Mumbai: In villages across Gujarat, a midnight phone call brings volunteers stumbling out of bed to ambush trucks passing through, preventing them from transporting livestock between countryside farms and city slaughterhouses.
For five years, these mostly Jain volunteers have relied on a network of informers for such tip-offs and claim they have managed to save an estimated 12,000 animals from their impending deaths in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
“Our informers give us a truck number and tell us the place it is going to, and we decide the possible routes it could take,” says Girish Shah, a Mumbai-based Jain who runs the Samasth Mahajan Trust, a conglomeration of 242 trusts and several thousand volunteers. “Then, we lay the traps in two or three places. When the truck comes close, volunteers rush out on the road and force it stop.”
But, these spur-of-the-moment efforts pale in comparison to the orchestrated victory the activists won in March as their organization and strategizing resulted in a Supreme Court decision. The court ruled that state governments must close slaughterhouses during the Jain ritual fast of paryushan commemorating non-violence that begins on Tuesday.
Animal activism: Jain volunteers of the Samasth Mahajan Trust in a village in Gujarat rescue animals headed for slaughterhouses. (Photograph: Girish Shah/Mint)
The states of Gujarat and Maharashtra are abiding by the ruling, which will reduce the supply of meat in shops in towns and cities even as the Jains are gearing for their next battle that hopes to scuttle the government’s plans for a slaughterhouse expansion in the Deonar section of Mumbai.
The irony of the non-violent Jains’ fervent battle and activism has raised many questions about the role of government in citizens’ religion and, ultimately, refrigerators. Slaughterhouses, a growing sector of the economy amid changing diets of Indians and more demand for exports, remain largely under state control, due to a more than century-old British edict.
But, observers wonder what business the court has in invoking religious sentiment to shut slaughterhouses and meat shops in a secular democracy. On one issue, though, the two sides seem to agree: Why is the government still in the business of killing and selling meat?
On their way to slaughter, animals fill the back of trucks, usually piled on top of each other, feet tied in ropes and horns ramming into bellies and eyes of their fellow goats, chickens, pigs, cattle. Since Indian law requires them to be transported in better conditions than this, volunteers are able to involve the local police and force the driver to let the animals go.
“We then take them to our lands, where our doctors attend to their wounds and nurse them back to health,” says Shah, who spearheads this Rs72 crore project, funded mostly by donations from the Jain community. The project not only saves animals, but the environment, too; to feed the livestock, he says, “we are transforming 12,000 acres of wasteland into grassland.”
His organization has collaborated with other Jain bodies and political parties, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to launch a three-pronged offensive on the meat industry. In addition to rescuing animals, the group is lobbying intensely to prevent further expansion of slaughterhouses—especially the proposed Rs125 crore makeover of the Deonar slaughterhouse to facilitate the killing of 10,000 more animals every day. “I do not want my tax money to fund the death of any more animals,” says Yogesh Shah, a Jain who runs the Mumbai-based Himsa Virodhak Sangh, or anti-violence association.
By this, he refers to a law dating back about 130 years, when the British made slaughterhouses a government responsibility, and municipal corporations began running abattoirs across India. Over the last 60 years, slaughterhouses have increased more than 100-fold, from 345 to about 36,000, and the cattle population has declined at 1.18% a year.
“Now, they want to expand the Deonar slaughterhouse and increase its killing capacity from 4,000 to 14,000 animals,” says Shah. He explains that law requires the state to provide meat only for the local population. A Bombay Municipal Corporation resolution of 1983 prohibits the state from exporting “any meat, beef or pork whatsoever from this country”.
But, Deonar slaughterhouse records reveal that it has exported the meat of bullocks, goats and sheep. A copy of these records, seen by Mint, shows that meat of 387,953 buffaloes and 10,878,424 sheep and goats was illegally exported to West Asian countries between 1990 and 2006. Allegations of financial mismanagement have also dogged the slaughterhouse and records of the same period reveal that the abattoir has made losses of Rs89 crore. The abattoir did not return calls for comment.
Meaty issue: Animals on their way to slaughter are usually piled on top of each other, feet tied in ropes. Since Indian law requires them to be transported in better conditions than this, volunteers are able to involve the local police and force the driver to let the animals go. (Photograph: Girish Shah/Mint)
Others, such as the BJP municipal corporator in Mumbai, Manoj Kotak, question the presence of the state in the meat business. “Just regulate the slaughterhouses and provide them to private, licensed operators. Why should a municipality run them? And if it is doing this for the non-vegetarian citizens, then it should run a vegetable house for the vegetarians, too. Why does it not start that enterprise as well?”
He declares that his party will oppose any move to expand the abattoir. “We will not let it happen. There is no need to kill cattle in India to export it to other countries. Certainly, no need for the state to do it.” The Deonar issue has pitted old allies—the BJP and the Shiv Sena—against each other. Shiv Sena corporator Ranvir Vaykar says the government is committed to the revamp at Deonar. “We will do it,” he pithily declares, even as Jain organizations are readying to “use every means in our power to prevent it from happening,” says Shah. “We will simply not let it happen.”
Overturning a previous Gujarat high court order that called the ban a violation of the butcher’s fundamental right to carry out business and profession, the Supreme Court has allowed the state to close all slaughterhouses during paryushan as a mark of respect for the religious feelings of Jains. Defending its stand, the court said religious tolerance was more important than the rights of butchers.
Arun Oza, a key petitioner and one of the founders of Gujarat-based Himsa Virodhak Sangh, says the verdict has brought a small sense of closure to him. “I have fought in many courtrooms for 15 years,” says Oza, who filed the case and says it has brought many highs and lows. But in the end, “it all worked out”.
If all states implemented the decision, 36,000 abattoirs across the country can be asked to shut shop. But, as it stands, only three states with dominant Jain population will have to make that choice: Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. And so, as the debate spills over from the court into politics, those in favour of the Deonar expansion find themselves opposing the verdict. In Mumbai, Shiv Sena’s Vaykar says this is a free country and the government should not enter the kitchens of people to tell them what to do and what not to do, “We (Hindus) also have the holy month of shravan when we fast. Are we asking others to stop eating meat while we fast? Where does this end then? As the corporation, we are required by law to provide the city with good meat. That is our work. Not to advise on what to eat.”
But BJP’s Kotak says his ally is missing the point. “We are not telling people what to eat. This order just wants the killing to stop for a few days.”
Statistics in May from the National Sample Survey Organisation show that consumption patterns across the country have changed and people now eat more meat than pulses, the traditional source of protein.
For shop-owners such as Mohsin Raza, who sells halal poultry at his shop in Crawford Market in Mumbai, it is not about ideology. “I have children to feed. I go from day to day. This is a market. You cannot decide what people will buy or not buy.”
However, the fate of the proposal to close Mumbai’s abattoirs will be decided by municipal commissioner Jairaj Phatak, who will take the final decision on closing the Deonar slaughterhouse during the Jain fast, and he says he is still thinking about it.
Meanwhile, the verdict has found easier acceptance in Gujarat, where 600,000 Jains and largely vegetarian Gujaratis live: All its 32 slaughterhouses will remain closed for all nine days of the fast. Since municipality-run slaughterhouses are the only legal source of meat in the country, technically the entire meat trade should come to a standstill when they close.
But that will not happen because just as in the rest of India, Gujarat has 13,000 illegal ones, mostly run by butchers behind their shops, that will continue to ply the state with meat through the days of the fast. “Illegal slaughterhouses are a huge problem in the state,” concedes Wadilal Kamdar, Gujarat-based member of the Animal Welfare Board of India.
Even the Jains do not expect any dramatic impact on the sale of meat during their fast. “We are not deluding ourselves into thinking that this is going to have an impact. See, most Muslims eat halal meat. It has to be fresh and the meat coming from the slaughterhouses is a day or two old, so many do not buy it,” explains Shah. “For us, this is just vindication.”