They are, however, willing to export buffalo meat to Bhutan
The Chief Secretary of the West Bengal state government, in a recent meeting with the Consul General of Bhutan in Kolkata has communicated the West Bengal government’s stand that it does not want to export beef from Jaigaon in West Bengal to Bhutan.
Given that the majority of Bhutan’s beef supply comes from Jaigaon, it would have a strong impact on beef imports by 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.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is understood to have informed the Ministry of Agriculture seeking their views on the issue.
A joint meeting of the Department of Livestock, BAFRA and Department of Marketing Cooperatives submitted their views to the Agriculture Secretary who in turn shared their views with the Foreign Secretary.
They said that they believe the beef from Jaigaon is from various unorganized sources but the exporters provide all relevant documents like sanitary documents, fit for human consumption certificate etc. However, they said that finding the authenticity of these documents and physically inspecting the slaughter facilities has been difficult.
The Agriculture Ministry said that setting up of a joint slaughterhouse at Pasakha may not be feasible due to objections from religious bodies and the public.
The three 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.
The Indian ambassador Gautam Bambawale said, “We are not aware of the matter and it is likely to be a government of West Bengal issue but we will find out the details from them.”
The ambassador said that Lyonchhen is travelling to Kolkata for an investor’s summit at the invitation of the West Bengal government and he hoped that Lyonchhen could take up the matter with the government of West Bengal.
Though not stated by any West Bengal official the move is likely to be linked to the issue of ‘beef politics’ in India and the upcoming state government West Bengal elections in May to June 2016.
The advent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government in the center in 2014 has lead to heightened politics over beef by both BJP leaders and other Hindu right wing organizations.
Cow slaughter has always been an emotive religious issue in India since the majority of the population is Hindu and most Hindu’s worship the cow. Many Indian states ban the slaughter of cows though West Bengal does not prohibit cow slaughter with major slaughter houses present in Kolkata.
For a nation with the world’s largest population of bovine cattle, a compromise has been made on the issue with various state governments allowing the slaughter of water buffaloes which is mainly exported as beef to international markets in China, Middle-East, Russia etc. India is the world’s largest exporter of this bovine meat. Buffalo meat is very similar to beef but it is more bulky, has more fiber and is slightly chewier.
The Indian government’s 2012 Meat Export Policy recognizing the ground realities does not allow the export of cow meat but it does allow the export of buffalo meat.
However, in reality along with buffalo meat a fair amount of cow meat is also slaughtered and exported by terming it as buffalo meat.
In recent months the illegal export of live cattle across the Bangladesh border has become an issue and the Indian Home Ministry has asked its border guards to stop such smuggling.
In various parts of India, there has been a small but growing trend of vigilante groups, both political and religious, stopping trucks carrying cows and beating the drivers.
In the 2016 state level elections 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.
This is not the first time that Bhutan is experiencing political fallout of West Bengal politics. The infamous 2008 Golden Jubilee Railway line was scuttled due to sensitivity over land acquisition especially after the larger land acquisition related politics in West Bengal brought the current Trinamool Congress government to power.
Bhutan’s options are limited as Bhutan has a lone and barely functional slaughterhouse in Tsirang that is already under pressure to close from the local community. The recent public furor on any proposed slaughter house and meat industry in Bhutan combined with the highest per capita consumption of meat in South Asia may lead to many Bhutanese making do with buffalo meat.
Bhutan in 2014 imported around 10,336 metric tons of meat of which more than half was beef.