For the 50-year-old Haji Mohsin, the much-publicised aversion of Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) prime ministerial candidate, to the export of buffalo meat holds little significance.
"The BJP government was in power before and we did not face any difficulty during that regime. I am hopeful our livelihood will not be in peril if the party comes to power again," he says.
Mohsin's remarks reflect the current mood among buffalo meat exporters, traders and cattle owners across the country. Mohsin sells buffaloes to slaughterhouses in Saharanpur and the adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh. A non-milch buffalo sells for around Rs 30,000, while a milching one costs around Rs 50,000. It is not economical for marginal farmers, who own over half the country's cattle, to sell milch buffaloes.
Uttar Pradesh, home to nearly a quarter of India's 105.3 million buffalo population, provides two of every three buffaloes India exports as meat. Between 2007-08 and 2011-12, the estimated number of buffaloes slaughtered in the state rose almost 161 per cent to 32.42 million.
"If a curb is imposed on buffalo meat exports, small farmers will suffer. And, this could encourage smuggling of cattle to neighboring Bangladesh," says a senior executive with a leading buffalo meat exporting company who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Haji Saleem, owner of a slaughterhouse in Saharanpur, shrugs off such fears. "This business has been going on for long enough. It will not come to a sudden halt if BJP comes to power," he says. His certainty comes from the fact that most slaughterhouses in Uttar Pradesh are run by supporters of the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
"Buffalo meat should not be confused with beef, which is cow meat. Cow slaughter is banned in most states. Slaughterhouses buy only those buffaloes that have stopped giving milk and are a drain on farmers due to high cost of fodder," an official said. He pointed out thousands of crores of rupees had been invested in abattoirs and other modern processing facilities.
Facilities in most export-oriented units are among the best in world, their hygiene standards are global and waste is disposed of scientifically. India's 3,600 municipal slaughterhouses catering to the local market are not as sophisticated but are improving. The Gazipur slaughterhouse near Delhi, for instance, has facilities for chilling meat. Abattoirs for export, apart from processing meat, also supply hides to the leather sector and rendered products as poultry feed.
The All-India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association lists 42 abattoir-cum-meat processing plants in the country and 32 meat processing plants are registered with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA). These are over and above the municipal slaughterhouses. Abattoirs employ 74,000 people directly and twice as many indirectly.
Half of the $225 million revenue of 146-year-old Allanasons, India's biggest buffalo meat exporter, came from buffalo meat in 2012-13. Al Kabeer, another exporter, sold meat worth Rs 650 crore abroad during the year.
India competes with Australia for the buffalo meat market in the Philippines, with Malaysia and Brazil for the Saudi Arabian market, besides Egypt and Algeria. Indian buffalo meat exports have been growing at 15 per cent a year for the past decade and were pegged at $3.2 billion in 2012-13.
The Centre provides a transport subsidy of Rs 70 a kg for buffalo meat exports. It also gives grants of 50 per cent for general areas and 75 per cent for hill areas up to Rs 15 crore for setting up and modernising abattoirs. Between 2006-07 and 2011-12, the Centre's total subsidy for setting up abattoirs was Rs 240 crore; another Rs 300 crore went into buffalo rearing. India became the world's biggest buffalo meat exporter in 2012, ahead of Brazil. "Buffaloes are inexpensive to keep. This makes their meat a dollar a kg cheaper than beef. The Indian government has invested heavily in abattoirs," says a report by the US Department of Agriculture.
Economics will force BJP to revisit its stand, says Sudhir Panwar, a faculty member at Lucknow University and president of the Kisan Jagriti Manch. "BJP's stand on cow protection and the meat industry is guided by its cultural ethos and Hindu vote bank politics," he points out.