Selective compassion or deserved clemency?

  • The contrasting feedback to the decision to implement the cattle slaughter ban

By Sumudu Chamara

Animal welfare is a highly contested topic in Sri Lanka owing to several issues, such as disparities between the pacifist Buddhist culture and agricultural practices that often see villagers in conflict with wild animals, as well as traditional practices that involve the use of animals and opposition from animal rights activists.

The issue again came to the forefront of discussion from a different angle when it was proposed to ban cattle slaughter in Sri Lanka, and a major step in this regard was taken recently. The Cabinet of Ministers, on Monday (18), granted approval to amend several acts/ordinances as a step towards the banning of cattle slaughter in Sri Lanka – a decision that received cabinet approval on 28 September last year. The Government had previously announced that it would import beef for those who consume beef, in order to avoid any difficulties they may have to face owing to this decision.

Accordingly, five acts/ordinances, including by-laws passed by local government institutions in relation to cattle slaughter, namely, Authority 272 of the Cattle Slaughter Ordinance No. 9 of 1893, Animal Act No. 29 of 1958, Authority 252 of the Municipal Councils Ordinance, Authority 255 of the Urban Councils Ordinance, and the Pradeshiya Sabha Ordinance No. 15 of 1987, will be amended, and necessary actions to implement the ban are expected to be taken afterwards.

According to the Government, approval to ban cattle slaughter in the country had been given with the aim of improving the local agriculture sector and increasing milk production, and the Legal Draftsman has drafted bills to amend the above-mentioned laws. The Cabinet has also granted approval to a consolidated resolution tabled by the Prime Minister, the Minister of Public Services, Provincial Councils, and Local Government, and the Minister of Agriculture, in order to publish these bills in the government gazette as notifications and also to table in Parliament. The Cabinet also announced that the Attorney General (AG) has certified that the said bills do not clash with the provisions of the Constitution. 

The Animal Act No. 29 of 1958 prohibits the slaughter of cows and cow calves (other than those imported for slaughter) below the age of 12, incapable of breeding, or unfit to be used for any agricultural purpose. 

Causing or permitting to be slaughtered are also prohibited under this law, and the appropriate authority, i.e. a government veterinary surgeon, a veterinary surgeon employed by any local authority, or any other officer appointed by a local authority to issue certificates under this provision, must have certified that the cow meets the aforementioned criteria. 

This law was originally enacted in 1958; however, it was amended in 1964. This Act also provides for the making of regulations with regard to several matters including the conditions subject to which the slaughter of animals may be permitted. In addition to regulating the slaughter of animals, it is the main law that is being enforced with regard to controlling and regulating the removal of animals from one administrative district to another, branding of animals, and sale and transfer of animals.

Since the Government’s announcement regarding banning cattle slaughter last year, social and political analysts have voiced concerns regarding the religious and/or ethnic aspect of this decision, as the Muslim community is often viewed as the main consumers and traders of beef, while the two leading ethnic communalities, i.e. the Sinhala-Buddhist and Tamil-Hindu communities are against the consumption of beef due to their cultural and religious principles. Several foreign analysts and media outlets too had attributed this decision to Sinhala-Buddhist activists’ request to ban the same.

There were also times when this opposition was expressed through extreme methods. In May 2013, a Buddhist monk named Ven Bowatte Indaratana Thera set himself on fire outside the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy, demanding that the Government take action to put an end to cattle slaughter in the country. The Thera was admitted to hospital, but he succumbed to severe injuries. Moreover, this incident created a division among those supporting banning of cattle slaughter, according to activists.

To discuss the ethnic-religious aspect of the Government’s decision, The Morning spoke to Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Parliamentarian Mujibur Rahman, who said that at present, people of all ethnicities and religions are engaged in the production and sale of beef as well as the consumption of beef, and that the Government’s decision, therefore, is not just a matter that affects only the Muslim community as claimed by some. 

He opined that by proceeding with the proposed ban, the Government is creating a new issue as there are hundreds of thousands of people who have made providing beef their livelihood. He added providing beef has developed as an industry, and therefore, it is not just a matter of people consuming beef. 

He explained: “The Government’s decision is likely to leave those employed in this industry jobless. We have to ask the question as to what is the alternative we are going to give them once they lose their job. The Government has commenced this initiative without a proper study or a plan, and it is similar to the Government’s poorly planned programme to ban the use of chemical fertilisers. Sri Lanka’s economy has declined to a very low level at the moment, and the rate of unemployment has risen. Also, many businesses have come to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In such a context, the Government’s decision is likely to worsen this situation, by making more people unemployed.

“This decision will further affect the economy, and I do not think this will benefit the country in any way. I wonder why members of the Cabinet cannot understand this reality. Majority of Indians treat cattle like a god, but India is one of the leading beef exporters. India has a bigger influence of religions than Sri Lanka has, and India knows that if it took such a decision, it will affect their entire economy. I do not know why the members of our Government have failed to comprehend that.” 

When asked about the Government’s plan to import beef for those who consume beef, Rahman opined: “Importation of beef will most likely benefit friends of the Government, and they will be given permits to make money through this. Producing beef in Sri Lanka and importing will not affect consumption.”

He also questioned the motive behind the Government’s decision, and said that the Government has not revealed the real reason or basis for this decision so far. 

Rahman added: “If the reason is a religious one, according to Buddhist principles, there are so many other things that need to be banned first. First of all, liquor stores need to be banned, if the Government actually takes decisions based on Buddhist philosophy. Therefore, the Government’s decision is not a decision based on religious values. It is a continuation of a racist programme that was initiated when it was in the Opposition. Not only Muslim people, even Tamil and Sinhalese people are also in this industry. 

Meanwhile, Chanaka Bandara, National Convenor of the Sinhale National Joint Alliance (SNJA), an organisation that has openly expressed support to the Government’s decision, said that regardless of the motive behind the implementation of the decision taken by the Government, the fact that the Government has taken a decision to ban cattle slaughter in the first place, is admirable, and has created a constructive discussion about the same.

He told The Morning: “Sri Lanka and India have upheld very exemplary principles since the past as far as consumption of meat is concerned, and the habit of consuming meat is a habit that came from the west. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist country, and if we take measures such as banning cattle slaughter, it will be beneficial to the country in several ways. 

“After Indraratna Thera’s death in Kandy, we tried to draw the Government’s attention towards this matter. However, making that decision was delayed, mainly due to political reasons including the making of political alliances between various parties. Allegations have been levelled against the Government that it was trying to ban cattle slaughter due to various other reasons. Regardless of what various parties are saying, the Government making some progress with this decision, which had been forgotten, is admirable. 

“Sri Lanka is facing an issue of not having adequate money to import milk powder, even though we have several Sri Lanka-based companies. We have considerable resources as far as cows are concerned, and protecting them by banning slaughter will help us increase milk production in the country. If we actually do that and make a proper plan, there will be no reason to import milk powder or cows and it will be greatly beneficial to the economy as well. What is more, consuming more liquid milk will be better for Sri Lankans’ health as well. We should also look at how many health issues people face due to consumption of imported milk powder. In the past, when Sri Lankans did not consume milk powder or imported milk, we did not see these types of health issues. In this context, as an organisation that supports this decision, we see this as a move that can help Sri Lankans convert to a healthy lifestyle. The same way we criticise various decisions, we should not hesitate to see the good side of these decisions.”

Bandara also said allowing cattle slaughter to continue not only encourages the people to do so, but also makes certain businessmen rich, at the expense of our Sinhala-Buddhist culture which strictly condemned cattle slaughter.  

“These businessmen destroy our culture, make money, and then create a situation where we have to import milk from other countries,” he opined. 

He added: “We will continue to request the Government to continue the implementation of this, despite the challenges, and the Government’s strict decisions in this connection will receive the people’s support as well.”

The Morning also spoke to animal welfare activist and Attorney-at-Law Lalani Perera, a member of the government-appointed Animal Welfare Steering Committee, who said that even if cattle slaughter was banned, there is a possibility that people will continue to do it secretly. She added that it is not possible to tell people not to eat meat; what we can say is if they actually want to consume meat, make the slaughtering process as humane as possible.

She added: “Certain laws have also been drafted in that regard, concerning not only cattle, but also several species of animals. There is a question as to whether this plan is being implemented only for animals.”

She also questioned the decision to import meat while banning slaughtering in the country.

She also spoke of the Animal Welfare Bill, which has not been passed despite having been presented years ago.

“The necessary documents have already been sent to the Attorney General (AG), in order to ascertain whether it is consistent with the Constitution. After that only it can be gazetted. As far as I am aware, the AG has given his observations which have been sent to the Legal Draftsman. If no other issue arises, it will be presented in Parliament and passed. The discussions regarding this Bill have been going on for decades, and various discussions had to be held to discuss a number of concerns in that connection. After legal action, it is not in its final stage. I hope that it will not be delayed anymore.”

When asked what reasons delayed this process, Perera said that those in the meat industry were one of the main forces that did not like this Bill. She added that even though there were other issues as well, the majority of these issues have already been resolved. She opined that dealing with those challenges took a lot of time and effort.

She also noted that even though there are legal provisions to fight animal cruelty, those laws are inadequate, and that the legal action that can be taken under it is extremely limited. 

Even though the Government has commenced taking the necessary steps to ban cattle slaughter in the country, it is likely to take months, if not years, and at some point, practical issues such as the cost of importing beef and dealing with the loss of jobs also have to be addressed. Most importantly, it is prudent to take into account different but valid views various parties express, during this process.