In March 2015, the President approved amendments to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act of 1976 that had been pending for 20 years. The amendment criminalised the possession of beef as well as the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves.
Six months later, Hayyaz Qureshi, a butcher living in Ashti town, Beed, killed himself.
Qureshi owed Rs two lakh to local farmers. He had bought their cattle for slaughter, but the ban made it impossible for him to pay for his purchases, explained his brother Zakir. The two brothers owned a beef shop and a restaurant that served beef dishes near the bus stand in Ashti, in the state's Marathwada region. Troubled by his debts, Qureshi committed suicide, leaving behind his wife and four children.
The small shop near the bus stand had sustained the family for 50 years. It now stands empty. Zakir Qureshi had to shut down the shop and restaurant after the ban. He has instead been doing daily wage work wherever he can find it.
“Even if we open up a restaurant for other meat, nobody would come to eat there,” he said. “They would always be thinking, ‘He is a Qureshi [a community that traditionally works as butchers and cattle dealers], what must he be putting into this?’ And there is already competition for mutton and chicken food.”
There are between 50 and 60 houses in Ashti’s Qureshi Galli, with perhaps 1,000 residents in all. Many of them survived on the butchers’ trade.
“This was our traditional occupation,” said Nisara Saudagar, 60, also of the Qureshi community. “Now we are left naked.”
Said Zakir Qureshi, who occasionally works to transport goods, “At least I can drive a rickshaw. But the others cannot do this. How will they manage?"
A stuttering trade
The trade in beef wasn't particularly thriving even before the ban, but it was all the Qureshis had, Saudagar said. Like so much else in the state, beef consumption was also linked to the cycle of agriculture. Traditional beef eaters in Beed are mainly Dalits, adivasis, Christians and Muslims. But most Dalits migrate from the district in the six months between Diwali and Holi to work as labourers during the sugarcane harvest in other parts of the state. This significantly reduced the number of clients at the Qureshis’ beef shop.
It isn't just the Qureshis who have been affected by the beef ban, Saudagar pointed out.
“There are so many others who make leather...or who make medicines from bones who are affected,” added Saudagar. “Despite knowing that, the government did this wrong. We can’t understand this.”
Syed Husain, 42, a construction worker living in Ashti, cannot understand it either. His family used to consume a kilogram of beef daily at the cost of Rs 120. After the ban, they have replaced beef with chicken, but can now afford to eat meat just four days a week, since chicken costs Rs 180-Rs 200 per kilogram.
“We don’t eat buffaloes,” he said. “And here, you don’t get buffalo at all. If it was available, we wouldn’t have it. Beef was our cheapest bhaji and we liked it also. The ban was not right.”
If a guest visits Husain's home for a meal now, he said, he ends up paying up to Rs 800 for four kilograms of chicken, compared to Rs 240 for two kilograms of beef.
“The government should have thought of this,” Husain added. “Jat pat ko nahi dekhna chahiye. They should not follow caste. We will all follow the government, of course, but this country Bharat is also ours. The government should take care of us.”
Saudagar is a rare Qureshi landowner – with his 14 acres of land, he says he takes care of his four or five brothers. He was also an enthusiastic Bharatiya Janata Party supporter. In the 2014 assembly elections, Saudagar organised a rally of 300 Muslims in favour of BJP’s Pankaja Munde. “We were fans of Gopinath Munde [of the BJP]and we were angry with the Nationalist Congress Party for their scams,” he said. “Now everyone has moved back to the NCP. Lafdewale bolke giraye the, par ab…”
Selling no option
The impact of the ban can be seen in cattle markets across the state. Jalna, 100 km from Beed, is a small town that serves as the district headquarters. Every Tuesday, just outside the town, hundreds of traders, farmers and their cattle descend for one of the largest cattle markets in Marathwada.
Traders at the Jalna market have a network of brokers in villages as far away as Gujarat who inform them when farmers want to sell. The vyaparis, as they call themselves, buy and transport these cattle to the market and attempt to sell them every Tuesday, when farmers from as far as 100 km around Jalna come to the market to inspect and buy cattle to work in their fields or to give them milk.
In recent months, traders have been coming to the market week after week with unsold livestock, and the cost of caring for the cattle in the interim has been rising.
Since the ban, traders say the prices of bulls have plummeted. While people buy buffaloes and cows for their dairy potential, farmers use bulls as draught animals to plough their fields, instead of tractors. As bulls age, farmers replace them with younger animals capable of more work. A farmer with a pair of bulls worth Rs 50,000 might sell it for a part of its value and use that for a new pair. Wealthy farmers buy younger and stronger cattle. The only ones who buy ageing or diseased cattle are the poor. They might buy a pair for Rs 30,000 to sell to butchers later for perhaps half that value.
However, with butchers no longer able to buy old animals for slaughter, nobody wants to purchase bulls they will not be able to sell again.
“What are we selling, nobody takes bulls at all,” said Johnson Waghmare, who has been a trader for 30 years. “Buffaloes come here more now. This law has created the most problems for farmers. At least butchers used to take bulls. If they have lost their teeth, if they can’t walk or if they hit you, what use will they be to a farmer?”
Shaukat Dabadi, 52, a trader in the business for 20 years, says that business has never been very good for him. According to him, rates for cattle have been steadily decreasing for at least ten of those years. With the ban, prices have plummeted.
“In five to six years, you won’t even see these bulls,” said Dabadi. “They will all be abandoned. One bundle of green fodder is Rs 100 and an animal needs five a day. Where will farmers get that money from? Already they are letting their animals go.”
That does not mean slaughter has stopped at all. At the Jalna market, the ban on cattle slaughter seems to be only in name.
“Ban bolne mein hi hai,” said Lakhan Tiwali, a buffalo trader at the market. “Yeh toh bas kahawat dikhawat ka ban hai. [The ban is just for show.] All you media and police are staying quiet about this.”
Among farmers, people view the ban on bull slaughter along the lines of their castes. Politically dominant Marathas keep, or say they keep, their cattle even after they are of no monetary use to them. Other castes like Malis tend to sell cattle to slaughterhouses.
A year after the ban, the BJP legislator from Ashti, Bhimrao Dhonde, who belongs to the Mali community, spoke out against the ban, saying that it had been disastrous.
“The law was drafted 15 years ago,” Dhonde said to Scroll.in. “There are a lot of differences between 15 years ago and now. There might have been droughts then, but there were not as many suicides.” Farmers, he said, are not as economically stable as they were two decades ago and are unable to absorb the added stress of not being able to sell their cattle.
It is not just the landowners who have been affected by the ban, but also the landless who own cattle for dairy farming. Making things worse is the drought that has gripped the region. People are cutting down on milk consumption, and no one is buying the animals.
At the market was Chandrappa Paralkar, 50, who owns no land but has eight buffaloes. Paralkar saved for years to be able to buy in them. He is now regretting this decision.
“I used to push a handcart,” Paralkar said. “That was better because at least I got income from my labour. Now it has become very uncertain. I wish I had stayed in that profession.”
With the drought, even the rates of buffalos have gone down, though not as much as those of bulls.
Maruti Vaitkar, 65, had a similar story in Ashti. He used to break rocks for roads for a living, but over the years put enough aside to buy some cattle. He now has four buffaloes and five cows that he rears for their milk, which he sells to the local dairy cooperative. But milk prices have gone down, limiting his ability to care for them.
As a stopgap measure, he has brought his cattle to a fodder camp near his village. These government-sponsored camps that dot villages across three districts of Maharashtra have been lifelines for cattle owners unable to find water or fodder for their animals. The camps will remain open until the monsoon. Vaitkar, who cares for the animals with his wife, said that he would not yet take them to the market.
“At home, we feed them without measuring,” he said. “Once we run out of that, we will have to see what to do.”
The second part of this series looks at how the ban on cattle slaughter comes at a bad time for farmers already affected by the drought. Read it here.