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The Beef About Buff

In times of cow vigilantism, a lot hinges on telling your buff from your beef, as India stands to lose an export niche

The Beef About Buff
Photograph by Alamy
The Beef About Buff

Pink Stats

  • There are 27 export-­oriented abattoirs
  • India’s buffalo meat exports are the largest in the world

Buffalo meat  exports (in metric tonnes)

  • Exports in 2014-15 1,475,526
  • Exports in 2015-16 1,314,158
  • Change: 161,368

Value of buffalo meat export is down to US $4,068 mn from US $4,781 mn over the period 2014-16


Mohammed Salim, a meat supplier in the Sadar Bazar area of Delhi, is down and out. Growing unrest over beef has dented his business of supplying ‘buff’—buffalo meat—to eateries in Delhi. “Things are bad,” he says. “There’s little hope even though people still want to have buffalo meat. Nor are prices the issue. Those who want to eat meat will buy at any price.” For Salim and others like him, the problem is the climate of fear Hindutva ­activists have created in the wake of beef bans in several states. ­Delhi and Uttar Pradesh had bans already in place when Haryana and Maharashtra followed suit in 2015. Together with the decline in demand for Indian ‘beef’ (entirely buff) internationally, this has made a big impact on India’s $4.8 billion ‘beef’ export business, which shrunk by over $700 million, or 15 per cent, in the period from 2014-15 to 2015-16.

One of the factors finding play in the recent wave of cow vigilantism is the blurring of lines between beef and buff in the imagination of the majority. Demands to put an end to India’s ‘beef’ exports draw their stridency in no small measure from the simple fact of ‘beef exports’ implying the export of cow meat, while what is actually exported is buffalo meat. Moreover, buffalo meat is called “beef” in north India, where the complete ban on cow slaughter rules out any trade in cow beef. In Kerala, where cow slaughter is legal (with conditions), buffalo meat is popularly referred to as beef. ‘Beef’, clearly, is more appealing on the menu than ‘buff’.

This ‘confusion’ has only deepened in recent times, what with cow vigilantes doing their bit as well. No wonder buff traders nowadays are mostly defensive and on their guard. “Cow meat is out of the question in Delhi,” says Salim. “I cannot remember a time when it was legal. And yet there’s so much fear and mistrust over what is being sold.”

Indeed, buffalo meat vendors and restaurants serving “beef” are feeling the heat. They know how vigilantes can target any meat trader, including buffalo meat suppliers, in the name of protecting cows. More and more restaurants in NCR are opting for a ‘mutton-chicken-fish only’ non-veg menu, wary that anyone could accuse them of serving ‘beef’. While menus get limited beyond what is mandated by the legal bar on serving cow meat, buffalo meat suppliers take a hit.

“Two years ago, I took beef (buff really) off our menu,” says a restaurateur in Gurgaon, whose family-run concern now serves fish and vegetarian dishes only, and who still does not wish to be identified for fear of being targeted. “In retrospect, it was the right decision. See how people are being attacked for ferrying even buffalo meat.”

At Ghazipur’s wholesale market, Zeeshan picks up fish and other meat, which he then takes to retailers and restaurants acr­oss NCR in his small van. “Buffalo meat was never a big item here. And yet we were hit hard when some big restaurants took it off their menu in the past two years,” he says. Those who continue to serve buffalo meat in and around Delhi say they buy it from Karnataka or elsewhere, or at higher prices. Kerala House in New Delhi nowadays buys buffalo meat at Rs 200 a kg.

Cow meat is supposed to be five per cent of the total meat production in India, but such is the fear of cow-protection that you don’t have to have anything to do with cow meat to fear being targeted. So widespread is the fear that restaurants nowadays ­request customers not to say the word beef aloud. “Who knows who will report us for serving beef?” says the Gurgaon restaurateur. “We are terrified. First they attack people and only later do we learn it was buffalo meat they were beaten for.”

If there is confusion about what beef is, there is an even bigger muddle about what to do with buffalo meat producers. India’s meat supply comes from government-approved abattoirs, often owned by exporters. Instead of assisting exporters with mounting woes—India is the world’s biggest buffalo meat exporter but recen­tly lost market share in China, chiefly to ­Brazil—government agencies are chasing the cow meat chimera.

Of course, as exceptions to the norm of buffalo meat being the ‘beef’ that India exports, there have been a few instances suggesting clandestine exposrt of beef. For example, when Kolkata Port authorities inspected Delhi-based meat exporter Global Foods International’s shipments earlier this year, the consignments were found to contain cow meat. A probe report, signed on July 19 by the Kolkata commissioner of customs, asks “field formations to be sensitizeds (sic)” on disguised export of beef as buffalo meat.

On July 28, the Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO), an apex body of Indian export-promotion bodies set up jointly by the ministry of commerce and private industry, suspended “operations/services” of five exporters. An FIEO internal document cited “want of some clarifications/­investigations with immediate effect” from the exporters. Four of these exporters confirmed they export meat.

FIEO joint deputy DG Sunil Agnihotri, whose signature is on the document, agrees the letter was issued but maintains he does not know the reasons for the exp­orter’s suspension. “I signed the letter for the concerned dep­artments, but the DG alone can tell the reasons for suspension,” he says. DG Ajay Sahai is on leave for health reasons, inf­orms Nitesh Mishra, publicity in-charge of FIEO, adding, “I don’t know why their registration was suspended. Only the DG can say that.” Sahai says he too is unaware of the reasons why the exporters were put on the list.

Mumbai-based Al-Saba Exports is on the suspension list, but is yet to hear of the investigation or FIEO’s role in monitoring them. “We have hardly any work, so what is there to suspend?” wonders joint proprietor Mohammed Haider. “We have not received a single new export order in four to six months because export orders from China have dried up.”

Post the ban on cow meat, Mumbai’s lar­g­est abattoir in Deonar, which used to pro­cess over 1.5 lakh head of cattle a year, closed down, affecting the livelihood of butchers, meat processors, exporters and resellers acr­oss the country. Drought-­affected Maharash­tra was the worst hit by the ban as farmers couldn’t sell their cattle even in extreme distress. Prices fell by over 40 per cent as soon as bulls and bullocks were brought ­under the ban, impacting 15 million livelihoods.

“Our problem is the slump in the buff­alo meat market,” says Mehboob Ahmad, proprietor of Siba International, another firm on the FIEO list. “We have our own gov­ernment-approved slaughterhouse and deal only in buffalo meat.” With offices in Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh, Ahmad too had not heard of the suspension or the investigation.

While the government often makes noises about promoting exports, the buffalo meat trade is clearly an exception. The multibillion-dollar trade is being lost, leaving just a bad taste in the mouth. 


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