Meat Trade on a Knife's Edge Due to Yogi's Policies, Mathura Ban the Latest Blow
The COVID-19 lockdown also had a debilitating effect on the meat trade in UP.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath recently announced a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol and meat in the city of Mathura, asking people in the trade to sell milk instead.
In other news, in July 2021, an infographic illustrating the ‘State Wise Most Exported Commodities in 2020’ went viral on social media. The infographic was based on Niti Aayog’s export preparedness Index, 2020. To everyone’s surprise, the state of Uttar Pradesh emerged as the largest exporter of boneless meat with the estimated value of the business to be around $2012 million. There are many reasons why this news caught everyone’s attention.
Firstly, post 2015, Uttar Pradesh has witnessed divisive politics around meat and slaughterhouses. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the state is now headed by Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu nationalist leader, who in his first year in office had launched a crackdown on ‘illegal’ abattoirs. Many critics saw the move as being aimed at the Muslim community.
Meat consumption among Muslims is a key obsession with Hindutva politics in Uttar Pradesh.
But a bigger problem UP confronts is the rapidly diminishing economic opportunities for its people. The number of jobless people in the state rose by a massive 58 percent between 2018 and 2020. In this scenario, animal husbandry, especially poultry and carabeef is no longer a ‘small-scale’ activity, but has emerged as a lucrative sector.
It is not mere happenstance that politicisation of meat is taking place at a time when the boneless meat exports are yielding a great deal of revenue for the Uttar Pradesh government, while the local poultry industry and small meat markets continue to suffer.
This stark paradox is explained by the economic interests of the big corporations and the larger political agenda of the Hindutva regime.
HOW LOCKDOWN KILLED POULTRY FARMERS IN UP
Last year, Ranjendra Rajput and Devender Singh, two influential poultry farmers in Agra, died by suicide allegedly due to mounting financial losses.
“Achanak se market down ho gaya tha, 70-80 per cent prices gir gaye the. Ek toh afwah aur upar se restriction. Bahut nuksaan hua tha, tension thi, isliye pitaji ne galat kadam utha liya. (The market collapsed suddenly, prices fell by 70-80 percent, partly due to rumours and partly due to restrictions. We faced huge losses and that’s why my father was forced to take such a drastic step),” said Satender, the elder son of Devender.
He also alleged neglect by the government and rampant harassment by authorities in transporting chicken, particularly during the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. Kamal Arora, leader of the West UP Poultry Farmers Broilers Welfare Federation, had demanded that the UP government compensate the losses they had faced due to lockdown rules. However, according to FM Sheikh, also a representative of the same union, no compensation was provided.
During the first wave of COVID 19, the administration in Lucknow had strictly prohibited the open sale of meat and poultry products until 30 May 2020. The decision came at a time when disinformation seeking to connect meat consumption and COVID-19 was being widely shared on social media.
The Union government’s animal husbandry department had called these rumours fake news and called upon states to help the sector since it was facing heavy losses. Giriraj Singh, Union Animal husbandry and fisheries minister, had clarified in a video that consumption of meat, fish or poultry won't spread coronavirus.
However, that didn’t seem to have an impact.
On 3 April 2020, the director of Animal Husbandry, UP, clarified that “egg, chicken, and meat is an essential commodity.” However, according to the locals and shops at Balochpura meat market in Lucknow, an undeclared meat ban in Lucknow continued for over three months, despite conditional relaxation by the Uttar Pradesh administration on the sale of meat and poultry.
This severely affected thousands of people employed in the poultry and meat business across UP. Almost all local meat and poultry businesses we spoke to, told us the same story of distress and agony.
In April 2020, five men – Asjad Ghazi, Irshad Raza, Nihaluddin, Aqeel, and Shahid – were arrested under several sections of the IPC including the Epidemics Act for violating the lockdown restrictions. One month later they were released on bail after the government accepted before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court that “chicken and meat is an essential service”.
Syed Bazil (name changed) who supplies chicken to several businesses in Lucknow had to spend a month in jail for similar reasons. "I don't want to speak about it now," he told this reporter.
According to FM Sheikh, this arrest created a great deal of fear and paranoia in the market.
"This was not an isolated case. The whole industry is facing a huge debt. Some borrowed money from their relatives, some took a loan and some went bankrupt," Sheikh lamented. Sheikh also shared disturbing videos which he had received from several poultry farmers during the lockdown. In one video, men can be seen burying thousands of chickens alive. In another video, starved chicken can be seen feeding on carcasses of other dead chickens.
“At one point, the price of the chicken feed was thrice more expensive than the chickens. We were unable to buy the feed so we had no option. At least 2.5 or 3 lakh chickens died of starvation,” said Ateeq, a poultry farmer from Jagdishpur.
On 2 July 2021, his brother Irfan (name changed) was allegedly arrested for being unable to pay back the debt to a feed company in Lucknow because of bankruptcy caused by the lockdown.
"We could not transport our chicken to other places. It was difficult. Had there been no confusion and restrictions regarding poultry, we would not have seen such bad times. We were selling chicken for around even Rs 5 and then later we gave them for free. If the sale had not stopped, our loss would not have been this much," he added.
MEAT SELLERS' WOES
Just like the poultry farmers, the butcher community in Lucknow, mostly the Qureshi Sunni Muslims had a hard time during the lockdown.
"Transportation of buffaloes and meat was difficult and people carrying even one packet of meat faced harassment," said Shahabuddin Qureshi, President of the Qureshi Welfare Foundation and the leader of the Qureshi community in Lucknow.
“Our business is down to half. Last lockdown, we had no work for 45 days. Some daily wagers were still selling meat. Many of those transporting or selling meat were issued challans for violating the lockdown,” Shahabuddin Qureshi added.
Qureshi called some butchers who were harassed during the lockdown for transporting buffaloes and meat. They were reluctant and declined to speak on the issue fearing vendetta. On insistence and assurance of anonymity, one of the men at Qureshi’s office said, “Whether you write Naved or Javed, the community fears collective backlash.” Meat was being sold in the black market like an illegal product. The prices had drastically shot up,” Qureshi interrupted.
While Muslims have borne the brunt of these policies and prejudices, they are leaving an impact on the wider food and informal economy, which includes many non-Muslims.
In UP alone, at least 50,000 small and large abattoirs give employment to over 25 lakh people as per All India Meat and Livestock Exporters' Association.
"The meat and poultry industry gives employment to various communities, especially Muslims (meat) and Dalits in the leather trade. With growing vigilantism, police inaction and explicitly biased state policy, many people would be further marginalised."Social activist Harsh Mander
Also, the meat industry is a story of various communities controlling different ends of the supply chain. “A disturbance at one end affects all,” says Ghazala Jameel, professor at the Centre for Law and Governance at JNU and the author of the book, ‘Accumulation by Segregation: Muslim Localities in Delhi’.
“The policy makers may have Muslims in mind as intended targets while putting curbs on cattle trade and meat industry but being guided solely by prejudice they seem to have little idea of the actual composition of production and supply chains in this industry. So the curbs will cause a lot of 'unintended' damage to others too,” she further adds.
A CAMPAIGN THAT GOES BEYOND MEAT
Jamil’s warning finds resonance in the condition of the leather and tanning industry and the feed industry, which are largely run by Dalits. In 2019, at least 12 major leather tanneries announced that they're shifting their business to West Bengal because of the curbs by the UP government.
"The recent curbs on poultry and meat during the pandemic directly affected the feed producers and corn farmers as much as they affected the small scale butchers," FM Sheikh noted.
Jamil believes that ‘hygiene’ is just an excuse to push prejudices further and intensify the economic attack.
"This can't be seen in isolation with the persistent attack on halal food by right-wing groups like Hindu Jagrati, Hindu Jagran Manch or the newly found Hindu ecosystem by Kapil Mishra," she said.
She believes that the larger objective across India is to replace the traditional local meat markets with fancy shops owned by large corporations.
A DANGEROUS DRIVE IN UP
In many of the 94 criminal cases under the draconian National Security Act quashed by the Allahabad High Court, cow slaughter was the chief reason for arrest.
The Indian Express reported that when it comes to invoking NSA, cow slaughter accounted for 41 cases, more than a third of the total that reached the high court. All the accused were Muslims who had been detained by the District Magistrate based on FIRs alleging cow slaughter.
"Police seem to be working as a private militia of the state. We have seen disproportionate use of state power against minorities in UP. The rampant misuse of NSA against alleged cow slaughter and other stringent sections of the IPC like 153 or 120B to deal with meat traders, even in cases where the application of these laws cannot be justified,” said SR Darapuri former IG of UP police.
“It tells us how illegally, the police in UP works under the present regime. Even after the courts quashing these cases multiple times, police continue to misuse them. Unless this stops, nothing would change," he added.
Both Sheikh and Qureshi, during their conversation with this journalist, recalled how business had come to a halt after Adityanath became the CM.
Between 2017 and 2018, UP witnessed a drive against “illegal” abattoirs and hundreds of shops had to be shut down across the state. It was one of the Adityanath government’s top priorities after assuming power. Simultaneously, reports of vigilante groups shutting down and vandalising meat shops in the state emerged. A mob of vigilantes had set ablaze three shops belonging to Muslims. These developments led to an indefinite strike by butchers across UP.
“It has been over four years and the government has failed to issue new licenses,” the butchers at Balochpura Kasai market alleged.
“This is politically motivated and the discrimination is more apparent since 2017. The biggest problem is that the government has not issued new licenses to butchers and our old licenses have not been renewed despite intervention by the honorable high court. It shows that the government is following a policy of discrimination and we saw the same happening during the lockdown. This made our position even more vulnerable,” Qureshi said.
The Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court had held that “food, food habits in this state have flourished and are an essential part of life as an element of the secular culture that has come to exist and is common amongst all sections of the society. Compliance of law should not end in deprivation; the cause whereof may be attributable to the inaction of the state… We have put on record the above indicators so that the state while taking decisions does not lose sight of the dimensions and repercussions of the consequences that are likely to follow and affect the public at large. This will also aid the state in informing the court about the measures it proposes to take in this regard.”
The Mathura meat ban announcement is latest in the series of policies that have adversely affected the local meat and poultry markets in UP. Coupled with the growing calls to boycott Muslim businesses and strong cultural food aversions, this space will remain ripe for politicisation. The lakhs of lives dependent on it, will remain on the knife’s edge.
(Alishan Jafri is an independent journalist based in Lucknow. He writes on communal violence in India. This story was reported under the National Foundation of India Fellowship for independent journalists.)
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