In the public discussion over the bans on cow meat in several states of India, a fundamental question is this: Should the bans exist in the first place? The argument can be settled quite succinctly as follows:
Q. Is the cow an endangered species? Has any authority said it is in danger of becoming endangered?
Q. Can a ban on eating cow meat (only and not extending to other meats) be justified based on logical reasoning?
Q. Can democratic laws of a society be such that they impose the religious preferences of some on everyone?
Q. Are any such existing laws, enacted against democratic principles, just and good for society?
In the rest of this article, I substantiate the above by considering democratic law, economic, ethical and environmental perspectives as they relate to the bans on cow slaughter. The religious perspective, while not a conclusive factor, is a good starting point for this issue.
Religion: Do 'Hindus' support a ban on cow meat?
Supporters of a ban on cow meat claim that the eating of cow meat by anyone in India offends the religious sentiments of all Hindus. In reality, however, a number of Dalit and OBC castes, nominally counted among Hindus, have always consumed cow meat, and it also a part of the regular diet of Hindus of all castes in some states like Kerala. It can be assumed that all of these Hindus do not support a ban on their own food. When considering the remaining Hindus, it is important to remember that holding the cow sacred and not eating cow meat is different from seeking to ban it for everyone. I've lived around Hindus a major portion of my life, in Hyderabad. Some of them eat beef - they don't check if it is from cow or buffalo. Many of them do not eat beef, as far as I know. But, not once, in all these years, has any of them spoken in anger about others eating cow meat or that they care about it or support a ban on it - in fact it has never even come up in private, around friends, or socially.This is obviously a limited sample, but it can be observed that only a small minority among Hindus, primarily upper castes from some Northern states, are insistent supporters of a ban on cow meat. It is to be noted there is no authoritative scriptural basis for claiming that the Hindu religion prohibits cow meat, since several scriptures held to be most sacred by Hindus not only describe cow meat eating as a common practice, but also absolutely require it on certain occasions.
Democratic law: How is it decided that cow meat cannot be eaten?
Supporters of a ban on cow meat primarily cite religious sanction as the basis. However, religious sentiments of one section cannot be the primary concern in guiding a democratic society. They have to be evaluated with reference to the rights of others. Since cow meat has always been a staple in the diet of a majority of SCs, STs, Christians, and Muslims, some of the OBCs, and Hindus of all castes in some places, a ban on cow meat is against their primary right to food. Given this, what is the legal basis of the bans across India, with 24 out of 29 states currently having some kind of ban on cow slaughter? They are based on Article 48 in the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Indian Constitution, which is as follows:
48. Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry: The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.
How did this provision on prohibiting slaughter of cows make its way into the Constitution? It has to be noted that there was no trace of such a provision in the first draft presented in February 1948 by the Constitution drafting committee headed by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. They were introduced in a second draft in 1949, and the way they came to be included can be understood from these recorded words of Frank Anthony, member of the Constituent Assembly, in its proceedings of November 25, 1949 :
While on the matter of Directive Principles, I would like to refer to this provision regarding cow slaughter. I know, again, here, that I will be treading on difficult ground. But, I want to make my position clear. What I resent in this Directive Principle is the insidious way in which this provision with regard to the banning of cow slaughter has been brought in. It was not there before. I cannot help saying that those fanatics and extremists who could not bring in this provision through the front door have succeeded in bringing it through the back-door. Sir, I am not a beef eater; I am not holding a brief for beef eaters. I say, you may ban cow slaughter, but we should have done it honestly without our tongues in our cheeks, without resorting to methods which may give rise to the accusation of subterfuge.
Frank Anthony's views on cow slaughter are themselves ambiguous, but it is clear that attempts to include a ban on cow slaughter as a constitutional right by following the requisite procedures of debate and voting were not successful and they were sneaked into the Directive Principles as a compromise (note the use of "insidious way", "fanatics and extremists", and "subterfuge" to describe proponents of the ban and their methods). While what exactly went on behind the scenes is a matter of speculation, but in keeping with his views expressed elsewhere, we can conclude thus: Ambedkar, as chairman of the drafting committee, was successful in preventing the provision from being included as a fundamental provision. And while apparently consenting to include it in the directive principles as a compromise, made sure that it was included on the basis of economic concerns of a primarily agricultural society dependent on cattle, rather than allowing it as a religious concern of a section of the Hindus.
Economics: Is it economically prudent to ban cow meat? What is the cost of the bans and who pays it?
Is there an economic case for prohibiting the slaughter of cows? Can cow slaughter lead to fewer cows or even extinction? In the last 50 years, the population of cows in India has increased about 10-15% and more or less stabilized close to 200 million [2, 3]. In comparison, in the same period, the population of buffalo has increased 100%, from close to 50 million to a 100 million, and there have been no bans on their slaughter.
The cow is a domestic animal. It is neither a pet nor is it hunted for sport. Some people might have a fondness for their cows, and some might consider them sacred - but that is not the reason they have cows.The reason is utility, essentially economic purposes, and to increase the number of cows, there needs to be an economic incentive for people to have more cows. In the absence of extreme conditions such as famine, banning cow slaughter does not help increase the number of cows, and in fact, on the contrary, leads to fewer cows. After a certain age, it is of greater utility for the cow to be slaughtered. If this is made illegal, people are naturally less inclined to rear cows. As seen in the plot below [2, 3] the cow population in India has stagnated in the last 30 years or so. In comparison, the population of buffalos and goats has grown considerably, and at comparable rates. While there may be other contributing factors, reduced economic incentives for raising cows due to the bans on their slaughter in many states appears to be a compelling reason. The plot shows the trend of livestock population size relative to 1951 over time.
We can conclude that in a modern economy with animal husbandry and in the absence of extreme circumstances such as famine, fears of cow slaughter leading to fewer number of cows (and extinction!) are unfounded. Given the contrast with buffalos and goats, there is a strong case to suggest that the exact opposite is true. So, if there is a greater requirement of cows in India, say for farm work, it can be argued that this can be achieved by lifting the bans on cow slaughter. To ensure that enough of them are available for farm work, there can be restrictions on number of cows slaughtered and the age at which they can be slaughtered.
What are some of the other economic consequences of banning cow meat, a staple food and relatively cheap source of protein for many, especially lower income groups? We can get a glimpse from an article  related to a cow meat ban bill introduced in the Karnataka state assembly in 2010:
It is a myth to think that this will only affect the minorities - mostly Muslims and Christians, as it is popularly and wrongly believed will be the most affected, as it is they who slaughter the cattle and use it as a means of livelihood and a source of low-cost protein. These Bills have grave implications for the majority of the people of both states. In actual fact, it is the livelihoods of large sections of the poorer sections : farmers; cattle traders, transporters, loaders, etc; milk producers, especially those who have taken loans to purchase milch cattle - who are mostly women in SGHs; the leather industry, the pharma industry, the meat producers and sellers who include a large section of the economically weaker section and most Dalits.
How does this broad economic importance and demand square off with the bans? 
Cows are routinely shipped to states with lower or no requirement for slaughter, even though it is illegal in most states to ship animals across State borders to be slaughtered. Many illegal slaughterhouses operate in large cities such as Chennai and Mumbai. As of 2004, there were 3,600 legal and 30,000 illegal slaughterhouses in India. Efforts to close them down have, so far, been largely unsuccessful. In 2013, Andhra Pradesh estimated that there were 3,100 illegal and 6 licensed slaughterhouses in the State.
Clearly, there is a huge underground economy around cow meat. The bans have no economic justification, are ineffective and widely flouted, and policing them is a financial burden on the states. There are grounds for suspecting that the true motive of the recent interest in enforcing beef bans in India is to make more of it available for export. Since exports have tripled in just 5 years (see below), there must be lots of demand, and with production perhaps plateauing out, the only way to export even more is to somehow reduce consumption inside the country. This is being sought to be achieved by dusting off some old laws and recruiting the gau-raksha mandals to create fear and random acts of terror.
Ethics: Is it ethical to slaughter cows for food?
Statistics show that India is now the largest exporter of beef in the world [6, 7]. Internationally, cow and buffalo meat (also called carabeef) are not treated very differently. The Indian government claims that all or most of the 'beef' export from India is buffalo meat. This may or may not be the case in reality, but let's say we accept the same for now. This implies that to take advantage of the demand for beef in the global market, India is slaughtering more and more buffalos. For this reason, there is no question of ethics of taking life and causing pain being a factor in the ban on cow meat.
The cow is considered sacred in part as a milk producing animal, and all manner of dairy products are popular and heavily consumed in India, including by most of those in favor of banning cow meat (veganism is not widespread). It is to be noted that the dairy and meat industries are closely related. Animal husbandry, especially with modern methods, for both purposes is based on causing lifelong pain and misery to cows, bulls, and buffaloes. To produce milk, the cow has to become pregnant. This is induced, every year, either by forced mating with a bull or by artificial insemination. Once the calf is born, it is separated from the mother within hours, and the denied proximity to the mother causes severe distress to both. The cows are loaded with hormones to produce a lot more milk than they would naturally. Some hormones make their way into the milk, and can cause health problems in humans who consume it. In factory farms, and increasingly in smaller farms, the milk is extracted by attaching machines to the cow's udders, which are sometimes negligently left on after the udders are empty, causing pain. What is the status of the question about ethics here?
An equally important question of ethics is this: When there is no unnecessary cruelty involved, is it ethical for some to decide that many others should be denied a staple item of their diet, which is also an affordable source of healthy nutrients a great number of the poor among them? Is the lack of ethics not compounded by the fact that those who oppose cow meat continue to consume dairy products of their choice and lack similar concerns for the killing, and in many cases, their own consumption, of other animals?
Environment: Does saving cows, in particular, from slaughter help protect the environment?
A ban on killing certain animals may be justified when they are endangered or there is evidence that indiscriminate killing of them at greater than replacement rates is taking place and there is a risk of endangering them. This is certainly not the case with the cow. As I understand, the real concerns with the global livestock industry, related to the fact that meat consumption has doubled in the last 30 years, are around its impact on climate change, and the cruel practices involved in the industrialized production of meat and dairy. While the growth in meat consumption is more or less in step with population, livestock emissions (burps, gas, manure) are currently estimated to be contributing 15% of all global greenhouse gas emissions .
* there is no basis to support the claim that 'Hindus' support a ban on cow meat. A sizable number of Hindus consume beef, and while many of them do not, they have no interest in banning it for everyone. Only a small minority, primarily North Indian upper castes, are insistent supporters of a ban, and their support does not have an authoritative scriptural basis.
* the bans on cow meat, based on the preferences of a few, are against the fundamental right to food for many people in India. The legal basis for the bans on cow meat was included in the Constitution as a compromise, and only with regard to economic concerns of an agricultural society and with no mention of religious concerns.
* there is no economic justification for a ban on cow slaughter. The bans have very probably resulted in a stagnation of the population of cows in India. They cause loss of healthy food and livelihoods for a large number of people, and have resulted in a huge underground economy around cow meat, which is difficult, expensive, and unnecessary to police.
* there is no ethical justification for the ban on cow slaughter when buffalos and other animals continue to be killed and eaten, and dairy products from cows, extracted by causing much suffering, are being consumed. Moreover, it is unethical to deny a large number of people inexpensive healthy food that is a staple of their diet and cuisine.
* from an environmental perspective, there is a need to contain the global consumption of meat. This implies that there should be a holistic approach towards limiting the rearing and slaughter of all large population livestock such as cows, buffalos, pigs, goats and poultry. If more buffaloes are reared and consumed in lieu of cows, for instance, there is no net gain for the environment.
It is clear that the exclusive bans on cow meat are unjustified, expensive, ineffective, and harmful for society. Other reasonable measures to address environmental concerns and ensuring that cow slaughter is not used as a tool to deliberately provoke religious sentiments can be worked out. There needs to be a sustained campaign to revoke the bans on cow meat in several states, and ultimately an amendment of Article 48 of the Indian constitution to remove the provision relating to cow slaughter.
 Proceedings of The Constituent Assembly of India, GOVERNMENT OF INDIA ACT (AMENDMENT) BILL, 25th November, 1949. URL: http://parliamentofindia.nic.in/ls/debates/vol11p11.htm
 Livestock population of India, 1951-2007. URL: https://sites.google.com/site/viveklpm/livestock-statistics/livestock-statistics-of-india/livestock-population-of-india/livestock-population-1951-2007
 19th LIVESTOCK CENSUS-2012, ALL INDIA REPORT. URL: http://dahd.nic.in/dahd/WriteReadData/Livestock.pdf (for 2012)
 Of Laws, Cows and People's Mutinies: Will the beef ban in BJP-ruled states fuel a new Mutiny? Cynthia Stephen URL: http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4467:of-laws-cows-and-peoples-mutinies-will-the-beef-ban-in-bjp-ruled-states-fuel-a-new-mutiny&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132
 Wikipedia article on cow slaughter in India. URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cattle_slaughter_in_India
 Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade, 2015, US Department of Agriculture. URL: http://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/livestock_poultry.PDF
 Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade, 2013, US Department of Agriculture. http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/fas/livestock-poultry-ma//2010s/2013/livestock-poultry-ma-11-08-2013.pdf
 Tackling climate change through livestock, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. URL: http://www.fao.org/ag/againfo/resources/en/publications/tackling_climate_change/index.htm
Sundeep Pattem is a data scientist working on applications in public policy and services. He is currently an Executive Fellow at the California Department of Justice.