NEW DELHI — Every morning just before dawn, hundreds of trucks loaded with buffaloes trundle into New Delhi's sprawling slaughterhouse complex where young men rush to unload the bellowing cargo. Skidding on heaps of fresh dung, they pull the animals out of the trucks, herding them for the daily auction and eventual slaughter. The work is hard and the money at the end of it, poor.
But the business is big. Despite Hindu beliefs that cows are sacred — and the fact that their slaughter is banned in most of the country — India is the world's fifth-largest consumer and second-largest exporter of beef. The meat, which in India comes from bulls and buffaloes, is widely eaten in some communities, particularly by low-caste Hindus and millions of Muslims and Christians.
With the victory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party last year, hard-line Hindu groups are pushing to expand the slaughter ban to include all types of cattle, male or female. Meat traders, many of whom have carried their trade for generations, are worried about their jobs.
"This is a political decision," said Mohammed Aqil Qureshi, president of the Buffalo Traders Welfare Association in Ghazipur, the New Delhi neighborhood where the slaughterhouse complex is located. "They want to gratify the Hindus and harass the Muslims."
A beef ban would hit the poor the most, Qureshi said.
"This is poor people's food and is a key source of nutrition for millions of people," he said.
Beef is far cheaper than most meat in India, often just half the price of chicken, making it a key food for people struggling with poverty.
Fears among meat traders grew last month when India's second-most-populous state, Maharashtra, extended the slaughter ban to include bulls. While buffalo was not mentioned in the new law, buffalo meat quickly disappeared from most of the state's butcher shops, amid fears of communal violence if it was confused with cow meat.
The ban carries a stiff punishment: Bail is not allowed and anyone convicted of selling or possessing beef faces a 5-year jail term and a $200 fine, a huge sum for poor Indians.
Within days of the ban, the red-meat business in Mumbai, the state capital, was forced underground, leaving restaurants and eateries scrambling for alternatives. Meat traders in Maharashtra have challenged the ban in court, saying tens of thousands of people have lost their jobs.
The state's decision did not come as a surprise. During his election campaign, Modi promised a countrywide ban on cow slaughter, and that has emboldened Hindu hardliners.
Other states ruled by Modi's party have promised to follow Maharashtra's example. The government in Haryana state, bordering New Delhi, is considering laws making cow slaughter comparable to murder. Offenders would face a life term for killing a cow or bull if the state adopts the planned legislation.
Many Hindus regard the cow as the living symbol of their religion. Hindu welfare organizations run "gaushalas," or cow shelters, in many cities where abandoned cows found wandering the streets are given food and shelter. Feeding a cow is seen by many Hindus as a way to appease the gods and get one's wishes fulfilled.
"Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna," chanted Minu Aggarwal, a housewife, as she fed soaked lentils and leafy greens to a cow at a New Delhi shelter. The chant means "Lord Krishna," a popular Hindu god.
As she bent down in obeisance near the animal, a shelter worker touched her head with the cow's tail — a blessing, Aggarwal said.
Pankaj Bansal, a New Delhi businessman feeding pieces of bread to a cow nearby, praised the bans.
"The cow is our mother," he said. "The ban should be imposed all over the country."
In recent decades, as millions of Indians traveled abroad for study and work, tastes have slowly changed. Today, many restaurants and small eateries serve steak and kebabs made from buffalo meat. Many people who in the past would not have eaten the meat at home in deference to strictly vegetarian parents and older relatives now openly broil buffalo meat.
Economists say a complete ban on cow slaughter could prove counterproductive as farmers would abandon their animals once they stop giving milk. Worse, farmers may consider it economically impossible to keep cows altogether if they must feed the animals for the rest of their lives, said Harish Damodaran, an economic analyst.
"The cow has a future only in the states that at least permit selective culling," Damodaran wrote in the Indian Express newspaper, bolstering his argument with figures that showed farmers switching to buffaloes in states that did not allow cow slaughter.
The ban could also spell disaster for India's beef exports, which have grown quickly over the past decade, increasing annually in recent years at 17-19 percent. This year, exporters were expecting a 25 percent increase. They hope they won't be hit hard, but they are anxious.
"With such a ban, meat exports are going to suffer badly," said an official at the state-run Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Nearly $5 billion worth of buffalo meat was exported in 2013, with most headed to Southeast Asia and Persian Gulf countries.
"It's not just meat exports, but leather and leather goods, tallow, bone meal and other animal product exports that will also suffer," said D.B. Sabharwal, director of Allanasons, India's biggest exporter of buffalo meat.
For many Indians, a ban would be an unwelcome government intrusion into their personal lives.
"Is the government going to tell us what we can eat and what we cannot eat? We've been eating beef for generations," said Danish Qureshi, a young trader at Ghazipur. "It's like telling people they can't eat sugar. This ban won't work."