ON September 22, the Gurugram administration in Haryana had to confront a peculiar situation. It was the onset of the nine-day fasting period, the beginning of Navratri, which culminates in Dasara. The local Shiv Sena unit had decided to forcibly shut down as many as 500 meat shops. (The organisation had tried to do something similar during Ram Navami in March-April.) The Sena had submitted a memorandum to the Gurugram Deputy Commissioner demanding that shops selling raw meat should stay shut and even issued notices to non-vegetarian food outlets.
The administration did not take any step to comply with the demand, and it would have been illegal anyway. But the Shiv Sena proceeded to enforce its diktat. Its members forced meat shops to shut down in at least 12 locations, causing widespread consternation. The spokesperson and general secretary of the Shiv Sena told mediapersons that all meat shops, including chicken stalls, had been told to shut down or face the consequences.
A vegetarian diet is followed by Hindus in parts of north India during Navratri, but such a forced shutdown of meat shops and restaurants selling non-vegetarian food was never attempted before in Gurugram or in the rest of Haryana. Navratri comes with restrictions on what can be eaten even as part of a vegetarian diet. But it was always a personal choice that people made voluntarily.
The commercialisation of the Navratri festival has over the years opened up livelihood opportunities for many people. But the abstention from non-vegetarian food leads to low sales of even eggs, affecting the livelihoods of one section.
It was no coincidence that this enforced vegetarianism took place in States with high rates of cow vigilantism. In parts of Gurugram and adjoining Mewat district, several violent instances of cow vigilantism have been reported.Meat sellers’ plight
When Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath declared the closure of all unlicensed slaughterhouses soon after taking charge in March 2017, he perhaps did not anticipate the livelihood crisis that would hit all communities, including sections of the majority community. The district administrations in the State went on an overdrive shutting down shops selling raw meat and even restaurants. When the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court intervened and passed an interim order in May directing that abattoirs should be issued licences and no-objection certificates, there was all-round relief.
In April, the Allahabad High Court held that the “choice of food and trade in foodstuff were part of the right to life” while hearing a petition challenging the State government’s order. The court also directed the government to work out a feasible strategy and take into account the “competing rights of trade, profession, health, safety as well as consumption and the obligation of the state to make facilities available. To provide an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying out of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is undisputedly connected with the right to life and livelihood.”
Despite the court order, however, in parts of Ghaziabad most chicken and mutton shops disappeared after Yogi Adityanath’s government took over. Even eggs were not sold by vendors. Egg sellers began to resurface only towards the end of the nine-day festival. “We do not want to take a chance,” said a roadside egg seller, requesting anonymity. His main clients are young men looking to eat boiled eggs after a gym workout.
What Frontline witnessed as actually happening on the ground shows scant respect for what the High Court observed. In at least two areas of western Uttar Pradesh, Loni in Ghaziabad and in areas falling under the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (Noida), small meat sellers have faced harassment and sometimes been forced to shut down business ever since the Bharatiya Janata Party government assumed power in the State. It is the poorer section that is affected, and most of the meat sellers who find themselves out of business operated from rented space. A few kilometres from the Delhi-Uttar Pradesh border, chicken, fish and meat shops operate unhindered in Ghazipur, which is under the jurisdiction of the Delhi government.Threat of closure in Loni
Loni, a township in Ghaziabad with a population of five lakh people, is not among one of the more developed regions of western Uttar Pradesh falling in the National Capital Region. Most people here are self-employed. For the minority population and sections of the Dalit community in Loni, selling meat is a traditional occupation which now faces a threat.
Earlier, the municipality issued licences to shopkeepers; now, the Food Safety Department issues them. Shop owners are required to procure no-objection certificates (NOCs) from the municipality in order to apply for and obtain a licence from the Food Safety Department. (In rural areas, meat sellers are required to get NOCs from the gram panchayat, the circle officer and the Food Safety and Drug Administration.) When the new regime came in, the majority of the meat sellers in Loni had valid and registered certificates issued by the Food Safety and Drug Administration under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006. These certificates are renewed annually. However, Baby, president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association’s Loni unit, said that even those who had licences, issued by the Food Safety Department and valid until 2018, were not allowed to ply their trade.
For instance, Mohammad Alfaiz, who had been selling meat and meat products, including poultry, for the last 30 years, had a stamped certificate from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) which was valid until December 2017. Yet, he was not allowed to run his business. He also showed this correspondent a sworn affidavit stating, along with a “rendering company”, a commitment to follow good hygiene and sanitation in disposing of meat waste.
Mohammad Jabir Qureshi is the convener of the Meat Traders’ Sangharsh Samiti, an organisation that has been leading a campaign in Loni for the last six months to get meat shops reopened. He said: “They told us to repair our shops, install water tanks, put in tiles and glass windows for food hygiene and safety purposes. We did all that, and yet we are not being issued the NOCs by the municipal authorities. This is harassment and nothing else.”
The Ghaziabad district administration and municipal authorities took recourse to Section 9 of the Indian Aircraft Rule, 1937, that prohibits the slaughter, flaying of animals, depositing of rubbish or other polluted or obnoxious matter and the running of meat shops in the vicinity of airports.
There is an Air Force station at Hindan in Ghaziabad. On May 30, a letter sent by the Aerospace Safety Section to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Ghaziabad, said that “hotels, meat shops, fish shops and bone processing mills may be permitted if DGCA [Directorate General of Civil Aviation]/Air Force Authority is satisfied that proper and adequate arrangements have been made by owners of hotel, meat shops, or fish shops so as to prevent attraction of vultures, black kites or other birds and animals. However experience shows that owners of these enterprises do not meet the above standard and flout the rules. This results in throwing the garbage/rubbish in the open and attraction of birds near the Air Force Hindan airfield. Bird activity hampers the operations of aircraft at this base. At times, important operations are called off due to such bird activity at this base. Even a single bird hit to aircraft may result in loss of crores of rupees.”
The letter strongly recommended that the SDM should not “give permission for opening meat shops, fish shops, slaughterhouse or bone processing within ten kilometre of radius of the AF Station Hindan” under his jurisdiction. In the last six months, nearly 500 meat shop owners have been left in dire straits as they wait for the validation of their licences by the district administration. The Allahabad High Court, in its interim order, had directed the State government to regulate the slaughterhouses but also asked it to start issuing licences and NOCs.‘Batons in biriyani’
Qureshi said that as there was no government abattoir in Ghaziabad, all meat sellers bought the raw material from the Ghazipur government-run abattoir in Delhi. “As soon as we open our shops, the police appear and shut them down. They say ‘ upar se aadesh hai ’ [we have orders from the top],” Qureshi told Frontline .
Restaurants serving cooked non-vegetarian food were also shut down on the grounds that they were within 10 km of the Air Force station. “There are several eateries close to the Hindan airbase, why haven’t they been shut down?” one of the meat traders asked. They said that the BJP legislator from Loni, Nand Kishore Gujjar, was taking an active interest in shutting down meat shops and restaurants in the area.
Even biriyani sellers are not spared. Ansari, a biriyani seller, said: “The police shove their batons inside the vessels to check for beef even if there are soya or chicken pieces in the rice. That leaves the food unfit for consumption. This is nothing but organised harassment. Are people expected to eat food after taking permission from the government? Yeh hai hamaari jamhooriyat ? [Is this our great democracy?] Instead of providing employment opportunities, the government is snatching them from us.” He added that the police could swoop down any time, topple utensils with cooked biriyani, or bust up egg stalls, all under the name of the administration and the government.
“Should we start stealing to fill our stomach?” said Nazeer, small-time restaurant owner with six children. His children dropped out of school after the closure of his restaurant.
Ismail inherited his meat shop from his father and had obtained a licence in 1993. He was in tears as he spoke to Frontline : “I asked the daroga [constable] to give me some employment. He said, Yogi will give you.”
But it is not just the minorities who are affected. Meat sellers from the majority community, too, are now part of the Sangharsh Samiti constituted by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
Repeated representations to the Ghaziabad administration and protests by the meat traders have yielded little result, but the harassment reduced somewhat after the formation of the Samiti. One member of the Samiti, Rakesh, said: “For 18 years, I have been selling chicken at the Loni railway station. Now it has been shut down. What do we do? It is the main source of livelihood. I don’t know anything else. They are using the Hindan airbase as an excuse to shut us down. They want to make Loni meat-free. Small restaurant owners have started selling cooked vegetables now.”
Amir Hussain, who used to sell fish, has not been able to set up shop for the last seven months because of the new rules. The bulk of the clientele of meat sellers is from the majority community. All the meat supplies are now from Delhi abattoirs and meat markets like the one in Ghazipur. “We are grateful to Delhi that we can buy raw meat from them. They sell it to us at slightly higher rates as we are not locals, but at least they do not discriminate against us,” said Jabir Qureshi.
The story is similar in Noida. Here meat shops in quasi-slum areas were told to shut down and shift to “authorised” areas. Mohammad Raees said: “Our homes and our shops are in the same locality. We have therefore a vested interest in keeping the area clean. We have been plying this trade for years together and there has been no problem. All the waste material is put to use; nothing is thrown on the streets. All of us have Aadhaar and PAN cards as well.”
All the meat shop owners had licences. Mohammad Raees said the shops had deep freezers, tiled walls and washbasins. Gangeshwar Sharma, district secretary of the CPI(M), said: “The Noida Authority is not giving an NOC, and so the food department is not issuing the licence.” He said that he had raised the issue with the district magistrate on at least two dozen occasions, but in vain.
Aley Nabi said: “On March 19, Yogiji took oath as Chief Minister. Two days later, on March 22, our shops were shut down. And meat prices have gone up across the board by at least Rs.50-100 [a kg]. Our customers ask us in hushed tones as if we are doing something illegal.” He said new licences were being given only for selling, not slaughtering animals. “Chickens have to be freshly cut, they cannot be stored. It is not like frozen food. We have to get all the raw materials from Ghazipur in Delhi. There is a poultry market there, none in Ghaziabad or Noida. As it is we have to spend a lot on transport. I used to get boneless chicken pieces from Ghazipur which then would be sold to the ‘Chinese food vans’ which are hugely popular in this area,” he said. After the new shutdown orders came, the “Chinese meals on wheels” outlets, which mainly sold chicken noodles and soup, vanished from the scene. “ Kuchnotebandi mein chale gaye; kuch goshtbandi mein chale gaye [some of the van owners lost their livelihoods during demonetisation; the rest to the ban on meat sales],” said Nabi.
People who made a living around the meat trade got affected by the drop in sales—rickshaw pullers, polythene suppliers and even ragpickers who picked up some of the waste generated by the trade.
Dalits involved in the trade are as affected as members of the minority community. The pork sellers Deepak and Vikky stood side by side with Raees, Aley Nabi and others in opposing the restrictions on licences. They said what was happening was “a huge crisis for all of us”.
A list of as many as 17 dos and don’ts was issued by the State government. These included the transport of meat in insulated freezer vans, health certificates for all workers and a ban on meat shops near religious places and vegetable markets. No animal or poultry can be slaughtered inside a shop; shop owners are required to put curtains or tinted glass so that the meat is not visible to the public.
The regulations seem to be choking the trade. At present, a tug of war between the Chairman of the Noida Authority and the Health Department over the issue of NOCs and licences has left hundreds of families that depended on the meat trade without an income. The meat shops that have been closed down are those owned by people of low-income groups. The areas where they live are potholed and congested and generally lack civic amenities. Rather than make the environment liveable for them and their families, the State government has only pushed hundreds of families to the brink, following an agenda that is certainly not in the public interest.