Every year during Bakri Eid, Jameela Pathan and her husband travel from Mumbai to their village in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh, to slaughter a sacrificial goat and celebrate with their families. This year, the coronavirus pandemic compelled them to cancel not just their travel plans, but also their plans to make the ritual Eid sacrifice.

“There is no money this year, because we have been out of work since the lockdown began,” said Pathan, who works as a tailor in her cramped home in Shivaji Nagar, one of Mumbai’s largest slums. Her husband is an event photographer. The couple has been living on their savings ever since the nationwide lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic came into force on March 24.

Even if they had the money to buy a goat for Bakri Eid on July 31, Pathan is not sure if they would be able to bring it home for slaughter this year. The reason, she says, is the Maharashtra government’s Standard Operating Procedures for the festival, released two weeks ago.

The guidelines stipulate that the sale and purchase of animals for Bakri Eid has to be conducted online to prevent crowding at animal markets in light of Covid-19. However, with no specific system in place to facilitate large-scale online trade, transport and delivery of goats that are predominantly sourced from other states, the guidelines have triggered confusion and indignation among animal traders and consumers in the state.

“Some of my neighbours have placed online orders for goats for Eid, but their deliveries are stuck because trucks transporting the animals have been stopped at the border,” said Pathan, referring to the borders of Mumbai. “The police is making it very difficult for sellers to transport their goats into the city.”

This has been particularly frustrating for many Shivaji Nagar slum-dwellers, who live adjacent to the Deonar abattoir, India’s largest centre for the sale and slaughter of animals. The abattoir has been shut since the start of the lockdown, and retail butchers in the city have been sourcing animals from smaller mandis (markets) outside the city limits.

A larger number of Pathan’s neighbours have a simpler reason for not being able to buy sacrificial goats this Eid. “Most people in this slum don’t have the education or the ability to do online shopping,” she said. “People who have been doing qurbani on Bakri Eid for years will have to give up on it this year.”

Jameela Pathan will not be celebrating Bakri Eid this year. Photo courtesy: Jameela Pathan

A nationwide dilemma

Muslims across India are preparing for a subdued Bakri Eid in the middle of the pandemic. In most states, mosques will not be allowed to open up for prayers on Eid, and people will have to offer their namaz at home.

In Uttar Pradesh, animal markets are closed and the state police has prohibited the sale, purchase and sacrifice of animals in the open. The state will also increase police presence, vigilance and surveillance on Eid, in areas deemed to be communally “sensitive”.

Animal markets are closed across Madhya Pradesh too. In Gujarat, the police in Ahmedabad and Surat have prohibited animal sacrifice in public places as well as in private places visible to the public, not just on the grounds of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because public animal sacrifice could “hurt the sentiments” of people from other communities, and disrupt communal harmony.

Political and religious leaders of the Muslim community have raised objections to such restrictions.

In Uttar Pradesh, clerics from the Deoband seminary have appealed to the state government to open up animal markets for Eid, allow animal sacrifice at those markets and let community members offer namaz in mosques while following physical distancing norms. Since the state enforces a lockdown every weekend, Deoband clerics have also requested the state to shift the lockdown to another day of the week so that markets are open on the Eid weekend.

In Maharashtra, Muslim legislators from the Congress, Nationalist Congress Party and other parties have also sought a change in the state’s rules about celebrating a “symbolic” Eid and buying goats online.

Livestock vendors wait for customers to sell goats and sheep ahead of Bakri Eid at a ground in Chennai on July 28, 2020. Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP

Going online

The fundamental problem with trading goats online for Eid is the lack of digital literacy. “Most of the traders in our field come from villages in Rajasthan, Gujarat and MP. They are illiterate and have no means to set up their business online,” said Intezar Qureshi, vice-president of the Bombay Suburban Beef Dealers Association, whose members trade not just buffaloes but also goats and sheep. “Online you will find a few goat farms selling animals for Eid, but they are very small in number.”

Compelled by lockdown restrictions and state government rules, some goat traders have attempted to market their goats through Facebook and Whatsapp groups, but are struggling with logistical problems. “They are putting their mobile numbers online, but how can they manage so many calls for orders? How can they make so many arrangements for transport and home delivery?” said Intezar Qureshi. “This is just not possible for small traders.”

The other major problem with online sales is that customers cannot physically inspect the animals. “Our religion tells us that animals meant for qurbani must not have any illnesses or defects,” said Intezar Qureshi. “If a person is buying online, how will they check the goat’s teeth, horns, fur and health?”

Pashu Bajaar, a Lucknow-based company that has been selling goats online for the past five years, tackles this problem by giving customers an opportunity to visit their animal stock centre and inspect the goats that they select online. “We clearly mention that the photos of goats on our website are just representative pictures of that breed,” said Vinay Gautam, the chief operating officer of Pashu Bajaar. After selecting a breed and making a part-payment online, customers are sent photos of three individual goats to choose from, which they can physically inspect, one at a time, at the company’s stock centre.

But this option, Gautam admits, is only available for customers within Lucknow and neighbouring districts, where Pashu Bajaar has tie-ups with goat breeders in 100 villages. The company claims to deliver goats at a national level, but during Bakri Eid season, they have not yet been able to expand to other states. Within Uttar Pradesh, it has received 600 orders for Eid.

This is a fraction of the total number of goats usually sold in the state during the Bakri Eid season. With animal markets officially closed across the state, desperate goat farmers have been setting up small, unofficial goat mandis in villages and towns to make sales and cater to the community’s needs. “This is not allowed, but farmers who have been breeding goats especially for Eid have no other option,” said Gautam.

Usually packed animal markets now often deserted due to the coronavirus pandemic forcing breeders to turn to websites, apps and social media to showcase their animals. This picture was taken in Bengaluru on July 23. Photo: AFP

Stopped at the border

In Maharashtra, smaller animal mandis have been open for the past month, but traders who manage to bring their goats there have been struggling to transport them further into cities like Mumbai.

“There are customers trying to buy 30-40 goats on behalf of their entire housing colony, and this is good for traders because they can transport them in bulk,” said Aslam Qureshi, president of the All India Sheep and Goat Breeders and Dealers Association. “But I am receiving a lot of complaints from traders about their trucks and vans being stopped at the border [of Mumbai].”

Aslam Qureshi claims trucks ferrying vegetables and other essential goods are not being stopped while entering the city. “So we cannot understand why our people are being stopped and asked to pay fines. It feels like they don’t want qurbani to take place for Eid,” he said.

“We understand that big mandis can get crowded and our traders are themselves afraid of catching coronavirus,” he added. “But what is the problem with selling smaller batches of animals at a local level?”

While Aslam Qureshi works in Mumbai, he has been in his village in Rajasthan’s Pali district since the start of the lockdown. “Here in Rajasthan, we don’t have very large animal mandis, and they are all open now,” he said. “The rules for Bakri Eid sales are simply to avoid crowding and maintain distance, which everyone is following.”

‘A difficult Eid’

While local sales for Bakri Eid have not been severely affected in Rajasthan, the Covid-19 lockdown has been catastrophic for the state’s goat farmers and traders, who predominantly sell their animals in Mumbai and other big cities.

“Because of the lockdown, migrant workers from Mumbai have all left for their villages. People’s incomes have dropped, so they cannot do qurbani,” said Aslam Qureshi. “For our traders, business has reduced to 30% of what it usually is every Bakri Eid.”

Apart from goat breeders and traders, the industry employs thousands of transporters and labourers who are also facing the ripple effect of the drop in sales this year. The Deonar abattoir in Mumbai, for instance, has nearly 4,000 labourers who are currently out of work.

“These are people who plan weddings, building homes and other expenses for their entire year based on the money they make during one month before Bakri Eid,” said Aslam Qureshi. “This year, all those plans have been washed out. It is an economic crisis for everybody.”

In Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa town, butcher and animal trader Nadeem Qureshi echoes this problem. “I used to easily earn more than Rs 30,000 every year for Bakri Eid, but this year, I haven’t received even one order,” said Nadeem Qureshi.

Since all animal mandis in the state are closed, and few traders have the literacy to sell online, most traders in Khandwa have been procuring small batches of goats from villages and selling them informally in the town’s Muslim areas throughout the lockdown. “But this has not been enough, and many of us were forced to sell vegetables or do any other labour work we could get to survive,” said Nadeem Qureshi. “This is going to be a very difficult Eid.”