Heavy monsoon showers Tuesday morning brought respite from the scorching summer, but it did nothing to soothe hundreds of cattle traders at the weekly market in Chelari in Kerala’s Malappuram district.

To them, the future of cattle trade looks bleak after the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests banned the sale of cattle for non-agricultural purposes, including slaughter, last Friday.

They were proved right when the Chelari market opened Tuesday for the first time after the ban was issued. Traders could not bring enough cattle from neighbouring states and the market looked half-empty from the morning. Even small-time farmers failed to find buyers for their non-lactating cows. A pall of gloom has descended on the once-booming cattle market in Kerala.

The Chelari market is spread over four acres of private land just off National Highway 66. It caters to slaughterhouses and milk farmers in Kozhikode, Malappuram, Palakkad and Thrissur districts.

Before the ban, more than 50 trucks would arrive at the market every week, carrying buffaloes, oxen and cows from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Telengana, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

Vehicles parked at Chelari cattle market. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Slow business

This Tuesday was a different story. At 9 am, two hours after the market opened, 20-odd vehicles were still in the parking lot. Sahadevan, the caretaker, said it was an indication of a slow business day.

“It is not possible to see such a huge number of empty goods carriers on a thriving business day,” he said. “It means the central government’s decision has had an impact on the cattle trade here too.”

Moideen Kutty alias Kunhutty, owner of a leading cattle farm, said Sahadevan’s observations were correct. “The market is quite dull today,” he said. “You can see it. There are only 300 cattle in the market today. It is not enough as there is a demand for more than 1,000 cattle every week.”

Chelari market caretaker Sahadevan. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Talking point

The steep fall in the number of cattle brought to the market soon became a talking point. Some people even greeted each other with a question: “Kada poottendi varumo?” Do we have to wind up our business?

Even the handlers who drive the cattle to the market are aware of the grim situation. “The government is trying to deny us our livelihood,” complained Abu, while herding some buffaloes back to the truck.

Still, there is hope that the Kerala government will try to save the trade. “The Pinarayi Vijayan government has taken a brave stand on the issue,” Kunhutty said. “It gives us hope.”

Fear of the unknown

Bavutty, who owns a cattle farm in Vengara, used to sell more than 50 buffaloes at Chelari every week. This time he brought only 20 cattle to the market. He had gone to Tamil Nadu on May 28 to buy cattle. However, he said, he was shocked to find that all “healthy buffaloes had been sold” before he arrived.

He said cattle traders from all parts of Kerala went on a buying spree after the ban was issued on May 26. “They bought all the cattle,” he said. “I came back empty-handed on Monday.”

Bavutty is suggesting possible cattle hoarding by the traders. “It might happen,” he said. “They will bring all the cattle and keep them on their farms. That will create an artificial scarcity. They will then sell the cattle when the prices hit the roof.”

A buyer takes cattle home. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Shamsuddeen, a milk farmer from Vengara, said many like him did not dare go to neighbouring states to buy cattle for fear of their lives. “There were rumours that vehicles that brought cattle would be blocked by the gau rakshaks near the state borders,” he said. “I decided not to go and risk my life. That too contributed to the dip in cattle arrival at the market.”

Some cattle farm owners, however, sounded confident that they could bypass the ban. Mohammed, who owns a big farm and an abattoir near Chelari, said: “I can bring cattle from other states to my farm. I hope no one prevents me from selling the cattle directly to the abattoirs. If it does not work, I can supply meat from my slaughterhouse.”

Good deal

Buffaloes are in always in great demand at Chelari and the price depends on the size. A four-tonne buffalo costs Rs one lakh while a one-tonne animal costs Rs 20,000. Bullocks are a cheaper at Rs 20,000 to Rs 60,000.

Lactating cows fetch anywhere between Rs 10,000 and Rs 25,000 while the price range for old lactating cows is Rs 6,000 to Rs 10,000.

Shamsudheen brought two lactating cows to the market. He wanted to bring all his five cows, he said, but decided against it in view of the “ground reality”. “Both cows give 10 litres of milk everyday,” he said. “I was scared of bringing them to the market but I am in need of money.”

“I am fortunate that I got decent prices for my cows,” he added. “I will bring the remaining cows next Tuesday.”

Not everyone was so lucky. Padmavathy, a Dalit woman who lives in Chelari, could not find buyers for her two eight-year-old non-lactating cows. “Both of them are old,” she said. “I want to sell them and buy young cows. But no one is willing to buy them.”

“I bought them for Rs 35,000,” she added. “My asking price was Rs 25,000. But no one came to me to even ask about the price. Let me try my luck next week.”

Livelihood at stake

Kallingal Mohammad Kutty, a cattle trader who is patron of the Cattle Merchants Welfare Association, said the ban, if implemented fully, will affect nearly five lakh people in Kerala who are involved in the cattle trade directly and indirectly.

The Association, which is a 50,000-member strong non-political outfit, and has branches in 13 districts, claims that its aim is to protect the rights of people working in cattle trade. It organised a protest in Palakkad on Wednesday demanding withdrawal of government regulations on cattle trade. It also sought protection for vehicles which bring cattle from neighbouring states.

“Cattle trade is a huge chain that involves everyone from money-spending traders to people who feed the cattle,” he said. “If the trade wanes it will hurt the state’s economy.”

Unsold cattle at Chelari market. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Kutty said nearly 100 trucks bring cattle to different parts of Kerala from neighbouring states every day. Each truck carries 14-20 cattle. “But the number has come down to just 10 after the order was issued,” he said. “Only three truckloads arrived at Chelari on Tuesday.”

He warned that the cattle trade will collapse if the central government continues to bring in rules in an attempt to ban cow slaughter. “Most of us have inherited this job,” Kutty said. “But I think it will stop with our generation. Our younger generation has not shown much interest in this job. Most of them are well-educated and pursue careers as doctors, engineers and management professionals. The cattle trade is on the wane. The government’s short-sighted decision will hasten the process, and create food scarcity in the country.”