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Thanks to the question in the Parliament on the government’s livestock mega projects. It has helped extract the much-needed clarification.

The late clarification slaughters the meaty debate

Thanks to the question in the Parliament on the government’s livestock mega projects. It has helped extract the much-needed clarification. Let’s have a closer look at it. This article also revisits the debate, runs through an opportunity we have created through the debate, and enlists some quick thoughts for reflection.

The clarification

The Prime Minister “clarified” that the government doesn’t have any plans to build a slaughterhouse. But it was only a month and a half ago that its very own Department of Livestock (DOL), a government entity, publicly revealed better, humane measures that it will implement for slaughtering livestock.

So effectively speaking, the Prime Minister is telling us that the revelation made by its department is false. As a matter of accountability, the Agriculture Ministry should issue an apology to the entire nation for making a false statement and for stirring unnecessary controversy.

The heated debate could have headed anywhere and it resulted in a complete shambles. But why did the government take so long to clarify? The debate was widely publicised and the social media was inundated with it that it was impossible for the tech-savvy Cabinet not to know about it.

Has the clarification served its purpose?

People are still confused, and it doesn’t help when our ministers on national television declare that the actual plan the government has “will not involve killing of animals.”

The Prime Minister took a moral stand stating that “the government would never do such a thing.” Fair enough. But then what about the pig nucleus farms, the turkey farms, the warm water fish farm and other projects in the agriculture ministry’s plan, all approved and slated for completion within the next two years. Aren’t we going to eventually slaughter the pigs from the piggeries and the fish from the fish farms, too? Doesn’t this contradict the moral high ground the government took?

The debate

There are no winners or losers here. It was a good, unprecedented debate – a step in the right direction – and we should be happy that we had it even though the government now appears to have done an about-face.

People were drawn into it by two reasons: it’s wrong to have a slaughterhouse, and pubic health risks, economic implications and food self-sufficiency issues of imported meat products. The former is based on an absolute ethical right or wrong, while the latter dwelt on the greater good to the society. So both are ethical depending on how we view it.

The meaty issue is not only an ethical, public health or economic issue, but it’s also a cultural issue. Unfortunately, we can never have intelligent discussion when our arguments are laced with religious sentimentality in a debate like that. Keeping religious sentiments as personal as we can will help make such debates meaningful. Religion is not the only source of morality.

Given its highly controversial and emotive nature, even the meat eaters baulked at the idea of even being part of the debate. But it needs to be reconciled with the reality of the issue at hand that has long been allowed to fester. And the fact that alternative solutions to it are neither straightforward nor easy makes the debate even more difficult to have a clear outcome. But if we want the issue to be resolved, it’s going to take action not rhetoric.

One striking irony of this debate was that compassion, an important element of it, was conspicuously absent. People demonised those who opposed their view. That did not accord well with the spirit of the debate, nor was it warranted. There are meat eaters who are wonderful people, and we know there are vegetarians who are immoral, malicious individuals.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions

Most of us couldn’t live without meat, but would fight tooth and nail against the idea of a slaughterhouse. We only eat what others kill.

As soon as the “clarification” was out, those opposing the slaughterhouse heaved a massive sigh of relief as if it was alright for the pigs, hens and fish to be slaughtered. Shouldn’t their fight be extended to these animals too just as they did for the cattle? Why not even extend the same arguments to the leather bags, leather shoes, silk ghos and kiras, and all animal products that they use for conspicuous consumption than anything else?

Those rationally supporting the slaughterhouse get the compassion and a slaughterhouse-is-morally-wrong part of the debate. But they believe such a protest is only a futile measure to achieve our much grander, collective objective of saving animal lives. This is an honestly pragmatic view that sadly wasn’t received well.

An opportunity

A change in the attitude of people towards meat is palpable. There is an undertow of genuine animal advocacy. We need to capitalise on that and adopt a two-pronged approach to find a long-term solution to the issue: a) humane consideration of the livestock and livestock product processing, and b) more awareness-based educative advocacy initiatives.    

Jangsa appears to have already embarked on it. Hats off to their Zhiwa Lamten initiative. We need more such awareness-based educative advocacy.

The solution lies in the problem

Our meat industry deserves our attention given the huge drain on our limited, borrowed foreign currency reserve and the risk related to consumption of meat from unknown sources.

Pending a detailed study, it will be difficult to lay down an objective assessment of the potential impacts. But what we see and hear on a daily basis is enough for now for the government to be aware of the potential impacts and to act accordingly.

We can only solve the problem by focusing on it. Transferring it won’t.

Some quick questions for reflection

1. The slaughterhouse ban is good but how do we stop the killing if we have no say over what people eat?

2. The debate is also about worse deaths or a better end – choosing the lesser evil.

3. Do we have a humane, viable alternative? Has the government laid out the options?

4. Some dzongkhags allow slaughter, others like Trashigang don’t?

5. Tshethar is good but how do we manage and sustain those freed. How many more can Jangsa accommodate without straining its resources while keeping rescued animals until their natural end.

6. Nearly 60% of our population who are supposed to be at the coalface of this sector of economy are not even a part of this debate. How can we include them? Merak and Sakteng herders bore the brunt of a slaughter ban in Trashigang last year. But meat sales continued and the meat shops selling imported meat from India profited at their expense.

A word to PETA and Fondation Brigitte Bardot

Given a better alternative, nobody in Bhutan wants a slaughterhouse in the country, including those who have argued for it. We have a situation at hand and if you can help us with that, either financially or otherwise, it will be more meaningful and effective.

Conclusion

The groundswell of opinion and sympathy generated by the debate will soon ebb away. But we must keep this debate alive so that we can eventually head towards a slaughter-free and meat-free nation.

But until such time, if we must continue with our staple meat diet and help the cultural part of it thrive, we cannot afford to ignore a pragmatic solution that will help keep us safe, healthy and economically better off.

Contributed by

Dorji Tshering

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