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Is beef a common man’s diet?

Maharashtra Government’s over-encompassing and to some extent, over bearing ban on cattle-slaughter raises profound and complicated legal problems concerning the State’s authority to dictate and decide the food habits of its citizenry. However, two Supreme Court judgments form two different eras are noteworthy, in light of their difference views over beef being the “poor man’s food”.

The first judgment dates back to 1958 when the Supreme Court, in Mohd. Hanif v. the State of Bihar held that beef is indeed worthy of being called the “poor man’s food” as a large section of the Indian populace survives on it on a regular if not a daily basis.

However, in a much more recent, 2005 judgment of the Supreme Court in State of Gujrat v. MirzapurMotiKureshiKassab, the Court reversed the 1958 judgment in Mohd. Hanif stating that the 1958 judgment was only a reflection of the panic caused by food scarcity in the country at the time. According to the court, India’s contemporary problem relate to unequal distribution instead of non-availability of a protein-rich diet.

In the case of Mohd.HanifQureshi, Chief Justice of India of India, S.R. Das, leading a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court upheld the challenge to the ban against cow slaughter in Bihar, UP and MP, on constitutional grounds. CJI Das, writing the judgment on behalf of the Constitutional Bench, observed that cattle, leaving aside cows of all ages as well calves of both cows and buffaloes, which are incapable of milch or draught are allowed to be slaughtered as they are “useless”. Further, the Court noted that keeping such “useless” cattle alive would be big strain on the agricultural finances and economy as well the country’s supply of cattle feed. However, if they were to be slaughtered, the resultant beef could feed the poor.

Going a step forward, CJI Das considered and termed beef as the poor man’s/common man’s food. He noted that since the price of beef or buffalo meat is nearly half of that of mutton or goat’s meat, the former is in great demand all over the country. Bringing in nutritional health related aspect, the bench observed that communities impoverished may not really be in a position to afford fruit, milk or butter and as such may be more than likely to face the brunt of malnutrition, if they are deprived of beef or buffalo flesh as well (which is within their limited means).

However, in MirzapurMoti, the Court reversed its earlier judgment of 1958 upholding the Gujrat’s government absolute ban over the slaughter of cattle, irrespective of whether the particular animal is useful or not.

The contemporary Chief Justice of India, R.C. Lahoti, while presiding over a 7 judge Bench negated the notion that beef constitutes a “poor man’s diet” in the country. Writing the judgment on behalf of the Bench, the CJI noted that beef constitutes a little more than 1 % of the country’s overall meat consumption, a meagre amount when compared with other meats.

The judgment noted that one cannot associate or garner nutrition solely from a meat-dominant diet particularly, one involving the slaughter of bovine cattle. Moreover, according to the Court, the idea of food security and its contemporary formulation is considerably different from its 1958 counterpart, in a way that it rejects the notion that a diet, predominant in beef or other meat is capable of being the staple diet of the common/poor people of the country or their predominant source of protein.

The Court rejected the verdict in Mohd. Hanif declaring that it is unconscionable that cattle be left to slaughter in its old age or when it is deemed useless, when it actually needs more protection and kindness. The Court also liked cow dung to a “Kohinoor diamond”.

by Siddhartha Singh.