Govt agencies resigned to beef ban as vegetarians celebrate

Bhutan may be on the verge of facing a major food crisis in the form of an impending ban on beef export by the West Bengal government, but Bhutanese government agencies have done nothing so far to convince the West Bengal government to do otherwise.

On the other hand the West Bengal government has received unexpected domestic support from an active group of die hard Bhutanese vegetarians who are welcoming the move.

The Chief Secretary of the West Bengal state government, in a recent meeting with the Consul General of Bhutan in Kolkata had communicated the West Bengal government’s stand that it does not want to export beef from Jaigaon in West Bengal to Bhutan.

The Chief Secretary said the beef trade in Jaigaon was a serious issue and would even have ‘security implications’ in the future. He said that West Bengal was ready to supply buffalo meat instead of beef and even gave the proposal of setting up a joint venture slaughterhouse at Pasakha in Phuentsholing for buffalo meat production.

However, what comes as a surprise is the lack of any concrete effort by government agencies to request the West Bengal government to change its mind or find alternative solutions given that Bhutan is the highest per capita consumer of meat in South Asia.

Bhutan in 2014 imported around 10,336 metric tons of meat of which more than half was beef. The overwhelming majority of this meat came from or through West Bengal.

The Foreign Ministry first brought the matter to the attention of the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MoEA) which handles all trade issues. Even though this was a major trade issue the MoEA kicked the ball to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests (MoAF).

The MoAF in turn sought advice from its Livestock Department, BAFRA and Department of Marketing Cooperatives. Given that the MoAF’s mandate is in-country production of food it pointed out that that setting up of a joint slaughterhouse for buffalos at Pasakha as proposed by the West Bengal government may not be feasible due to objections from religious bodies and the public.

The three MoAF agencies said that in the interest of ‘bilateral relationship and goodwill’ between Government of West Bengal and the Royal Government of Bhutan, the ban of slaughter and export of beef from Jaigaon to Bhutan could be better implemented by the West Bengal government.

It neither occurred to either the MoEA as the authority on Trade and the MoAF as the authority on livestock that they should petition the West Bengal government to change its stand or come up with alternatives to overcome an impending beef shortage. This is especially when beef is consumed by most Bhutanese.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not even inform the Indian Ambassador and through him the Delhi government of West Bengal’s beef ultimatum, and when contacted by this paper the Indian Ambassador Gautam Bambawale expressed ignorance and surprise of the developments from West Bengal.

Given the complete acquiescence by three major government ministries on the issue there at the moment seems to be no real objection to West Bengal’s unilateral move.

The only hope comes from the Prime Minister’s visit to Kolkata from 6th January to 8th January and meetings with the West Bengal Chief Minister and other senior officials. The PM is expected to discreetly take up the matter with the West Bengal government.

Though many Indian states ban the slaughter of cows, West Bengal is one of the few Indian states that does not ban cow slaughter and in fact it has slaughter houses for cows.

Bhutan for many decades has been importing beef from West Bengal from mainly slaughter houses in Jai Gaon.

Though the Indian government’s 2012 Meat Export Policy does not allow the export of cow meat it was not enforced when it came to Bhutan and it was not considered to be an adequate legal instrument unlike an Act of Parliament or law to be strong enough to specifically ban beef exports from West Bengal to Bhutan.

The recent and unexpected move by West Bengal is linked to the upcoming May to June 2016 state assembly polls. The main competitor for the ruling Trinamool Congress is the BJP whose state level workers are already attempting to highlight the issue of cow slaughter in Kolkata’s slaughter houses as an electoral issue even though West Bengal is one of the few Indian states that does not prohibit cow slaughter.

Meanwhile in the two stories posted by this paper on Facebook on the West Bengal beef ban, there were more than 90 comments from around 80 mainly Bhutanese individuals.

The majority of them welcomed the West Bengal initiative and some of them even asked for West Bengal to ban all export of meat to Bhutan.

A few of them questioned the ban while a few others highlighted the importance of domestic meat production. A few others also highlighted the Bhutanese hypocrisy of consuming meat but still supporting such bans.

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