NEW DELHI, July 30 – When Hindu hardliner Narendra Modi attacked India’s huge beef exports while campaigning to be premier, producers feared bad times ahead for the industry in the land where cows are sacred.
But now the beef export industry, the world’s second biggest after Brazil, is feeling more confident amid surging demand worldwide and absence of any hostile moves since Modi took office in May.
“I’m still a bit suspicious about Modi but I’m not really worried about my job,” said abbatoir worker M.D. Sanwaj, 30, who spends eight hour shifts at a slaughter house in Ghazipur on the outskirts of New Delhi.
The industry draws heart from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) previous stint in power, which ended in 2004, when the Hindu nationalists left the beef export sector alone, business players said.
Beef exporters had some anxious moments in the build up to May’s elections, when Modi accused the then Congress government of staging a “pink revolution” — a reference to the meat industry and a play on the 1970s “green revolution”, which made India agriculturally self sufficient.
Around election times, debate regularly flares about beef exports due to the religiously sensitive nature of the topic in secular but overwhelmingly Hindu India, where the cow is described in scriptures as the “mother” of civilization.
The main players in the beef industry are Muslims, the country’s largest religious minority, who make up some 13 percent of India’s 1.25 billion population.
Sometimes there is suspicion and hostility between the two religious groups over meat issues, but discussion normally dies down after elections.
Mujeeb Malik, head of ALM Group, which exports beef to southeast Asia and the Middle East, said it was in the government’s interests to “support us”.
“The meat industry contributes to the economy through taxation and foreign exchange inflows,” Malik told AFP.
Modi accused the secular left leaning Congress during the election campaign of pursuing a “secret agenda” to promote beef exports.
But the industry says there was nothing secret about the Congress’s support for beef exports as it was laid out in the party’s economic development plan.
The Congress aggressively promoted beef sales abroad, encouraging greater use of dairy buffalo carcasses and rearing of male buffalo.
The result was that in the last financial year to March alone, Indian beef exports soared 31 percent to 1.5 million tonnes from the previous year, and were worth 264.6 billion rupees ($4.3 billion), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says.
This year, exports look set to hit 1.9 million tonnes, according to USDA, while India has a 20 percent share of the global beef export market.
“You can’t ignore this activity — whether you like it or not,” said Ankur Bisen, analyst at leading Indian consultancy Technopak Advisors.
With “growing demand for Indian meat abroad”, the industry has an increasingly vital economic role, said ALM’s Malik.
The buffalo are slaughtered by halal methods dictated by Islamic law, offering a big market in Gulf countries.
Also, most beef exported is from male or non-milk-producing water buffaloes, which do not hold the revered status of cows, whose slaughter is forbidden in India, the industry adds.
Buffalo meat is known globally as beef, although there is a much smaller, thriving and lucrative smuggled trade in cattle meat with overwhelmingly Muslim Bangladesh which neighbours India.
“The demand is very strong and with this traffic, people make a lot of money,” said Ashoo Mongia, who set up a group Rashtriya Goraksha Sena or national army to protect cows.
– ‘Close the murder houses’ –
Modi’s failure to act against the industry has disappointed some of his core supporters, who had expected more from a man with deep roots in the Hindu nationalist movement and who is a vegetarian.
“India should basically be a milk-selling country, not meat exporting,” said Prakash Sharma, the national spokesman of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council).
“The government had said (during the election campaign) that meat exports will be gradually banned and we hope they are,” Sharma told AFP.
“Cows have a special place in our hearts, we are against any kind of slaughter ‘these murder houses’ we should not be killing any animal in India.”
But India’s beef export industry says it abides by the law of the land and does not slaughter any cows or milk producing buffalo.
Just a dozen Indian states allow buffalo slaughter, with northern Uttar Pradesh, which has a significant Muslim population, the biggest exporter.
“We act according to the law,” ALM’s Malik said, adding buffalo meat is considered a nutritious and low fat meat, and is leaner than cow meat.
“Our quality wins out,” said Malik.