Meerut (Uttar Pradesh): The narrow lanes of Gudri Bazar in the walled city of Meerut are flanked by closely built two-three story houses and flowing open drains. The bazaar is famous for its high-quality scissors and tender buffalo meat. On a typical day, the lanes of Gudri Bazar would be bustling with activity with barely enough room to manoeuvre a bicycle. Since most of the scissor market is wholesale, it is the centuries-old buffalo meat market that accounted for most of the hustle and bustle.
As one walks around these lanes today, the crowd has been replaced by closed shutters, hushed chatter and men lounging on the platforms of shops where not long ago buffalo meat would be chopped into smaller pieces, put in black polythene bags and handed to customers. A deathly silence and an eerie calm seem to linger in the air as those affected by the Uttar Pradesh government’s crackdown on the meat industry grow increasingly anxious as they continue to wait for a resolution.
While the scissor market is flourishing, the buffalo meat market has been dealt a body blow. Or “a stabbing”, as one meat merchant put it, “and it feels like the knife is still being twisted inside”.
Adityanath was sworn in as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh on March 19. Three days later, Rahul Bhatnagar, the state chief secretary, wrote a letter to all regional administrative and police authorities stating that, “closure of illegal slaughterhouses and a ban on mechanised slaughterhouses is a priority for the current government”. The letter went on to detail what actions the authorities are expected to undertake against slaughterhouses in their respective regions.
In Meerut, the authorities had swung into action even before the letter could reach them. On the morning of March 22, as dawn broke with the last remnants of the winter chill still in the air, teams from 11 concerned departments and authorities tightened the proverbial noose around the necks of slaughterhouses in Meerut. With the exception of one (which exports all its meat), all slaughterhouses and meat-processing units in the city were shut down by one or the other department that found an NOC, license, permission or some other document to not be in order.
As a result of the shutdown, buffalo-meat sellers in the city went dry. While slaughter of chicken, and to a lesser extent goats, is done in the shops itself, buffaloes are too large to be slaughtered in homes or shops (however, some do slaughter buffaloes inside homes). As the Meerut Municipal Corporation (MMC) does not have a slaughterhouse to meet the city’s meat demands, buffalo-meat sellers in the city relied on private slaughterhouses and used their premises to slaughter animals, whose meat they later sold in their shops in the city.
According to the Uttar Pradesh Municipal Corporation Act, 1959, the local municipal corporation is required to provide a slaughterhouse for the provision of legal and hygienic meat for the meat-eating population of the city. However, the MMC’s slaughterhouse in the city was demolished in 2012 as it was found to be in breach of pollution control norms. Five years later, the MMC is yet to provide the city with a slaughterhouse where the city’s meat sellers can slaughter buffaloes and goats for meat. With private slaughterhouses also shut, the buffalo-meat sellers in the city have nowhere to go.
A day after the authorities cracked down on slaughterhouses in the city, I visited the Kotla market in the Ghantaghar area of Meerut – the other ancient buffalo meat market in the city. On the corner of the street, Mohammed Saleem (27) was selling haleem biryani from a sheltered cart. “Aaj khalo bas asli biryani”, he said to a customer as he gave them a platter full of piping hot biryani. “I had about five kilograms of buffalo meat left in my refrigerator. That is what I am selling. Soon this will be over, I don’t know what I will sell then”, he told me. Chicken or mutton, he told me, are not substitutes for buffalo mea. “People don’t prefer chicken or mutton. It does not even make economic sense to sell mutton or chicken biryani. Even though chicken is the same price as buffalo meat, I would have to use double the amount for the same amount of rice. Mutton is more than two times the price of buffalo meat”, Saleem said. At the time chicken was selling at Rs 180 per kilogram, mutton at Rs 400 per kilogram and buffalo meat at Rs 160 per kilogram.
Over the course of the next month I visited the market a few times, but did not find Saleem. On May 3, he was back. He had shut shop for a few weeks. “I did not know what to do. After buffalo meat was taken off the market, I sold chicken biryani for a few days, but did not find any takers. Then I shut down the shop for a few weeks and went back to my village to get away from the stress”, he said. Saleem is now trying his hand at selling soya bean biryani at the reduced price of Rs 30 per plate, as opposed to the Rs 50 per plate he charged for the buffalo meat biryani. The few days that he has sold soya bean biryani, it hasn’t worked. “People are saying ‘agar daal chawal hi khana hai to ghar pe kha lenge (If we have to eat lentil and rice we can eat it at home).’ My specialty was buffalo meat biryani. People came for the taste. They are not going to get that taste in soya bean”, Saleem said.
He got his supply of buffalo meat from Ustad Qureshi’s shop across the street. The largest meat shop in the Kotla market. Qureshi (56) used to sell around 100 kilograms of buffalo meat daily before the clampdown on meat. He used to purchase buffaloes from weekly mandis in nearby villages and take them to the slaughterhouse of Shahid Akhlaq, former MP from Meerut and owner of one of the largest slaughterhouses in the city. “As the Nagar Nigam [MMC] did not provide us with a slaughterhouse, we had an arrangement with Hajiji [Shahid Akhlaq]. He allowed us to slaughter our animals at his slaughterhouse without charging any money. Now even his slaughterhouse is shut”, Qureshi told me, slouched at the tiled platform of his empty shop.
In the last six weeks, Qureshi has not been able to sell any meat and has suffered huge financial losses. Desperation has led him to liquidate the two fixed deposits that he had kept for safekeeping. “I had two FDs and have had to liquidate both. This shop supported a family of 11 – my children, my brothers and their families. Now, the money from those two FDs is also over. I might have to beg for survival”, he said.
Back at the Guddi Bazar on the afternoon of May 2, Mohammed Ayub (65) sat outside a closed rustic blue door smoking a beedi. Inside was his meat shop which he claims is over a hundred years old and was started by his grandfather. Ayub himself has been in the business for 50 years. “This shop has never in its history been shut for so many days. At the most it would have shut for a day or two during riots. But never for so long”, he told me. Unlike most other shopkeepers, he doesn’t live in the area, but visits his shop daily to “check if everything is ok” and because he “can’t bear to stay home”. “It is a habit. This is all I have done my entire life. I have opened this shop every day of my life. What do I do sitting at home?” he asked. Once a provider of food, Ayub has now had to borrow money from his son to buy food for himself. “My son works as a labourer. Now that I look back, I thank God that he is not in the meat selling business, otherwise our family would have starved to death. Now at least he is able to earn and the family can eat one meal a day”, he told me as he gingerly climbed his bicycle and rode away.
On the other end of the lane, a shop was open. Mohammed Furkan (28) sat at the platform with his knife in hand. Six chickens were huddled together in one corner of the shop. Furkan was trying his hand at the chicken business. He had brought ten chickens from the mandi in the morning. “I thought I would try if the chicken business would work. But it doesn’t look like it. It is almost evening now, and only four chickens have been sold. To earn the same amount as I did in the buffalo meat business, I would have to sell 30 chickens a day. That is unlikely”, he told me.
“It is a common misconception that people who eat one kind of meat can easily switch to the other. People who have been eating buffalo meat for so many years cannot suddenly switch to chicken. It doesn’t work like that. Plus, chicken and mutton would cost more. A poor family could have bought half a kilogram of buffalo meat, mixed it with potatoes and the whole could have had a nourishing dinner. That is not possible with chicken or mutton”, said Sabid Nawaz Barni, who runs a small NGO which works in the area.
Four other people followed Barni into Furkan’s shop and started airing their grievances. “When will this issue be resolved?”, Mohammed Shadab who also used to sell buffalo meat asked. “I have had to sell a bike which I had bought only two months ago. There was no other way I could have supported my family. That was the last of my assets and that money is only going to last me a few more days”, he said with a hint of desperation in his voice.
“I have had to borrow money from my son-in-law. You can imagine how embarrassing that would have been”, said another meat seller with a lump in his throat.
“Why are we being targeted? There are other businesses too where there are issues of paperwork. But no other business has been targeted. They have come after the meat business systematically because it is primarily Muslims who are employed in this business”, said Barni.
He further added, “There is no leadership within our community and we are not united. Otherwise, there are seventy thousand Qureshis in Meerut, if we stand united, there is nothing we cannot do”.
To add to the woes of the meat sellers, on March 31, licenses of almost three hundred meat shops – including chicken, mutton and buffalo meat shops – expired. The MMC has not renewed a single license since then as it claims that none of the shops meet the 17 conditions which have been laid down by the MMC for a meat shop to be eligible for a license. Some of the conditions are – half of the shop must be tiled, a deep freezer and geyser must be installed, proper washing and drainage facilities must be in place, fans must be installed, all equipment must be made of steel and not iron, shop must be owned and not rented.
“All these modifications will require significant investments. We have been out of business for so long and we can simply not afford it”, said Qureshi.
Rafiq Ansari of the Samajwadi Party, the only non BJP MLA from Meerut, approached the MMC on May 3 asking it to resolve the issue. Ansari asked the MMC to renew licenses of the meat shops and to also provide an alternate arrangement for slaughter of buffaloes and goats till the time a government-owned slaughterhouse is provided. “I understand that the MMC cannot immediately start the state-owned slaughterhouse. There are legal issues involved. But they should make an alternate arrangement. Perhaps, they can have an arrangement with the owners of one of the slaughterhouses”, he said.
The MLA’s appeal, however, has had little impact on the MMC. “What do they need licenses for? When there is no slaughterhouse, what will they sell? Where will they get the meat from? Why are they even demanding that their licenses be renewed?” Kunwar Sen, the health officer in the MMC who is in charge of issuing licenses, fired away a volley of questions when I met him at his office on May 4.
Sen explains that the real problem is the lack of a government-owned slaughterhouse. “That is the real problem. Now,where the space has been provided for the new slaughterhouse to be made, there is a property dispute. We are working on resolving all of this. But it will take time” he said.
“Time,” exclaimed Qureshi as I told him what Sen had said. “Time is what is running out. Soon people will start running out of money. People will start going hungry. They will get desperate. And desperate people can do anything.”
Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist whose writings have appeared in The Kashmir Walla, Times of India, Mint, Al Jazeera English and The Caravan.