NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The Indian government's ban on the trade of cattle for slaughter threatens $4 billion in annual beef exports and millions of jobs if the government does not revoke the stoppage decreed last week, according to two industry officials.
In the latest setback to the Muslim-dominated meat industry, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government decreed animal markets will only be able to trade cattle for agricultural purposes such as ploughing and dairy production.
The ban is likely to further alienate Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India's 1.3 billion people, and raise communal and religious tensions. Hindu hardliners and cow vigilante groups have been increasingly asserting themselves since Modi's Hindu nationalist government came to power in 2014.
Most of India's beef comes from water buffalo rather than cows, which are considered holy by Hindus, but local cattle traders and slaughterhouses have repeatedly come under attacks from activist groups that oppose the meat trade.
"In the garb of the order that prohibits the trading of cattle at organised markets, the government has tried to impose a ban on the meat industry," Abdul Faheem Qureshi, head of the Muslim All India Jamiatul Quresh Action Committee, told Reuters.
"Meat supplies will very soon grind to a halt in India and abroad if either the government does not repeal this draconian order or a court does not step in," Qureshi said.
Government officials were not avaibale for comment.
Indian meat traders, under the aegis of the Quresh Action Committee and other trade and industry associations, plan to petition India's Supreme Court in the next couple of days to get the government order rescinded.
"Exports will come to a halt because slaughterhouses will find it extremely difficult to buy cattle and we also apprehend widespread job losses in the sector, which supports millions of people," said Qureshi.
Abattoirs across India on March 31 called off a strike after four days when the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, ruled by Modi's party, gave assurances that it would renew the licences of slaughterhouses and protect them against the attacks from cow vigilante groups.
The slaughter industry stabilised after the strike but the latest order has unsettled trade again, said Priya Sud, partner at Al Noor Exports, which operates abbatoirs in Uttar Pradesh.
The impact on exports will be more evident after a couple of months when the supply chain dries up, Sud said.
India exported 1.33 million tonnes of buffalo meat in the 2016/17 fiscal year to March 31, worth about $3.9 billion. The exports were slightly up from the 1.31 million tonnes exported in the previous year.
(Reporting by Mayank Bhardwaj in NEW DELHI; Additional reporting by Rajendra Jadhav in MUMBAI; Editing by Tom Hogue)