The Centre is likely to lift a ban on the sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets, following legal opinion that its role is limited in livestock trade which is a domain of state governments.
The government imposed the restriction in May, triggering outrage as the decision was viewed as a hardline Hindu move to foist a nationwide ban on slaughtering cows for beef and influence people’s choice of food.
Senior officials in New Delhi said the government realised it cannot put additional curbs on cattle trade through the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules 2017.
Environment minister Harsh Vardhan dropped hints on Monday about plans to tweak animal trade rules.
“We will remove all misunderstandings as the government does not intend to directly or indirectly affect the slaughterhouses or harm farmers or even influence the food habits of the people,” he said.
According to a source, officials of the Animal Welfare Board of India overstepped their brief while framing the rule and had not taken the environment ministry’s approval.
“They went beyond the jurisdiction of the board,” he said.
The rules stipulated ending the role of intermediaries in livestock trade and a series of approvals for transporting cattle. The rules also said an animal could be sold only to a farmer.
Governments in West Bengal, Kerala and Meghalaya objected, saying the matter was a “state subject”. As the row raged, the Madras high court stayed the implementation of the central order in Tamil Nadu and the Supreme Court stayed it across the country, despite the government’s argument that the rule was meant to create a “regulatory regime” for preventing cruelty and not aimed at banning the sale of cows.
Sources said the about-turn stemmed from a growing feeling within the government that the livestock rules went beyond the ruling BJP’s cow-protection agenda and that these could be misconstrued as an assault on the poor engaged in the trade.
Animal markets are mostly concentrated in small towns and the countryside.
Besides, the government has been facing criticism over Hindu hardliners and self-proclaimed cow vigilante groups increasingly asserting themselves.
Such groups have been accused of assaulting and lynching men they accuse, often without proof, of killing cows or carrying the animals to abattoirs.
The Centre’s restrictions fuelled criticism as these were seen as a ploy to alienate Muslims who dominate the Rs 100,000-crore meat business in India.
The slaughter of cows, considered sacred by many Hindus, was banned in most states but seldom implemented strictly until the BJP won power at the Centre in 2014 and won several assembly elections thereafter.
The party’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has long pushed for a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter and trade.