rs 66 lakh as subsidy; benefitting only 93 units, mostly commercial.

That disbursal would not have salvaged more than 2,000-2,500 buffaloes so far (at an estimated Rs 3,125 per calf).

Nine years on, SRMBC has bitten dust: Only 2 per cent farmers were aware of it, according to a survey by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (Ficci).

Why it failed

Even if insufficient funds and the lack of political will would not have played a part, stringent slaughter policies in most Indian states would have.

The restrictive laws aren’t confined to holy cows, but also meddle with the ‘not-so-holy’ buffaloes. Rearing, feeding and fattening a buffalo for meat production has remained uncommon. Cultural traditions tied with vegetarianism and controlled slaughter policies have restricted expansion of buffalo meat production.

Laws in states with high buffalo population such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh allow only buffaloes older than 14-15 years — unsuitable for milk production, breeding or draught purposes — to be slaughtered.

Such laws are not consistent with present practices: Not even 5 per cent of India’s buffalo population is used for breeding or pulling loads; maintaining she-buffaloes also turn uneconomical after they are 9-10 (the fourth lactation period).

Restrictive laws, forcing farmers to starve unproductive buffaloes to death or keep them until they become worthless, are unjust. They deny small farmers to prudently utilise their resources for incomes.

Way forward

India’s buffalo meat industry has the potential to double in no time, with some responsive policy support. Based on the FICCI report, salvaging, rearing and feeding even 60-70 per cent male calves will augment exports by Rs 25,000-30,000 crore annually.

The pressing need is a realistic slaughter policy. Preservation and improvement of livestock is a state subject. So, states which large buffalo populations need to form pragmatic laws that allow the disposal of buffaloes for meat production without restrictions.

That will create a conducive and fearless business environment for everyone —buffalo owners, livestock aggregators, transporters and meat processors. This can be followed by reviving SRMBC, which will stimulate the rural population to salvage and rear buffalo as an employment generating activity.

(The author is a research consultant with the IWMI-Tata Water Policy Program)

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