The lockdown has meant totally downed shutters since the beginning of this week, resulting in most butchers staring at bleak days ahead. (AP)
Ever since the announcement of the lockdown – first by the Gujarat government and then the nationwide by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24 — meat shop owners have been apprehensive about running their business. Despite being in the list of essential services released by the Ministry of Home Affairs, meat shop owners say they are faced with restrictions by the local authorities on opening shutters as well as the unavailability of new stock in times of the COVID-19 lockdown.
The market in Gujarat is largely unorganised with most meat shops running with licence from the local civic bodies but selling poultry does not need a licence, according to those in the business. The lockdown has meant totally downed shutters since the beginning of this week, resulting in most butchers staring at bleak days ahead.
Faizan Warsi, who runs a shop in Jetalpur in Vadodara and earns a profit of about Rs 1,500-2,000 per day, says, "The police is not allowing us to move around to conduct our business. The moment we say we are meat sellers, policemen shoo us away from the roads. If we have goats, we also need to buy fodder until we rear them. We usually source this through sellers coming from villages in some parts of the city. Most of us decided to finish selling our stocks and close our shops until the lockdown situation is over."
Warsi says that although the lockdown was imposed on Monday by the government of Gujarat, the last stock of meat and chicken came on Friday last week. "Two weeks ago, when the prices fell below average due to the rumors that eating chicken and meat can cause coronavirus, many people flocked and purchased chicken and meat in huge numbers. Thereafter the prices increased slightly up to Rs 120 per kg but we are out of fresh stock now so there is nothing to sell anyway."
Hanif Qureshi, General Secretary of the Baroda Qureshi Jamat, says that about 150 meat shops have licence in Vadodara, but there is no count of the chicken shops. " Anyone can open a chicken shop because it does not require licence from the civic body. We are looking at difficult days ahead because the community relies on daily income for their subsistence. Those who have leftover stock from last week are running the shops until their stocks last. We don't know if the authorities hear us out at a time when there is a pandemic."
Ahmed Qureshi who runs a meat shop in Yakutpura area of the city says, "On Sunday I had opened the shop for hardly an hour, but there were no customers. The same happened on Monday as well. I think people are avoiding meat nowadays. All shops in the area are now closed. We are ready to sell at a minimal prices possible but we should also have customers for that."
With shops closing down, traders and poultry farm owners too have been facing a hard time to keep their fowls alive. With 90,000 chickens at his farms in Vasantpur Savli and Panchmahals, Kirit Patel has been facing issues in terms of providing feed to his fowls. "The feed supply would come from other state, especially Maharashtra. Corn is not grown in Vadodara as much and we have been having issue in procuring the feed as most vehicles of supply cannot enter the state because of sealed borders. The consignment has been delayed incessantly. If we are not able to feed them, they will die anyway and that will be dangerous. If we don't find a way, I might have to cull at least 50,000 fowls at the farm," Patel said.
Residents say that police manning roads to impose the lockdown are prohibiting them from reaching the meat markets.
Paromita Bhattacharya, a resident of Prahladnagar in Ahmedabad, claimed that she was stopped by the police on her way to Vejalpur to purchase fish and meat on March 25. She found the shops closed and was on her way back at around 9:30 am when she was stopped by police at Shrinandnagar crossroads.
“I was in my car and there were at least 7-8 police personnel. They asked me where I was coming from. I told them I had gone to buy fish and meat. They rebuked me saying how is this an essential at a time like this. For a Bengali, it is,” she said.
Most meat shops across Ahmedabad have closed shutters. Meat shops, including retail chain stores such as Magson, had already reported a drastic fall in sales, nearly a fortnight ago. The disruption has also impacted the availability of eggs.
While the Commissioner of Police in Rajkot has already issued an explicit circular allowing transportation of poultry, meat and eggs, Vadodara Police Commissioner Anupam Singh Gahlaut told this newspaper that the notification issued by the department on March 26, extending the lockdown until the midnight of April 14 includes fish and meat as essential items but the department was awaiting instructions from the civic body and the District Collector to allow the shops to function.
“At such a time, the bodies need to determine that there is proper cleanliness and hygiene being followed at these meat shops. Once we get a clearance, all shops will be allowed to run business as usual," Gahlaut said.
Sachin Nene, a member of the Broiler Farmers Coordination Committee (BFCC), Gujarat said, "We are incurring huge losses since February after rumours started doing rounds that chicken should be avoided during COVID-19 outbreak, and then the lockdowns. Now, despite having a clear order from the MHA, the state authorities are still reluctant to allow us to operate. We wrote to the Union Animal Husbandry Department and they issued a direction to the Chief Secretary after which most police departments cleared the transport and opening of local chicken shops. But in Vadodara, the confusion has prevailed despite an order from the SDM allowing the transport.”
“The officials are not being able to understand that it is a food chain that is being disturbed. Not only does meat and poultry take away up to 25% of the load from vegetarian food chain but also the fact that the several poultry farms with chickens will become a burden on the maize and soya stock that are main feeds for chicken. Eventually, the feed will get exhausted and the birds will die. It is in the best interest of the society to have the shops open. We are hopeful that the authorities, after discussions, will allow us to function as per the MHA list of essential items," Nene added.
On Friday, Congress spokesperson Pragnesh Tewar had also written to Vinod Rao, Officer on Special duty for COVID-19 pandemic in Vadodara as well as the district administration and the Commissioner of Police and the Municipal Commissioner. Tewar said, "I have requested to permit vehicles transporting eggs, chicken, food for birds to move during the lockdown period as it is also an important and necessary part of food chain. Butcher shops selling meat and chicken be allowed to remain open with necessary standards laid for precautions. Non-availability of eggs and meat could add pressure to the food chain in the times of lockdown."
(With inputs from Sohini Ghosh)