Just to put the fact into context, a US resident, the biggest guzzler of animal flesh, consumes 120.2 kilos of meat in a typical year—a staggering 30 times more than those in Bangladesh.
The per capita meat requirement of Bangladesh is 43.25 kilos, but the availability of it is only 9.12 kilos, indicating an almost 79 percent deficit. Because of the lack of purchasing power, the consumption came down to about four kilos.
Out of this meat consumption in Bangladesh, about 48 percent are met with red meat, which mostly come from cows and then goats, sheep and buffalo.
According to the data of Department of Livestock Services of the government, in 2016-17, the population of livestock in Bangladesh was 54.7 million out of which, cows comprised of 23.9 million, goats 25.9 million, sheep 3.4 million and buffalo 1.7 million.
Now for meat consumption, Bangladesh needs about three million cows but the slaughterhouses of the country cannot source even one million cows from within the country. More than two million cows are smuggled from India to Bangladesh every year and most of the illegal trade takes place through the Indian border state of West Bengal.
Interestingly, this $600 million-a-year trade has flourished over the past four decades and is considered legal by the subsequent governments of Bangladesh.
How smuggling cows from India for meat became an accepted practice
After achieving independence in 1971 through a bloody nine-month war, Bangladesh's founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman urged the Bangladeshi people to “drink milk, don't eat cattle.”
Historians believe that his urge came because in the nine violent months preceding independence, the marauding Pakistani Army and its local aiding parties had indulged in mass-scale slaughter of the country's livestock—eating most of it.
Consequently, Bangabandhu found that due to the lack of draught cattle, cultivating a huge portion of the newly born nation became nearly impossible. Besides, the poor quality of the surviving livestock, the prevalence of disease and lack of veterinary services hit efforts to develop the domestic population.
Meanwhile, neighbouring India, which perhaps had the largest cattle population in the world, had laws against the export of young, healthy cows. So smuggling was basically the only viable solution to that problem.
As Bangladesh's population increased over time, so did the demand for cattle. There were huge spikes in demand immediately after the monsoons, which claimed thousands of animals across the nation, and just before Eid-ul-Adha, when animals are traditionally slaughtered in Muslim majority Bangladesh.
Indian officials, while aware of the situation, preferred to remain ignorant until late 1980s, when the Indian central government ordered a crackdown on smuggling to indicate its displeasure with the military regime of the Bangladeshi President Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who stepped down following massive public protests in late 1990.
In 1991, newly elected Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, realising that the Indian crackdown on cattle smuggling was impacting heavily on domestic beef and leather prices, decided to set up a dozen customs corridors along the border with West Bengal. These posts, which started operations from 1994, essentially legalised smuggling and also became a major revenue earner for the government.
Under this system, the smugglers take their cattle to the customs posts and declare them as “seized” cattle of unknown origin. After paying a “fine” ranging from Tk800 (Rs500) to Tk1,100 (Rs700) per animal (depending on the size), they collect the cattle which are then mostly sent to the slaughterhouse.
Of course, many other animals are simply transferred across the border with the connivance of the Border Security Force (BSF) in India and the Border Guard of Bangladesh (BGB), who are paid a small sum per head, it is alleged.
The city slaughterhouses
As per the unofficial data of the Bangladesh Meat Traders Association, about 40 percent of country's red meat is consumed in the capital. In different kitchen markets across the capital, meat of about 5,000 cows and buffalo, and 1,500 goats and sheep are sold.
The only permanent cattle market is located in Gabtoli area of the capital. The cattle from different parts of the country, as well as the smuggled ones from neighbouring India, enter the city on a daily basis and they are first taken to the Gabtoli cattle market. From there, the cattle traders sell their cattle to the meat traders.
Rabiul Alam, secretary general of Bangladesh Meat Traders Association said that there were 5,000 meat shops across the capital just five years ago. Because of the soaring meat price and the small profit margin, about 3,000 of those meat shops have been closed down in the last few years.
Besides, there is a serious lack of slaughterhouses in Dhaka. As per the rule of the civic bodies, the meat traders cannot slaughter cattle in any places they want. The cattle have to be slaughtered at designated places. However as there are severe lack of slaughterhouses, the meat traders in Dhaka hardly abide by that law.
The Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) runs two slaughterhouses—one in Hazaribagh and another in Kaptan Bazar, while the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) operates three in Mohammadpur, Mirpur 11 and Gulshan Kitchen Market.
These five houses can at most slaughter about 600 cattle per day. The time of slaughtering cattle is divided into two four-hour shifts—one from 2am to 6am and another from 6am to 10am every day. The charge to slaughter a cow is Tk70, buffalo at Tk85, and a goat or sheep at Tk20.
Thestandards of the existing slaughterhouses run by the civic houses are far from satisfactory. Most of the slaughterhouses have insufficient spaces and inadequate lighting inside. They are clogged with waste materials and congealed blood from the slaughtering during the previous days.
The abattoirs also lack cleaning personnel as well as veterinary doctors. Because of the absence of the latter, most of the cattle do not get vaccinated before being slaughtered, which put the quality of the meat that we consume under scanner.
It is to be noted that as per the Animal Slaughter and Meat Control Act of 1957 which still dictates the term and condition of animal slaughter in Bangladesh, a trained veterinary doctor is required to be appointed by the city corporation to monitor the slaughter and processing of the meat.
So this practice of slaughtering and processing animals at the old slaughter house makes it easy for the meat to become infected with germs and other hazardous elements, that eventually affects public health, who are the final consumers of the meat.
Is there any better plan ahead?
About the sorry state of City Corporation run abattoirs, Alam said, “You have seen the condition of the established slaughterhouses of Dhaka which caters less than 20 percent of Dhaka’s red meat need. The informal makeshift slaughterhouses in the kitchen markets of the capital are even in more sorry states.”
Alam said that despite their repeated requests, the city corporations have virtually taken no step in modernising, repairing or increasing the numbers of slaughterhouses in more than a decade.
In 2015, the DNCC spent Tk30 crores to establish a new modernised slaughterhouse in Mirpur 11. The slaughter house has separate slaughtering chambers, a bio-gas plant to utilise the animal droppings and a rainwater harvesting plant to run the process in an environment-friendly and energy-efficient manner.
However, within two years, the modern slaughterhouse became old and putrid like the other slaughterhouses of the capital. DNCC's chief veterinary officer Lutfur Rahman admitted about the sorry condition of the Mirpur 11 abattoir.
He said that the Mirpur 11 slaughterhouse was not spacious enough. Its main entrance is being used as a pathway for members of the Bihari community living in a camp nearby which makes the access to slaughterhouse difficult.
“Yes. There is a shortage of proper slaughterhouses in Dhaka. Our hands are tied as we lack both available space and budget. We have recently established a truly modern slaughterhouse in the Mohakhali kitchen market. It hasn’t been opened to the public yet. Once, it opens, it will be able to slaughter 200 cattle per day in a hygienic manner.”