On a white hot morning in late April, there was no sign of life outside the only authorised slaughterhouse in Mahoba, in Uttar Pradesh’s underdeveloped Bundelkhand region. Its gate was bolted, its signboard in need of a new coat of paint.
Empty plots surrounded the municipal corporation slaughterhouse – four km from the district headquarters – which was set up as part of an earlier state government’s Kanshiram Grameen Niwas Yojana.
“This is one of the oldest slaughterhouses in Mahoba,” said Rustam Khan, a local reporter and outspoken political commentator. Pointing to the desolate plots, and uninhabited streets around, he added, “Where you see this colony now, it used to be jungle.”
Inside the abattoir were regulation tiles, wooden blocks stained with days-old blood, an empty water tank, a disconnected electricity metre and shiny new taps, dry as a bone. The only sound was the buzz of a persistent fly, and the occasional whine of a truck in the distance.
The slaughterhouse has been closed since April 24, when the local administration shut down all meat production-related activity in the district without explanation.
Crackdown on slaughterhouses
Uttar Pradesh’s new Adityanath-led government first ordered the state’s illegal slaughterhouses to be closed on March 22. At that time, the chief minister had said that the government would not touch those abattoirs that were operating as per the provisions of the law and had valid licences.
A few days after the government order, Khabar Lahariya reporters visited Mahoba to assess the order’s impact on the people dependent on the meat business for their livelihood. The team visited the area again one month later, at the end of April. During its second visit, it found that of the 17 shops that used to operate out of the Mahoba slaughterhouse, 11 had licenses valid up to 2018. However, regardless of the validity of these licenses – most of which were renewed at the beginning of April – the meat business in the area had come to a full stop.
Previous reports by Khabar Lahariya showed how the municipal corporation’s decision to move meat production-related activity outside the Mahoba city limits had a detrimental impact on the livelihoods of the city’s butchers. This shift first took place about three decades ago. However, over the years, when the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party were in power in the state, the rules eased with authorities turning a blind eye to slaughter activity within city limits. With the BJP’s victory in the Assembly elections held earlier this year, however, things have changed, and rules are being strictly enforced. The unofficial ban on meat production-related activity in the area, including the closure of the slaughterhouse, has therefore led to further distress among those involved in the meat business.
In Mahoba, members of the Qureishi community, who are traditionally engaged in the meat business across the country, mainly live in the Kasauda Tola neighbourhood. On April 28, four days after the municipal slaughterhouse was shut down, Khabar Lahariya returned to Kasauda Tola to meet Zubaida Khatoon, who, a month ago, was at the forefront of a protest by women who worked in the meat industry in the area.
Khatoon was reluctant to speak at first, but then, spurred on by neighbours, she mentioned how the unofficial ban on meat production has affected her family.
“My husband is dead, and he had a license,” she said. “Now I do not know where it is. But I have four children, one disabled. Everyone works in the meat shops. They buy meat and resell it. What are they doing now? Sitting around, what else? I’m not at an age where I can do physical labour. Kaise zindagi gujaarenge? Let the government tell us how we are to survive.”
Living in hope
In March, soon after the state’s crackdown on illegal slaughterhouses, which had even then led to meat businesses with valid licences shutting, the calm of Haji Razzab, an elderly Muslim man in Mahoba, was striking amid the anger that simmered around him. This time, he seemed anxious, even desperate.
‘This is work that we have done for generations,” said Razzab, who has a valid license in his brother’s name. He pointed to the irony that the state government never revoked the licences of liquor shops even though liquor can lead to addiction and ruin people’s lives. “This is a matter of our food,” said Razzab. “We are not doing anything wrong. We do not even look towards cows.”
Razzab has made regular visits to the office of the district magistrate and the sub-divisional magistrate, and seemed keen to give them a chance to set things right. “The DM [district magistrate] has said they [the slaughterhouses] will reopen in a few days,” said Razzab. “If they do not, we will migrate elsewhere to work. We will go to court, to the CM if we have to. Let us see if he listens, else we will come away. What else can we do? We will protest, sit on hunger strike.”
The unofficial ban on meat production-related activity in the area has also had an impact on weddings. “Weddings are being cancelled, since you cannot have a wedding without serving meat,” said Khan. “They cannot expect us to become vegetarian.”
Eyes brimming with tears, Batulan, a resident of Kasauda Tola, who has four daughters, narrated how the celebrations for her daughter’s wedding that were to be held the previous week, were called off. “Only the boy and his father came to take my daughter,” said Batulan, her tears spilling over. “The rest of the wedding party did not return when they knew there was no meat being served. We are asking, with hands folded, that the meat shops be reopened.”
Amid the human drama and crippling poverty in this poor neighbourhood is the almost absurd reality that those suffering the impact of the state’s crackdown on meat production are the poorest and most vulnerable among the Qureishi community, which is otherwise fairly well-to-do. The meat business here is part of an industry that supplies the world with over 40% of its buffalo meat requirement, and a considerable supply of leather and milk. But one gets little sense of that while visiting Mahoba. It is not just butchers or owners of meat shops whose livelihoods have been taken away. The livelihoods of those working in the entire supply chain have been hurt – from the people who bring the animals to the abattoir to those who clean and clear the slaughterhouse every day.
Those dependent on the meat business for their livelihoods can only hope for this unofficial ban to be lifted.
Jummi, an aged woman, who ran a meat business, is seeking to renew her licence, which has expired. She narrated how she has made repeated trips to the offices of the district magistrate and municipal corporation about renewing her licence, but her papers are stuck. The district magistrate said that the state was not renewing more licences at the moment. The official is not giving Jummi the reason why. “I am a blood pressure patient, and now I have to go out in the heat of June and work as labour at a brick kiln?” she said. “If I fall and break my head, who will pay my medical bills?”
Said Khan: “The BJP government promised sabka saath, sabka vikas, and corruption-free governance. I do not see it. I see Muslims being targeted, chicken and mutton slaughterhouses being made an issue. So what if red and blue lights [beacon lights] for people in power have been stopped? Now you just have to wear a saffron scarf to have power.”
Khabar Lahariya is a rural, video-first digital news organisation, with an all-women network of reporters in eight districts of Uttar Pradesh.