Jayanta Roy Chowdhury, R. Suryamurthy and Vivek Nair, TT, 3 April 2017: Beef exporters like Priya Sud have started to chicken as meat shops were targeted in Uttar Pradesh in the past week after chief minister Yogi Adityanath promised to crack down on illegal abattoirs.
"There is unease within the industry... our local supplies have been cut off. Our importers want to know what is happening in this country," says Sud, a partner at Al-Noor Exports that prides itself as one of the oldest and largest exporters of frozen buffalo meat in the world.
India accounts for nearly 56 per cent of the world's buffalo population and racked up exports worth Rs 26,685.44 crore in 2015-16.
Exports of carabeef - the meat of the water buffalo - were 17.5 per cent higher than basmati rice exports of Rs 22,718.44 crore. In the first nine months of this year (April-December), carabeef exports topped Rs 20,000 crore, around 1.4 per cent of overall exports from the country.
Uttar Pradesh is the epicentre of the country's $4-billion meat export business with 43 of the 79 central government-approved abattoir-cum-meat processing plants located in the most populous state, churning out nearly half of India-labelled meat sold abroad and a fifth of all meat produced in the country.
The state has over 300 registered slaughterhouses and 41 export-oriented meat processing plants run by some of the top meat exporters in the country, including Allanasons, HMA, M.K. Overseas, AOV Exports, Al Kabeer, Mirha Exports and the Al-Noor Group.
Despite their Arabic-sounding names, many of these companies are owned and operated by Hindus.
A sense of fear hovers in the air and everyone involved in the meat business - farmers who rear cattle, middlemen, factory owners and transporters - is uncertain about the future of the industry itself as hotheads scout for targets and the state government comes under pressure to come good on its poll promise to close down the abattoirs.
Sources say nine of the 41 export-oriented meat processing plants in Uttar Pradesh have closed down since the new government came to power in the state. The others are operating at barely 10 to 15 per cent of their capacity.
The campaign against meat consumption has resonated in other areas with Gujarat tightening its law on Friday by prescribing life imprisonment for those found guilty of slaughtering cows, calves, bulls and bullocks.
Although buffalo meat processing is not covered by the legislation, meat factory owners live in fear that they could become soft targets as rabid rhetoric finds violent expression in the northern parts of the country.
Already, the Shiv Sena has enforced a ban on meat and fish consumption in Gurgaon, one of north India's largest industrial hubs and home to several technology and financial services giants.
"The crackdown on the meat retailers and the closure of several small units have forced exporters to adopt a wait-and-watch attitude. Nobody is taking fresh orders and many are weighing the option of shifting their units to other states like Punjab," said S.P. Sabharwal, secretary-general of the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters' Association.
Punjab is emerging as a new centre for the meat trade after Uttar Pradesh and the Andhra-Telangana region. While India's largest meat exporter, the Cdr Satish Subberwal-run Al-Kabeer, is located in Medak in Telangana, Punjab's Derrabassi in Mohali district is fast turning into a new centre for meat processing with the earlier Akali government and the current Congress one supportive of the meat business.
Most of Punjab's modern abattoirs are processing buffalo meat but the government is working on a pig meat processing plant with an eye on the market for pork, both within the country and abroad.
"India's Hindi-speaking, north Indian cattle belt is also the country's buffalo belt as well as sheep and goat belt, which is why most of the large, modern factories exporting meat are located in Uttar Pradesh, with a spillover in Haryana and Punjab.
"Direct cargo flights from Delhi to West Asia, which is an important market for us, is another reason why the meat processing industry is located here," said Vishal Johri, a merchant banker who advises exporters. Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, along with Andhra and Telangana, have the largest livestock population in the country.
The antipathy towards meat consumption in the north has coincided with the electoral fortunes of the BJP, sparking fears of a backlash against those who resist attempts to force people to adopt a lifestyle that doesn't offend Hindu sensibilities.
"The current mahol (atmosphere) against meat-eating is strange because 71 per cent of Indians are non-vegetarians," says Hafiz Mohammed Sahid, a Delhi-based meat trader and exporter, quoting a 2014 census of food habits in the country carried out by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner.
Data show that Telangana has the highest number of non-vegetarians at almost 99 per cent, followed closely by Bengal (98.55 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (98.25 per cent), Odisha (97.35 per cent) and Kerala (97 per cent).
But the rise of Hindu extremism has coincided with the gradual decline in meat exports and the fortunes of the industry as a whole. Meat exports have fallen by 15 per cent from $4.78 billion in 2014-15 to $4.07 billion in 2015-16.
Data sourced from the Registrar of Companies show that the turnover of Al-Kabeer Exports declined to Rs 469.75 crore from Rs 761.76 crore in the previous year, largely the result of a decline in exports to Vietnam and Egypt. Net profits of the company also shrank.
Indian buffalo meat is preferred because of its competitive cost. It is especially sought after in West Asia and regions with a high Muslim population since many factories use the halal or kosher techniques in their slaughterhouses, which religious Muslims and Jews prefer.
While India accounts for 12 per cent of all halal or kosher meat exports worldwide, its next-door neighbour Pakistan accounts for 8 per cent. In the West Asian market, the two are keen rivals.
"Pakistan has always been our rival in the Middle East, but India has wider acceptance globally as a source of hygienically processed, quality meat," said Johri.
However, Pakistan has been working to increase its livestock to compete. Between 1996 and 2006, it has managed to increase its buffalo population from 20.3 million to 27.3 million. India, of course, remains the bigger "buffalo power" with some 108 million buffaloes, up from 83 million in 1992.
"The so-called 'pink revolution' of meat processing and exports has been possible because of our ever-expanding livestock population, which again is a result of our white revolution. If we reduce our exports, competitors like Pakistan and Brazil will weigh in; that's natural," Johri said.
Older buffaloes, which stop yielding milk, and male buffaloes are the ones that are sold to slaughterhouses as farmers primarily rear cattle, buffaloes as well as goats for milk in India.
"The meat industry is the byproduct of the dairy business. If there is a threat to the meat industry, the dairy trade will also collapse and farmers will be the biggest losers. India is at the top in the dairy business because it tops in meat production," said Fauzan Alavi of Allana Group.
Alavi, who is also the general secretary of the All India Meat & Live Exporters' Association, said licenced slaughterhouses or export-oriented units have to comply with at least 21 permissions, both from the Centre and the state, to operate and that the government should not ignore the importance of the sector.
The meat factories in Uttar Pradesh provide direct jobs to around 5 lakh people. If one plant closes down in the state, 1,500 jobs are at risk.
Sources say the government has clarified that it is not against legal slaughterhouses but the word has yet to percolate down to lower-level officers. So, several plants have been shut on flimsy grounds.
"If some minor lacuna is found, the government should give the industry some time to resolve the matter," Alavi said.