Meat industry crisis

Stripped to the bone

Print edition : May 22, 2020

A wholesale meat market in New Delhi. Photo: Anushree Fadnavis/REUTERS

With meat shops shut, transportation prohibited, and the maintenance of livestock becoming unviable, the crisis in the Muslim-dominated meat industry threatens to extend beyond the lockdown.

IN the absence of a properly fleshed-out lockdown plan, the continued closure of trade for over 45 days has stripped India’s meat industry to the bone. Meat exporters have suffered a loss to the tune of Rs.10,000 crore owing to the lockdown. From exporters of beef to daily retail shops and their assistants, everyone is in the throes of a crisis in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, while things are not too different in neighbouring Haryana.

The problem is manifold—from the prohibition on the transporting of animals to the rising cost of feeding the animals to the absence of chicken feed, the industry is looking at a long-term crisis. Experts believe things may not return to normal even after the lockdown is lifted. Already, the rating agency ICRA had projected a 4 to 5 per cent decline in revenue in the domestic poultry sector in the last quarter of 2019-20. The first quarter’s reports are likely to be even lower .

Earlier, ICRA vice president Ashish Modani had told the media, “Owing to a sharp decline in realisations during Q4 FY2020, players incurred contribution losses; they sold birds below their cost price (due to perishable nature of the product). Restricted logistics due to lockdown led to supply glut in local market, further adding to pressure on realisation. Consequently, sizeable losses in the last 2-3 months wiped out almost all profit booked during FY2020.” This estimate was reiterated by Sirajuddin Qureshi, president, All India Jamiatul Quraish [a body of meat traders and exporters comprising people from the Qureshi community], who said: “The meat industry has been given a stepmotherly treatment during the lockdown. They [the government] did not allow transport of animals nor did they allow shops to be opened. The Uttar Pradesh government is primarily responsible for such a state of affairs. All export units have been closed for last one-and-a-half months. The export units were also used for local supply. With the units being closed, the local supplies have dried up.”

There is clear lack of communication between the States, which compounds the problem of transportation. For instance, most of the mutton supply comes from Rajasthan. But with Rajasthan, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, each having different norms for transport of animals, the supplies get stuck.

Qureshi added, “The transportation of buffalo, sheep and goats has been affected as the borders are sealed. The Central government allowed the movement of livestock, but at the ground level the supplies have all dried up.”

The fast depleting supplies have resulted in a huge surge in prices in the informal retail market, where the price of mutton has gone up from Rs.800 to Rs.1,000 in Delhi and parts of western and central Uttar Pradesh. Retailer Mukhtar Khan said: “There is little a retailer can do. I have a shop in East Delhi where I somehow manage to procure mutton from the Ghazipur wholesale market. However, I cannot bring the animals to my other shop in Noida as the U.P. government has not allowed even limited transportation of animals ever since the lockdown was imposed.”

There are others who believe that the problems of the meat industry are deliberately caused and that people are being coerced towards vegetarianism. Qureshi said, “If that is so, the government should be clear about its intentions of turning India into a vegetarian state. In the circumstances, it is not just the consumer who is suffering; the worst-hit are the dairy farmers. The costs of retaining the animals are becoming unmanageable. If permission could be granted for movement of vegetables and fruits everywhere, why not for animals and birds? We do not have any shortage of livestock but people are being denied beef.”

The lockdown has impacted the meat industry at all levels. Even maintaining chicken, goats and buffaloes is becoming financially unviable.

“The government does not understand we are sitting on the edge of a huge crisis. We have seen only the tip of the iceberg. When the restrictions are lifted, the reality will strike us. The dairy farmer is not able to look after his livestock. In Delhi, 15,000 to 20,000 goats and sheep are slaughtered every day, besides around 2,000 buffaloes. The figures would be even higher in U.P. where an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 goats are slaughtered. Now for the past six weeks or so, hardly any animals have been slaughtered. This automatically increases the cost of maintaining the animals. The animals had to be fed during this period. Normally, they are in motion; one supply comes, it moves to the market, followed by the next arrival. With the increased cost of animal maintenance, the expense will be passed on to the consumer in the form of retail price rise,” Qureshi said.

“The poor dairy farmer cannot afford to feed the animals. The media will talk of the impact of so many animals on the animals. But first understand, how can a farmer feed his animals for so long? Dairy farmers cannot afford to feed them. The animals will start dying of hunger,” Mukhtar Khan said, adding, “We keep animals on a small plot of land near our shop in Ghaziabad. Earlier, five-six goats would be there every day, grazing. Now, if 40-50 goats graze in the same space, will there be enough food for all of them?”

Manzoor Ali, who owns six shops in and around Ghaziabad, said: “We earn every day. We consume every day. Every day, we pay our shop assistants. Every day we bear the cost of feeding the chicken. But for the past five-six weeks, we have not been allowed to open our shop in Ghaziabad, although the adjacent fruit and vegetable market remains open every evening. Are laws of physical distancing applicable only to meat merchants? We are suffering because the government believes only a certain community is the major consumer. It is wrong.”

Unorganised labour is rampant in this industry, with around 1,000 to 1,500 labourers working in every meat plant.

“Some 5,000 to 8,000 people are dependent on these 1,000 labourers for their livelihood. Then there are supply chains, transport; the boys who help with the loading, downloading, feeding the animals; then those who slaughter the animals. Everywhere, you see a crisis . It is believed that if there is a locality with a thousand people, there will be a meat shop to cater to their needs. Now, if a township has a population of a million people, you can understand how many such shops and people associated with them would be impacted by this avoidable closure,” said Qureshi.

The lockdown is only the latest in a series of struggles faced by meat merchants, particularly in U.P. “It seems nobody wants us. The government first wanted the age-old shops to turn modern, bring in freezers, use air-conditioners. Even when the shops complied, the licences were not renewed,” said Mukhtar Khan. “The Ghazipur slaughterhouse in Delhi is only technically open, as the supply chain of animals is broken,” Qureshi said.

According to Qureshi, the figures of losses are likely to go up. He said: “There is total lack of clarity on the part of respective governments on this. They do not seem to have any idea about reviving the industry. The industry has not got any help from any of the State governments for the casual labourers. We are feeding 1,500 families every day in U.P., providing them with ration kits. But for how long can we do this?”

This ground reality is vastly different from what the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying had claimed when the lockdown was imposed on March 24. The Ministry had written to the Chief Secretaries of all States and Union Territories asking them to ensure that meat products were included in the list of essential commodities exempted from the lockdown.

In a communication to the States and U.T.s, Dr O.P. Chaudhary, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, had asked them to issue necessary directions to the law enforcement authorities to include live chicks, egg and meat in the list of commodities to be exempted from the lockdown.

“After the lockdown was announced by a number of States, it came to our notice that egg, meat and live chicks had not been included in the list of exempted items. Till the coronavirus pandemic continues, we have requested that such items should be exempted so that people don’t face any issue while transporting these from one place to another,” wrote O.P. Chaudhary.

Apparently, not many paid heed. “Whatever any communication from the government, it failed to reach the police manning the borders. Our animals have not been allowed. In some cases, some of the animals have died. As we had paid for the livestock, we have to bear the loss,” said Sajid Ali, a meat merchant from Aligarh. “Either the government should declare they want us to do business, or we can shut down. Nobody can stay in this state of continued harassment,” he said.

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