Under criticism for Maharashtra's new cow protection law the BJP has denied any overt political motive. They claim the ban was important in the interests of Indian agriculture. The same logic was used to defend tough new cow protection laws in Haryana.
But cow slaughter was already banned in both states. What the Maharashtra law does is ban the slaughter of bullocks, which so far was permitted after the animal was declared unfit for agriculture.
BJP MP from Mumbai Kirit Somaiya who led the campaign to pass the Maharashtra bill, defended the ban on bullock slaughter saying that even infirm animals help the agricultural economy by generating cow dung and urine. "Electricity or pumps are not yet available- we are talking about the bio-electricity," he said, meaning biogas, extracted from dung and other organic waste. Also cattle urine, when mixed with neem, can be an effective pesticide.
The Vinayog Parivar, an animal rights trust based in Mumbai, which has lobbied for states to pass tougher cow protection laws, claims that nearly 30-40% of Indian farmers use this urine-neem mix.
But a Standing Committee of Parliament suggests that bio-pesticides only make up 16% of all pesticide use. There is no mention of what proportion of that is composed of waste from cattle.
Moreover, there is little evidence to suggest that permitting slaughter of infirm cattle hurts agriculture. States which have the most liberal laws on cattle slaughter, like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu - all of which permit the conditional slaughter of cows and bulls - have remained high performers agriculturally.
West Bengal retains the title of the biggest rice producing state in the country. Andhra Pradesh is in third place according to a government report on the value of agricultural output in 2013.
In fact, farmer leaders say the ban on bull slaughter hurts their interests. Raghunath Dada Patil, president of the Maharashtra's Shetkari Sanghatan (farmers organisation) told NDTV that cattle, once past their prime, are a drain on farmers resources. "Slaughterhouses are our biggest buyers. It's our way to dispose of them and that's how work gets done. If the BJP is so against it, why don't they buy the cattle from us?"
But groups in favour of the ban allege that healthy bullocks, even cows, are secretly slaughtered in abattoirs. "Everybody knows what's happening. They don't go by age or capacity of the animal. Nobody was able to stop it," said Somaiya.
But at Deonar, Mumbai's biggest abattoir, they are aghast at the suggestion. Deonar operates under mutliple government agencies - it is run by the Mumbai municipal corporation, while doctors from the state government's animal husbandry department inspect each animal to ensure that it is unfit for agriculture before permitting slaughter. "I've been working here for 20 years now. I've never heard of such things (cows being slaughtered)," said Vijay Dhumal, the chief doctor in Deonar.
A representative from the meat exporters association pointed out that only buffalo meat is allowed for export, not beef.
Even if there are stray instances of illegal cow or bullock slaughter, there is little evidence to suggest that it as large a scale as the BJP alleges.
The last animal census, in 2012, shows that the population of cows has grown by 3.5 per cent since the previous count in 2007. "I don't think there is a threat to cattle. The population has in fact gone up in the last census," said KML Pathak, Deputy Director General at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research's animal science department.
The number of bulls, on the other hand, decreased by 16 percent during the same period. But this, said Pathak, is because farmers are moving away from traditional agricultural practices. "I don't agree the population is decreasing due to slaughter. The main reason is that the bull's utility has decreased in the past few years because of the rise in motorised farming," he said.
Moreover, India's status as the world's largest milk producer has not waned. The country increased milk production by 30 per cent between 2006 and 2013. Maharashtra and Haryana - the two states which have toughened beef laws - have also kept pace, growing by 24 per cent and 32 per cent respectively.
"The population of animals has gone up in Maharashtra; cow and buffalo milk production has also gone up. If all of them end up in the slaughterhouse, then who gives milk?" asked Dada Patil.
The claims about illegal, rampant slaughter of cattle seems to be backed more by myth and anecdote rather than any real evidence, which only adds to the perception that political motives more than farmers' interests, may have been driving these laws.
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