For Lulan Prasad Singh, in his early 60s, the Sonepur pashu mela or the cattle fair has lost its traditional character. Nothing is left of its legacies, which once boasted of giving visitors an authentic rural experience. Singh, who owns a portion of the vast spread of private land that has been the venue for the fair for decades, is unsure if the cattle fair will even continue to be held.

Cattle brokers, old hands at Sonepur cattle fair, are worried that there is no business these days. A group of cattle traders sat chatting with Singh as sales were dull. They have been witnessing the decline in sales for nearly two decades.

Government bans

In 2004, the government imposed a ban on the trading of elephants under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. Even after the ban, decorative elephants were brought to the fair till 2016 for display, as elephants were a big draw. In the past three years, there has been no elephant at the fair. According to official data of the Animal Husbandry Department’s camp office, 39 elephants were brought to the Sonepur fair in 2014. The number came down to 14 in 2015 and 13 in 2016. There were no elephants in the ensuing years. There were 77 elephants in 2007 and 354 in 2004.

The Sonepur cattle fair suffered a blow in 2017, when the central government banned sale of cattle for slaughter at animal markets. The ban, enforced under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Rules, hit the traders. Farmers did not bring milch animals as those selling cows were attacked by vigilantes.

Sushil Kumar Modi, deputy chief minister of Bihar, has claimed credit for stopping sale of cattle for slaughter. “It was I who raised [my] voice against trading of cattle for the slaughterhouses of Assam and other states. Transportation of cattle by train was banned after my demand,” he said.

“It [the ban] is a baseless propaganda by people with vested political interests,” said Devnath Raj, a cattle trader. “Would anyone buy milch cows and buffaloes for Rs 50,000 or Rs 1 lakh and send it for slaughter, when animals for slaughter are available for Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000?”

Credit: Mohd Imran Khan

Raj questioned why the government continued to issue licenses for slaughterhouses if they were against the practice. Other cattle traders agreed that it was wrong to link slaughtering of animals to cattle fairs.

Some of the traders blamed the state government, led by Nitish Kumar of JD(U) and Sushil Kumar Modi of BJP, for the declining popularity of the fair. According to them, the duo has hampered trade at the fair instead of developing it.

Past glory

As per legend, the British had named the pashu mela “Asia’s largest cattle fair”, as it was the only one of its kind in the sub-continent at the time. Till the late 1990s and the turn of the millennium, the fair spread across 500 acres, near the confluence of Ganga and Gandak rivers in Saran district.

Singh, who has witnessed the cattle fair since his childhood, recalls how the fair used to attract traders with goats, birds, horses, asses, elephants, camels, dogs and rabbits, in addition to the cows, bulls and buffaloes.

He says the fair has now lost its charm as well as the crowd, even as Bihar’s tourism department touts it as Asia’s largest cattle fair. Earlier hundreds of international tourists would visit the fair, enjoying the birds and the elephants’ bath in the riverbanks. This year, there were only 30 foreign tourists.

Dip in trade

The fair began this year on November 11 on Kartik Purnima. As per the cutoms, the fair begins with thousands taking a holy dip in the river. “It’s the 14th day of the fair and I have sold only one cow so far,” said Raj, seated outside his hut in the once famous gai bazaar. “Up till 2006-’07, I used to sell eight to 10 cattle every day.”

“Traders brought dozens of bulls on the first day of the fair but returned without selling a single bull,” said Ganesh Rai, a cattle trader. “There are only about 50 cows, a handful of buffaloes and about 500 horses and goats at the fair.”

According to Raj, cattle traders from Punjab and Haryana no longer bring cattle for sale and farmers from Assam no longer come to buy high breed cows and buffaloes. Many regular traders have stopped coming since they have to spend on rent, fodder for animals and food for themselves, but do not make enough money.

Credit: Mohd Imran Khan.

Prabhesh Kumar Singh, animal husbandry officer of Saran district, said that as per official records, seven buffaloes were brought on the first day of the fair this year and none were sold. He said that the number of horses was also nearly 3,000 this year, compared to 4,500 last year. There were no camels this year.

Rise of consumerism

Unlike previous years, the Sonepur pashu mela this year was almost deserted. There were no crowds thronging the narrow roads, villagers were busy cooking food, many were taking rest, as there was no business. The decline has also impacted the trade of those supplied green fodder for the cattle.

“Though it’s only 30 km from Patna, urban visitors stopped coming since the main attractions of elephants and birds are not there,” said a police officer on duty.

“There is no doubt that the number of cattle brought to the fair has decreased substantially,” said Ataur Rahman, regional director of Animal Husbandry Department, Saran district. “[But] other changes...can also be observed.”

The attractions at the festival are becoming more consumerist in nature. “In [the] future, people will only read about Sonepur cattle fair,” said Satendar Yadav, a horse trader. “Dance and theatre shows at night, temporary showrooms for two wheelers...seem to be [the main] attractions now.”

“Now it’s become an urban centric market, with companies of high-tech equipment, consumer durables, cosmetics, cement and steel either selling their products or advertising [them],” said Singh. There are large hoardings of film stars endorsing products. The most crowded places in the fair are the makeshift shops selling clothes, woolen blankets, kitchenware and gadgets.

To sustain the fair

According to villagers, the fair now resembles just any other weekly cattle market in the villages. However, attempts are being made to restore it to its former glory. Ramanujan Prasad Yadav, RJD MLA from Sonepur, said that the fair could be turned into an agri-fair. “Nearly 70% of Bihar’s population depends on agriculture. This fair can be turned into a training center for farmers and a hub for agricultural machines and tools.”

“We are investing from our pockets to provide basic facilities for the traders, as they are our last hope for improving the fair,” said Singh. “We try to bring goat breeds from Rajasthan and Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh through traders.” Amidst all this, there is still a high demand for goats among local farmers. Singh sees this a positive sign for the festival’s revival.

This article first appeared on Village Square.