A heavy padlock guards an empty shed in the lanes of Maulviganj in Old Lucknow. Until last week, about 400 goats were slaughtered here every morning.

At dawn, traders would bring their animals to this, the only legal slaughterhouse for goats in the city. A munshi of the Lucknow Municipal Corporation would count the animals. For a charge of Rs 10 per goat, the traders were allowed to use the space for slaughter. They would take away the mutton to sell in the city’s markets. Then, municipal employees would wash the shed for the next morning.

“This slaughter house belongs to the government,” said Mohammad Noman of the Goat Meat Traders Association. “It does not belong to my father-grandfather. If it was unauthorised, then the government is responsible for it.”

The residents of Maulviganj claim the slaughter house dates back to 1902. They say they were taken by surprise when it was sealed on March 22, the day the newly formed government of Uttar Pradesh began a crackdown on illegal abattoirs in the state.

The government, under Chief Minister Adityanath, would have the public believe that the crackdown is a case of a firm administration ensuring that scurrilous private players do not break health and safety laws. A careful look, however, reveals a story of government failure.

“The government will not touch those [abattoirs] which are operating as per the provisions of the law and have a valid licence,” Adityanath said in Gorakhpur on Saturday. “But those which are violating the orders of the NGT [National Green Tribunal], creating pollution and playing with the health of the public… all those slaughterhouses would be shut down.”

Such slaughterhouses, as it turns out, include those owned and managed by the government.

Until last week, goats were slaughtered every morning in Maulviganj.

Why can’t they get legal meat?

The government’s crackdown was most prominently illustrated in its impact on restaurants like the legendary Tunday Kababi in Lucknow. Established in 1905, the original Tunday Kababi in Old Lucknow was closed for a day last week, because of a shortage of buffalo meat used to make its famous galawati kebabs. The restaurant’s ownership decided to open the following day but, for the very first time, serving only chicken and mutton because it still could not procure legal buffalo meat.

The main question that reverberated online, especially among those defending the government’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses: Why can’t Tunday Kababi buy its buffalo meat from a legal, licensed slaughterhouse?

The answer is simple. Uttar Pradesh’s capital, Lucknow – the country’s 11th-most populous city with three million people – does not currently have a legal slaughterhouse for buffalo meat. After the slaughterhouse at Maulviganj was locked last week, it does not have one for mutton either.

Many asked: Is it the government’s fault that those operating slaughterhouses in the city are not legally licensed?

Such a question might make sense in a country where food provisions are more reliant on free markets. But in India, the government is so tightly wound up in the business of food provision that any shortage – whether of grains or pulses or meat – is usually the fault of the administration, and not the private players.

In Uttar Pradesh, it is the legal responsibility of the municipal corporations to build, maintain and licence slaughterhouses to make sure there is a supply of legal, hygienic meat.

In other words, if a restaurant like Tunday Kababi is unable to procure legal meat, this means the local government has failed at its job.

For a city that prides itself for its meat preparations, Lucknow hasn’t invested enough in constructing and maintaining slaughterhouses.

Two slaughterhouses run by the municipal corporation supplied the city with most of its meat.

While the slaughterhouse in Maulviganj was the source for “chota” or goat meat, “bara” or buffalo meat came from the slaughterhouse in Motijheel, also in Old Lucknow, about four kilometres away.

Mohammad Ansar Qureshi, a 72-year-old buffalo meat trader, said his family has used the Motijheel slaughterhouse since the time of his grandfather. “He died in 1975 at the age of 110,” said Qureshi. “So you can guess it is at least 150 years old.”

The slaughterhouse was closed down in July 2013 on the orders of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board. It was supposed to be modernised and reopened. But it took the municipal corporation three years just to invite bids – as this document from October 2016 shows.

“Aaj kal aaj kal karte rahe,” said Qureshi. The authorities kept harping that work would begin today, tomorrow. “We heard that Rs 12.5 crore was finally sanctioned on January 3, but the next day the model code of conduct for the elections came into force, and the project got stuck,” he added.

Arvind Rao, the chief veterinary officer of the Lucknow Municipal Corporation, confirmed that the project had received “in-principle approval” but said he did not to know the status of the funds.

The city has another government-owned slaughter house for buffaloes in the Sadar area. Run by the Lucknow Cantonment Board, which comes under the Ministry of Defence, it closed for modernisation on January 2016 and hasn’t reopened since. A privately-run slaughter house in Kasaibada also closed down in 2014 on the orders of the pollution control board. Meanwhile, a proposal to built a modern abattoir on the outskirts of the city has been gathering dust for more than a decade.

Not only has the municipal corporation failed to build a modern slaughterhouse for buffalo meat, it has not renewed the licences of the traders since 2014. “What’s the point renewing the licences when the slaughterhouse itself is not functional?” asked Rao.

Staying in business

So how have buffalo meat traders in the city managed to do business over the last few years?

At the Motijheel slaughterhouse, fresh animal dung and discarded tail hair indicate that animals were being slaughtered here until recently. “Not in the same numbers as earlier,” said a young man who did not want to be identified. “Kaam chal raha tha, aadmi kamaa khaa raha tha.” We were getting some work, enough to earn a living.

On Wednesday evening, when the government crackdown began, the police raided the homes of people living near the slaughterhouse. “It happened after magrib ki azaan, the evening prayer,” said an old woman named Nadira Begum. “The police were looking for axes to break open the locks.”

The locks guarded two rows of animal sheds, where the police suspected buffaloes had been kept for slaughter.

Since then, the residents claim the police has been making daily rounds, harassing even those who aren’t associated with the trade. Mohammad Israr, who works in a plywood factory, said he was detained by the police when he was returning home at night.

The Motijheel slaughterhouse has been officially closed for more than three years.

There is anger against the newly formed government. “Ek tarfa dekh rahe hai,” said Zia-Ur-Rahman in Kasaibada. They are taking just one side.

But there is greater anger against the previous government. “The seeds for the present crisis were sown by the Samajwadi Party hukumat,” said Mohammad Ansar Qureshi. He pointed out that municipal corporations came under Azam Khan, the party’s prominent Muslim face and the urban development minister in the Akhilesh Yadav-led government. According to Qureshi, Khan deliberately delayed the modernisation of government slaughterhouses across the state to keep the butcher community’s vote captive. “Illegal slaughter was allowed to take place under the watch of the government. This was a way of getting us to vote for them,” the old man said.

Many in the community, however, insist they voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party. “How else did they win 325 seats?” said Nadim Qureshi, a middle-aged meat trader, who is anxious about the future of his two children. “The school year is about to begin. At this rate, I am not sure I can afford their education.”

Across the state, the associations of meat traders – buffalo, goat, chicken – have announced an indefinite strike against the crackdown. “We are asking for the renewal of our licences, and for a temporary place to slaughter animals, until the modernisation of the slaughterhouses is done,” said Shahabuddin Qureshi, the secretary of the Qureshi Welfare Foundation in Lucknow. “Let us to do business legally.”

A privately-run slaughter house for buffaloes in Kasaibada was closed down in 2014.

Failing the law

Adityanath’s crackdown may easily be seen as an attempt to properly implement existing laws. But unless his government also looks into why corporation-owned slaughterhouses across the state have not been modernised to meet health and safety standards, it would only be implementing one half of the law.

At the moment, there aren’t any signs of the government recognising its legal obligation to ensure the supply of hygienic meat. The meat traders have so far failed to get an appointment with Chief Minister Adityanath and Deputy Chief Minister Dinesh Sharma, who was until last week the Mayor of Lucknow. The BJP runs the city’s municipal corporation.

Instead, there are signs that the government is hardening its stance.

Arvind Rao, the chief veterinary officer, said the Maulviganj slaughterhouse was closed down because it does not meet pollution norms. Currently, 330 mutton and chicken traders have licences, he said, but after the closure of the Maulviganj slaughterhouse, the corporation has decided not to renew the licences of the mutton traders. The renewal is due on April 1.