When the Wazwaan country is deprived of its staple food, it is a crisis for the government and the society that still is a stalemate, reports Khalid Bashir Gura
Soon after finishing morning prayers, Suhail Ahmad, an Anantnag resident, travels to nearby districts in his car in search of mutton for his sister who recently delivered a baby. He buys it at Rs 600, a kilogram from various butchers who work in the early morning hours.
Since November 2020, the mutton dealers and administration are at loggerheads over mutton prices. Last year, the divisional administration proposed Rs 480 for mutton per kilogram which the dealers did not agree citing that they cannot afford to sell at “such low rate,” resulting in the shutting down of mutton shops and severe mutton shortage across Kashmir.
While this has created problems for the common people, hundreds of people associated with the industry have been rendered jobless. The crisis has also created a thriving market for black marketers who continue to sell mutton at Rs 600 a kg.
“We are suffering financially because of the shortage of livestock and stand-off. The proposed price of the government is too low,” said Showket Ahmed, a butcher from Narbal whose three shops stand shut for more than two months.
Farooq Ahmad Matto, another Srinagar butcher said that there are areas in the city where the mutton is sold in the wee hours but his shop is closed. Many butchers have started selling chickens or beef to customers.
According to Ahmed, he cannot sell at the government rate as he doesn’t make adequate profit. And if he sells meat to customers at a “genuine rate” he fears punishment from the administration.
But according to Muhammad Fazal Buch, a resident of Soura, living without eating mutton is very difficult for a Kashmiri.
“We love eating meat. We personally prefer mutton over chicken due to the apprehensions that poultry is fed with antibiotics which is not good for health,” Buch said. “Also due to the scare of bird flu, people prefer eating mutton over chicken but the present meat crisis has left us high and dry.”
Unlike Suhail of Anantnag, Buch’s search for mutton failed when an elderly in his family was recommended mutton soup by his doctor. “We searched every nook and corner of Srinagar, but to no avail,” he said.
On February 27, the divisional administration again held a meeting with mutton dealers after conducting study tours last year to assess rates and offered a further increase of Rs 35 to the previous rate fixed in November. But the dealers refused to agree. In the revised rate, the government proposed Rs 515 Kg.
In order to end the stalemate, Kashmir Economic Alliance (KEA) a local trade body offered to act as a mediator in resolving the dispute between the parties and presented its report to authorities on February 17, 2021. A 15-member team led by Co-chairman Farooq Ahmed included all three parties involved in the mutton business: commission agents, wholesalers and butchers. Some journalists, businessman, were also part of the tour to the live stock mandis at Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan to assess the basic prices and the breakup of expenses like transportation costs, weight loss, fatalities, road taxes, feeding costs. Also, on the other hand, an official team was sent on a fact-finding mission to mandis located at Delhi, Rajasthan, and Punjab to determine a reasonable retail price for the meat in December last year.
According to the report, the KEA team has pegged the wholesale price at Rs 518 per kg without butchers margins.
According to Farooq Ahmed, the fact-finding team visited the four sheep and goat Mandis, from where livestock is imported to Jammu and Kashmir. The suggestions of the report, if adhered to, according to the chairman, will not only organize Rs 2,300 crores businesses industry but also the price of meat will come down and consumers will also get meat at lower prices. The industry will be controlled by local businesses, and they will be accountable to the government, as well as providing first-class (A-Grade) meat to consumers at all times, and ending the cycle of smuggling and artificial scarcity.
The report suggested the vehicles laden with livestock on Srinagar-Jammu highway should be given priority in movement, for the timely arrival of the livestock.
“Under the guise of torturing animals, these vehicles in outside states have to pay NGOs and animal rights associations, and if this illegal harassment is stopped, about Rs 10,000 will be saved per truck, which will reduce meat prices,” suggests the report.
According to Ahmed, the rate will come down to Rs 500 Kg and the proposed Rs 525 will be best as it has margins of profit for the traders. He, however, questioned the availability of mutton to privileged people and restaurants.
The study report also suggests that the government should take steps to increase local production. Although the Animal Husbandry and Sheep Department claim that it provides 25 per cent of the total consumption, according to the report, this is just a myth.
Refuting the report, Dr Abdul Salam Mir, Director, Sheep Husbandry Department, said that the shortage of mutton is tackled by sheep husbandry and local rears and they provide more than 30 per cent. “There are 80000 rears and the total population of livestock is sixteen lakh,” he said.
The KEA report also urged the government to set up laboratories to test the quality of meet and also set up slaughterhouses as many have expressed apprehensions that Kashmir is not getting the best quality meat despite paying high rates.
The KEA implored the administration and mutton dealers to resolve the issue in view of public interest and keeping in view the festive season.
According to Khazir Mohammad Riggo, President Mutton Dealers Association Kashmir, after the study tour to outside mandis, the government proposed Rs 495 while the KEA settled for Rs 518.
“In retail the government gave us a profit of Rs 20 rupees per kg, asking us to sell at Rs 515. Since 2016 we have had a profit of Rs 30. Now Rs 10 have been further reduced and at a time when we have to deal with huge inflation?” Riggo said.
He added that there are thousands of those who deal with sheep heads, hooves, and internal organs of the livestock and they too have lost their livelihood.
Around 35000 families are associated with the business. “We are not allowed to explain our grievances. The officials are inconsiderate and do not calculate our expenses. It is retailers who have to face the people ultimately”, he said. “We want as retailers the profit of Rs 50 instead of Rs 20.”
Regoo pointed out to some “black sheep” in the community who are able to transport livestock through clandestine methods. This smuggling, according to him, is what the government should ban rather than going after shopkeepers and forcing them to open shops.
Despite directions from the court to review the rates, Riggo said, the Director FCS&CA took four years to hold the rate fixation meeting. “Why frequent review meetings were not held to ensure the stability of meat prices?” Riggo questioned.
According to President All Kashmir Wholesale Mutton Dealers Association Mehraj Ud Din, Kashmir consumes meat worth over Rs 5 crores daily and yearly it is around Rs 2000 to Rs 2500 crores of import.
The authorities, he said, are reluctant to understand the basic issue and are adamant with their proposed prices which are unreasonable for present market conditions.
In November last year, the government proposed a Rs 480 rate per kg and in 2016 it was Rs 400. In four years of time, only Rs 80 have been enhanced. The KEA acted as a mediator to end the deadlock as the government is turning blind eye to facts on the ground and subsequently study teams were constituted to address the issue.
But until now, meditations and discussions have failed.
“We suggested Rs 550 to the government but they are adamant on not more than Rs 520,” Mehraj Ud Din said. “The government should take recent reports into considerations and take retailers profit margins into consideration”.
Din added that the basic rates of the livestock are fixed by the sellers and commission agents sitting in mandis, not by wholesalers or the retailers in Kashmir. “About 25 vehicles reach the valley on a daily basis from the Mandis,” he said, adding that the mutton sellers would welcome the laws which organize the rates in the public interest but their profits should also be kept into consideration.
Din welcomed the statement by the Divisional Commissioner that the unregistered mutton wholesalers will not be allowed to operate their businesses from April 1.
Div Com Speaks
Pandurang K Pole said that the FCSCA had finalised a rate of Rs 480 for A category mutton but the dealers termed it as unprofitable for them. When asked that the meat costs proposed by the government are less as compared to what is being sold outside Kashmir, Pole said that the rates vary from mandi to mandi. The sheep husbandry department’s analysis says, according to him, that around 35 per cent of sheep are availed by the local rears especially in villages. Many wholesalers are without registration and are operating illegally.
Pole admitted to having directed FCSCA to take strict action against mutton dealers who were found selling meat at exorbitant prices. So far, he said, 175 FIR’s were filed against violators and around 30 shops were sealed and many trucks illegally transporting livestock were seized and auctioned in Shopian, Budgam, Srinagar.
When asked when the standoff between the administration and mutton dealers will end as the festive occasions and marriages are coming, he said that we are putting on efforts in our own way and hope for an early outcome.