For a while now, India has been making national and international headlines for its soaring beef exports.
Yet while there is ambivalence about India’s place in the beef market, there is more or less an unquestioned pride about the nation’s status as the world’s largest milk producer. We riot over rumors of cow slaughter. But consumption of milk and milk products is a near-ubiquitous habit in India—ironically and maybe even more so among vegetarians than others. We revere cows as mothers because we use their milk. But if our dairy practices are any indication, we don’t treat our mothers well.
At this point we must ask, where does beef really come from? In India, most comes from one of two sources:
- Male cows and buffaloes sent to slaughter soon after being born
- Female cows who are “spent” as milk producers
Understand that unlike in the Western world, there are no beef cattle in India; the engine of the beef economy is the dairy industry. As the average Indian’s thirst for milk has grown, so has the production of beef. Figures provided by the National Dairy Development Board show that the monetary value of milk production almost tripled between 2004 and 2005 and between 2011 and 2012. So did the monetary value of beef production over these periods. The match between milk and beef production was 98.6 percent.
Once we start treating a cow as a machine on an assembly line, we have to ask ourselves, who does what to the animal at different stages of his or her life? For various historical reasons, cows and bulls encounter people from different castes and religious groups as they make their way through the dairy industry. Milk brings the cow into the industrial cycle, while beef and leather are byproducts.
If we pause for a moment to think about the correlation between milk and beef production, we come to understand that both qualitatively and quantitatively, a cow or buffalo used for milk has a worse life than an animal bred solely for meat. Why then, do we believe dairy to be better than beef?
Part of the explanation lies in psychology. Meat is obviously linked to the death of a fellow creature. The impacts of dairy are easily veiled in narratives about the Indian veneration of the cow and “surplus milk.” Of course, buffaloes who provide more than half the milk we consume as a nation don’t figure in these debates. Neither do the environmental consequences of dairy farming—whether that be greenhouse gas emissions, pollution caused by runoff, or high water footprints.
Ultimately, Indian vegetarianism is about us rather than the vulnerable creatures we claim to care for. We may prefer to turn our eyes away from the connection between drinking our filter coffee or morning chai and the cow or buffalo who produced the milk.
We find it much easier to divert attention from these fundamental economic issues and turn beef eating into a form of divisive identity politics. It’s easy to make beef a caste- or religion-based problem, but an objective analysis suggests the opposite: Caste and religion aren’t the drivers of the dairy market. Unlike when I was a child and the milkman came to my door, we increasingly get our milk in packages. For that we have to thank Operation Flood, the first success in turning Indian agricultural products into a modern agribusiness, or to put it another way, the first success in turning a suffering cow’s output into a pasteurized, uniform product that’s sold in packages across the country.
Beef ban and Jallikattu ban are surface issues; the deeper problem is that cows and bulls are embedded in a large market economy in which they will be treated only as commodities. Their suffering while alive and their slaughter when no longer useful are direct consequences of that economic paradigm. Banning the sale of beef or targeting one community for doing so is exactly the wrong thing to do if we have the cow’s welfare as our guiding principle. Whether it’s the bull used for Jallikattu or the cow exploited for dairy, the route to bovine welfare goes through changing our idea of development, success, and wealth—not stigmatising already-marginalised communities.
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