In the many hole-in-the-wall Kerala-style eateries that spring up around hospitals in Delhi and cater primarily to the ubiquitous Malayali nurse, a few items are banished from the menu, or hidden away in Malayalam. If you aren’t a regular or haven’t been tipped off by a friend who is, you won’t know they exist. Still, on most days, George—the stocky and friendly fortysomething owner of the oldest of three such shacks in south Delhi’s busy INA market—uses up Rs 8,000 (or 50 kg) worth of meat (‘buff’) for his standard-issue buffalo curry, fry, or biryani. When business is good, the figure goes up to Rs 12,000—easily the tiny establishment’s biggest investment in raw material.

George’s buff dishes, priced between Rs 70 and Rs 130, are a hit, and not just with the droves of homesick nurses from the nearby All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Safdarjung Hospital. But he won’t start publicising his bestsellers anytime soon. “You know how things are,” he shrugs when I prod him.

“Things” are indeed tricky. The threat of the religious police and its ferocious veneration for cattle is nothing new for people like George, even though buff is perfectly legit in Delhi (beef, or cow meat, is banned). But the business has never appeared as vulnerable as it has in the current election season. The reason: a virulent war cry against it by Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, who has no patience for subtle beef-buff distinctions.

In his campaign speeches, Modi mocks the growth of the meat industry—India was declared the world’s largest buffalo meat exporter by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year amid global media frenzy—as a ‘pink revolution’ sponsored by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. The gist of his diatribes in Hindi, delivered with much flourish from Meerut to Mangalore, is that the government has been pandering to minorities by promoting the slaughter of animals, particularly the bovine type, and boosting exports. It has been “taxing cotton while subsidising mutton”, Modi told the Ahmedabad chapter of the Jain International Trade Organisation last year.

Religious attack on bovine meat in India generates noise but is based on flimsy ground. In his book The Myth of the Holy Cow, historian D.N. Jha blames “fundamentalist forces” for obscuring the fact that “the cow was not always all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical traditions”, and that bovine flesh “was quite often a part of haute cuisine in early India”. So Modi is sticking to a secular argument: Rampant slaughtering will ruin agriculture, where cattle are a source of organic fertilisers.

This appears to be a specious claim. Notwithstanding the export boom, India’s buffalo population has gone up by 26%, from 89.9 million in 1997 to over 113 million in 2011. Also, the increased use of chemicals in farming has mostly been the result of heavy subsidies dating back to the 1970s—the single largest spending on agriculture by the government according to Greenpeace—whereas the meat industry’s growth is a much more recent phenomenon. But such facts haven’t stopped Modi from pushing through strict amendments to Gujarat’s already stringent animal protection laws during his third term as chief minister. The amendments criminalise transporting cattle for slaughter and empower the administration to confiscate vehicles used to transport meat. Punishment for non-compliance: seven years in jail, or a Rs 50,000 fine.

BJP’s 2014 election manifesto talks about cattle in a section on cultural heritage, just a couple of points after the controversial Ram Mandir issue: “In view of the contribution of the cow and its progeny to agriculture, socioeconomic and cultural life of our country, the Department of Animal Husbandry will be suitably strengthened and empowered for [their] protection and promotion. Necessary legal framework will be created [for this].” Though there is no mention of buffaloes, the industry fears that hostility will become the norm if Modi has his way.

Little surprise then that ‘Holy Cow!’ jokes were the standard reaction when the USDA announced India’s export prowess. Consider some numbers: India has the world’s largest cattle population at 329.7 million, and that includes 58% of the world’s buffaloes. But according to government body Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), the country’s annual per capita consumption of bovine meat is a mere 1.8 kg. Compare that with Argentina, where locals gobble up 69.5 kg every year.

Low domestic demand means a lion’s share of Indian meat has to find an outlet in global markets. That’s exactly what has happened: Sales to over 70 countries have doubled—from Rs 8,607.8 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 17,400.6 crore in 2012-13.(Only certain cuts of boneless buffalo meat are allowed to be exported.) USDA says India now accounts for almost 20% of the world’s bovine meat trade. In contrast, its poultry exports clocked just Rs 494 crore in 2012-13.

But the imminent prospect of Modi sitting in judgement means there’s a pall over Indian meat companies. Like Delhi’s small-time shack owners, most of them take a guarded tone when talking to the media. Many refuse to meet, for fear of being misquoted, and inflaming passions.

Their silence doesn’t help change the dark image of the industry, often associated with a lawless meat mafia and grisly slaughterhouses, but the overarching sense of persecution has created comrades out of rivals. During my research, for example, I discovered that one firm I met had given its competitor a heads-up that Fortune India might contact them.

Aspi Dinshaw, chief general manager at the India office of Dubai-based privately held processed food company Al Kabeer, is one of the few willing to talk. He is quick to dismiss any feel-good suggestions of fraternal bonding. “Survival,” Dinshaw says grimly, is the only motivation for the industry’s choices.

THIS IS THE PARADOX under which the bovine meat industry in India operates. Business is booming. Even the industry’s harshest critics have little economic rationale for attacking it. But rather than play up the merits of a sunshine sector, players are preoccupied with surviving—and living with the public’s almost hopelessly lopsided view of the industry. Incidents like a mob setting ablaze almost 40 vehicles last August on the busy Delhi-Jaipur highway, allegedly after spotting a foul-smelling truck laden with beef, exacerbate already stretched nerves.

A handful of organised players, including Al Kabeer and Allanasons—another privately held firm that claims to be the “world’s largest exporter of frozen halal boneless buffalo meat”—do try to clean up the industry’s image by adopting transparent practices, but they are undone by the unruly unorganised segment: The malodorous truck that triggered public rage in August apparently belonged to the latter.

Things needn’t be this way. Apart from the fact that buffalo meat is a rich and affordable source of protein, this is an industry that generates lots of jobs. “We provide livelihood to millions. A slaughterhouse producing 100 tonnes of boneless meat a day provides direct employment to almost 2,000 people,” claims Dinshaw.

Also, although illegal backyard slaughtering still exists on a large scale, the industry has become much more organised in the last decade or so. There are now 46 export-oriented facilities and close to 4,000 abattoirs under the municipal slaughterhouse system to cater to domestic demand. The buffaloes that are processed for export come mostly from small holders and dairy farmers, who sell them to traders in livestock markets once they stop being productive (they are never raised for meat). The traders in turn supply the animals to export houses, which slaughter them and package the meat in abattoirs approved for exports.

These include facilities like the one in Sahibabad on the eastern outskirts of Delhi, a far cry from the predominant gory stereotype. Currently leased to Allanasons, the meat-processing facility only allows workers wearing protective gear inside its clean processing area. After the slaughter, animals are deboned and passed through a series of machines that resemble a car assembly line. At the end of the line on a steel conveyor belt, products pop out, packaged and ready to be refrigerated. Once frozen, they are ready to be shipped to Vietnam, Thailand, or West Asia, India’s key export markets.

According to some media reports, the newfound demand has made buff India’s second biggest agri export after basmati rice. V.V. Kulkarni, director at the Hyderabad-based National Research Centre on Meat, adds that the sheer size of the export business—$3 billion (Rs 18,096 crore)—makes it a lucrative focus area for the government. He also points out that the leather industry is gaining massively from the growth in meat exports, since slaughter techniques in modern abattoirs deliver more unblemished hide.

Things are good for the domestic market too. For a buffalo weighing 200 kg, traders pay anything between Rs 10,000 and Rs 11,000, according to Ficci. In markets such as Delhi or Kerala, the price of boneless meat can touch Rs 200 per kg. That means one animal guarantees a profit of at least 150%, even accounting for transportation and slaughterhouse fees. Then there is money to be made by selling the hide (around
Rs 1,000) and other non-edibles. The Ficci report says unlike in the past, thanks to increased demand and a well-established value chain, “livestock farmers will consider raising male buffalo calves as a remunerative activity”.

NOTWITHSTANDING THE SOLID economics, shrill politics seems to be winning the day. Modi has relentlessly attacked the government for prioritising an industry “not connected to India’s cultural roots”. The Congress has failed to counter the media hype around his accusations. Senior Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi only says that “the politicisation of [the] industry is strange and opportunistic, [because] there is no economic or structural issue with it as far as BJP or Modi is concerned”.

However, apparent divisions within the government strengthen Modi’s cause. The National Commission for Cattle (NCC), a body under the Ministry of Agriculture, says in a scathing report that the “agricultural sector is the worst sufferer as a result of indiscriminate cattle slaughter”. “Defying the wish of the entire nation,” it says, “the government has been singularly immune to the demand for banning meat exports.”

The report also argues that among other things, “killing cattle has resulted in a decline in the supply of organic fertilisers derived from them, making way for chemicals instead”—precisely the point Modi has been making.

Then there are the somewhat justified allegations of the callous treatment of animals. D.K. Sharma, an animal rights activist from Faridabad, Haryana, says he often encounters trucks overloaded with animals. In one case in Tamil Nadu, 33 animals were allegedly stuffed into a space where no more than six are legally allowed. Sharma also says that the use of banned hormones like oxytocin to stimulate unnatural growth in animals is rampant. Basic animal rights laws to ensure one animal does not see another being slaughtered are openly flouted in most abattoirs. Such practices play right into the hands of Modi, who has been imploring people to raise their voices against the “heart-rending” evil of slaughter.

The continued presence of local mafia, said to control a significant part of the domestic market, is another sore point. Animal activists say gangs kidnap animals as they roam freely in many Indian towns. In fact, the NCC report claims that smuggling animals to Bangladesh from India—an astonishing 350,000 every year—with the complicity of the local administration, is the mainstay of Bangladesh’s meat exports to West Asia.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the shadow of unaccounted money hangs over the industry. In mid-February, the offices of AMQ Agro India, a leading north Indian meat exporter, were raided by income tax authorities, who say owner Moin Qureshi’s assets are disproportionate to his income. Once again, Modi has been quick to allege a Congress connection in what he calls the “hawala-meat scam”.

So far there’s been little by way of an organised defence of the industry, but Kulkarni of the National Research Centre on Meat says that he is initiating a study—the most comprehensive exercise of its kind ever—that will look at everything “holistically”. Among other issues, it will examine the impact of higher levels of slaughter on the buffalo population in India, which Kulkarni says “activists” have been using as a stick to beat the industry with. He adds that the industry will galvanise itself if there is any move to over-regulate it.

Anup Surendranath, assistant professor at the National Law University, New Delhi, believes that the right to eat food of one’s choice is an integral part of the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution. He also feels Modi will find it difficult to impose a national law banning slaughter, given that agriculture is a state subject (export is, however, a central subject).

DINSHAW AL-KABEER is trying to be optimistic. He says the meat industry is not the only one with a siege mentality. “Mining and telecom players also face the same kind of pressure these days,” he tells me with a wry smile.

But unlike mining and telecom honchos, Dinshaw and his colleagues don’t have too many vocal friends in the system. One of the few good men is Tarun Bajaj, APEDA’s general manager (livestock products), who has been with the organisation for over two decades. According to meat companies, Bajaj has been instrumental in pushing policies within the government. “He talks to the right people in Delhi, the kind we are not able to reach,” says one exporter.

Sitting in his office in South Delhi, Bajaj tells me that Indian exporters have certain inherent advantages, like a naturally grazed herd. The meat is lean and easily binds with ingredients. “Much of the meat is halal and, therefore, popular in the Gulf.” It helps that Indian meat is highly competitive in its pricing. Dinshaw corroborates this: “In some markets we are as much as 25% cheaper.” A few years ago, Indian meat was even cheaper (as much as 50%) compared to Brazil’s. With demand increasing and supply not always keeping up, the gap in prices has narrowed, though it is still a big enough advantage.

Next, Bajaj gives me a quick history lesson on exports. “Frozen meat was exported from India for the first time in 1969. But we started getting major private investment only after the standards for such exports were notified in 1992.” The standards required that the meat be processed in modern abattoirs certified by APEDA. (APEDA was formed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1985 to provide capital assistance and help Indian agricultural exporters market their products.)

Although India is a late starter in meat export, unlike Brazil or Australia, the two top exporters for decades, the industry has flourished with the government’s blessings. Curiously, the NCC report says that even at the height of the licence raj, meat exports were free from licensing controls. But until the early ’90s, Indian players had neither the infrastructure nor the processes to meet the regulations and health standards governing the global trade. Things started turning around in 1992. The NCC says that was when another Congress government under P.V. Narasimha Rao identified meat as a “thrust area for earning foreign exchange”, following the late ’80s forex crisis.

Through the ’90s, most of the exports—almost 80%—were to Malaysia. In the 2000s, demand picked up in other developing countries, and India was geographically well-placed to export to West Asia, Africa, and Southeast Asia. A senior exec at a large export house points out that “normally in developing countries, people go for bovine meat as a luxury when the standard of living goes up. The per capita meat consumption is between 6 kg and 8 kg, and even if there’s a 2 kg increase, it would mean at least a 20% jump in demand.”

In 2004, it was made mandatory for exporters to register with APEDA, ensuring oversight of food safety measures. This was crucial in gaining the trust of new markets. That’s not all. To build a brand for Indian meat, APEDA along with exhibitors now participates in around 20 food exhibitions all over the world every year. These exhibitions, including famous ones like Anuga in Germany or Gulfood in Dubai, are a platform for negotiations, leading to visits by importer delegations.

The stamp of approval by such delegations is de rigueur. They are taken around the country, shown the animals and abattoirs, and briefed on disease-control programmes and contingencies. In many cases, claims the senior executive, the veterinary doctors who are part of these delegations find the newly built Indian facilities better than those in Europe.

This is where the government’s role in the past 10 years has been critical, if underplayed. “Today we can say that our infrastructure is world-class. That wasn’t the case 10 years ago,” says Bajaj of APEDA. For instance, India now has an extensive veterinary care network, with 8,720 vet clinics and hospitals across the country. Indian cattle have been free of diseases such as rinderpest (eradicated in 1995) and contagious bovine pleuropneumonia (2007), and have been included in the safest category for mad cow disease.

Other government programmes include export incentives under the Duty Entitlement Pass Book and the Vishesh Krishi and Gram Udyog Yojana. Two other flagship programmes—one for rearing male calves and the other for setting up more modern municipal abattoirs—are in the pipeline, and are expected to further augment supply. Ficci says that if the government succeeds in arresting high mortality among buffalo calves—as many as 14 million perish annually as they are not considered productive—by 70%, it could add 1.72 million tonnes to the supply, almost as much as what is currently exported. For abattoir modernisation, the government has promised a grant of up to Rs 15 crore. Pradeep Bavadekar, managing director of Pune-based Mitcon, a consultancy that advises municipal corporations in this area, says it is a much-needed step that will ensure hygiene and further enhance the profile of the industry.

Such efforts will be vital as the industry gears up for record highs in global consumption. Demand for bovine meat in 2013-14 is expected to have topped last year’s record, 57 million tonnes. USDA figures suggest that along with Hong Kong, China accounts for two-thirds of global import growth. Chinese imports are forecast at 475,000 tonnes for the current year—up 19% due to high domestic rates, favourable import rates, and food safety concerns related to other meat products (poultry and pork). Brazil and India absorb most of the excess demand, even as Europe suffers because of outbreaks of mad cow disease.

While India supplies a relatively limited amount of meat directly to China, much of its exports to Vietnam are re-exported to China. Bajaj says this should change with negotiations advancing between the Indian and Chinese governments to increase direct exports. Russia, which has banned 10 Brazilian beef processing plants from exporting into the country, is yet another big opportunity for India.

However, for all its potential, the only occasionally non-vegetarian Bajaj admits this is an increasingly challenging industry to handle both at home and abroad. He won’t comment on Modi’s charges, but says that ultimately any new government has to keep everybody’s interest in mind. “Political agendas are for a different purpose”.

As things stand, the industry would be right to feel that its success has become its biggest enemy. It can only hope for some respite once the “political agendas” and election histrionics exhaust themselves. But given the industry’s penchant for drama, no one’s betting on that just yet.