For the past week, Naeem Qureshi, a meat shop owner in Mumbai, has been receiving calls from distressed relatives in Amroha, his hometown in Uttar Pradesh, with news that he finds worryingly familiar.
Qureshi comes from a community of traditional kasais, or butchers, involved in the meat business across most of India. Up till last week, his relatives in Amroha also ran meat shops, selling bada gosht, or buffalo meat, to local restaurants and families. But with the new Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh ordering a crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses in the state, their businesses have virtually shut down.
Since Tuesday, following Uttar Pradesh’s lead, other BJP-ruled states like Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have also started shutting down some slaughterhouses and meat shops found without requisite licenses.
“The UP government keeps saying they are closing only illegal slaughterhouses, but we know from our people that legal ones are being forced to shut too,” said Qureshi, sitting with a group of fellow butchers in Mumbai’s Bandra bazaar. “If this goes on, people in UP are going to be in a worse condition than we have been in for two years.”
Qureshi’s reference is to the beef ban imposed by the Maharashtra government in March 2015, six months after the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance came to power in the state. The slaughter of cows and sale of cow meat had already been made illegal in Maharashtra since 1976, but the new law extended the ban to calves, bulls as well as bullocks. Water buffalo meat is the now only kind of beef legally available in the state.
All through 2015, lakhs of butchers, beef dealers and traders across Maharashtra protested fervently against the ban. But two years down the line, Qureshi and his colleagues are resigned to their fate even as they struggle with poverty, debt and unemployment.
‘Can’t just shift to mutton business’
Before the 2015 beef ban, Maharashtra’s largest abattoir in Deonar, in suburban Mumbai, used to host the slaughter of at least 500 or 600 bulls and bullocks a day, along with 50 or 60 water buffaloes. “But buffalo meat is not really popular with anyone, so after the ban on bulls and bullocks, there has been no real increase or decrease in the buffalo business,” said Intezar Qureshi, vice-president of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Welfare Association.
The disappearance of bulls and bullocks from the market, however, has been enough to jeopardise the livelihoods of lakhs of butchers and allied beef industry workers across the state. Intezar Qureshi’s city-based association alone has more than 20,000 members, including butchers, abattoir staff, transporters, tanners and traders of other cattle by-products.
“It is not possible for us to just shift to the mutton or chicken business, as people keep suggesting – those are completely different industries with their own networks and competition,” said Intezar Qureshi. “So for two years, most of us have either been unemployed or earning very small incomes from the water buffalo business.”
No money for school
Among all those associated with the beef industry, butchers have been hit particularly hard. For most Qureshis, butchery has been a caste-based occupation they have practiced for generations, and could always fall back on. As a result, educating their children beyond basic schooling had never been a priority.
“Now I have no money to send all my children to school or college, and my son is not educated enough to get any kind of proper job,” said Murtuza Qureshi, a 50-year-old beef shop owner in Bandra bazaar. Since 2015, he has stopped sending his four daughters to school and laments the fact that he can no longer afford to “marry them off”. His youngest son, aged seven, is the only one still in school, while his eldest son, 20, earns a few hundred rupees a week as an informal hamali worker (load carrier) whenever he gets work.
“My son used to help me run the beef shop earlier, when we used to sell 50 kg to 100 kg of meat every day,” said Murtuza Qureshi. “But buffalo beef has such few takers, I don’t even sell 20 kg a day now. And we can’t even raise the price of buffalo meat because the demand is low.”
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Almost all butchers at the Bandra bazaar in Mumbai described their household situations as “hand-to-mouth”, with almost no savings to fall back on. In the midst of this, 40-year-old Anwar Qureshi seemed embarrassed to admit that his children, aged nine and 10, were attending an English-medium convent school in the locality. “My father-in-law pays for their education now because my income is barely enough to run the house,” he said. His father-in-law runs a small clothes business in Mumbai.
Naeem Qureshi, whose adult sons are desperately looking for jobs, is bitter about the turn that their lives have taken in the past two years. “If the government cared about us, they would have helped us learn alternative skills before destroying our traditional livelihoods,” he said. “They would have offered us loans to set up something new. But no one cares about us. Despite being Indian, we have been destroyed in the name of India.”