Kolkata: This past Saturday, Sami-ul-Haq Qureishi was in mourning. But it was not just because Sunday was Muharram, the day on which Muslims mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed.
Qureishi’s melancholy stemmed from the fact that the octogenarian, who owns a shop in New Market, the city’s biggest wholesale poultry market, has seen his sales hit hard by bird flu epidemic in the state. “I sold barely 50 chickens yesterday and today only 10 till now,” said Qureishi on Saturday, squatting on his haunches and swatting flies with a whisk. “Before you people started writing about this bird fever, I would sell 200-300 a day,” he grumbled.
Another trader, Sheikh Sajjad, explains, “This is only because of change of season, you see.” He claims to have sold 12 birds on the day before the festival. “Though it is a festival of mourning, people do buy in bulk to serve at the end of the day,” he says.
However, both Qureishi and Sajjad are determined not to cut prices drastically to boost sales. “It’s in people’s minds and even if we offer a 50% cut, they will not buy till the scare has passed,” says Qureishi. “It’s better to hold on to our birds, which came in before the epidemic, and wait for prices to stabilize,” he added.
While wholesale prices, which were Rs45-55 a kg, have come down by Rs5-7 a kg, retail prices have dropped by about Rs10-12 a kg.
But the hardest hit by the drop in prices are the poultry owners. “We’re not only facing the prospects of having our stock culled by the government, but whatever little sales we are making are at throwaway prices because of the pressure exerted by wholesalers and middlemen,” said Madhusudan Mondol, a poultry owner at Memari, in Burdwan district.
Though Burdwan has still not been afflicted by the avian influenza virus, the rumours have been enough to drive Mondol, who has 3,000 birds in his farm, to despair.
While the poultry sector is suffering, the bird flu scare has come as a windfall to the goat-sellers of Rajabazar.
“Business is good,” beams Mohammed Altaf Khan, thumbing a wad of currency notes, after seeing off an entire herd of goats to their final destination. “I have sold 150 goats today compared with the 80-100 I used to sell before people stopped eating chicken,” says Khan.
Prices have also gone up, much to the glee of Khan and his fellow traders who operate in the largest wholesale market for goats in the city. “There has been a Rs10-20 increase in prices from our end,” says Khan. The wholesale price is now Rs170-190 a kg. A similar increase, both in prices and sales, has been witnessed by fish sellers as well, though beef and pork have remained more or less static.
With the World Health Organization declaring the current outbreak as being potentially more dangerous than the country’s previous brushes with the epidemic, orders are expected to dry up further. “Chicken has completely gone off the shelves,” says S. Ramani, managing partner of the Savourites Group, which not only operates restaurants such as 6 Ballygunge Place, but also supplies almost 4,000 packed meals to various IT companies from its catering division.
“The fish and mutton suppliers are making a killing,” he says.
“Not to speak of open market purchase, even contractual suppliers are pushing for a hike in rates,” he added.
The city’s ubiquitous roll shops, which provide a quick meal to many on the move, have shunned chicken. “No one wants chicken rolls anymore,” says Noor Mohammed, who works at a roll shop on Park Street.