NARAHARA: As demand for cheap protein emerged in China and the Persian Gulf countries, India quietly became the world’s largest exporter of meat, chiefly flash-frozen water buffalo meat, exports of which reached $5 billion in 2015.

Slaughterhouses sprung up in the west of Uttar Pradesh, and the surrounding villages underwent an economic transformation resulting in children raised on plain roti beginning to eat lentils twice a day.

However this prosperity came under threat this week, when a new Hindu-right government in the state, led by the fiery cleric Yogi Adityanath, started to shut down parts of the Muslim-dominated buffalo meat industry. Hindu activists say the industry conceals the illegal slaughter of cows, which are sacred to Hindus.

The state’s new leaders promise more meat factories will be shut down in the coming days, claiming that the setback to the economy is less important than the principle of protecting the cow.

Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest meat-producing state, having 41 of the country’s 75 licensed slaughterhouses and meat processing according to the Commerce Ministry. Many more slaughterhouses operate without licenses, as an exhaustive list of laws govern the slaughter, transport and sale of meat, the government can easily find a pretext to shut even licensed businesses.

District officials sealed seven slaughter houses in the area on Tuesday and Wednesday, citing irregularities in paperwork. The police are patrolling the plants to search vehicles for cows, so frightening suppliers stopped delivering buffaloes. Workers were told to go home for the day, had instead gathered in tea stalls, nervously trading reports.

“We are waiting to see what the government decides,” said Muhammad Akhtar, a migrant from Bihar who has worked in the meat factories for 20 years, earning around 10,000 rupees, about $150, in a good month.