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Fear, gloom and loathing: Inside one of Tamil Nadu’s weekly cattle markets

This May, the Central government introduced a new set of rules to regulate livestock markets ‘with the objective of preventing cruelty to animals and streamlining trade in cattle.’

analysis Updated: Jul 16, 2017 07:21 IST
Cattle Market,Cattle Trade,Tamil Nadu
Sales have dropped and hundreds of cows remain unsold at the market.(G Rajaram)

Fear and apprehension are writ large on their vulnerable faces. The men huddle in a makeshift asbestos-roof shack where they kill time playing cards till the time is ‘right to move out.’ Not surprisingly, cattle traders in Tamil Nadu are wary of strangers right now.

In the hot, sprawling maidan at Thamaraipakkam Koot Road village in Thiruvallur district, the weekly cattle fair has just wound up. At five in the mornings of every Tuesday, hundreds of traders converge at the Maidan, hoping to sell or buy the cattle. The sandhai typically looks like a sea of human beings and cattle. The ‘business’ is generally brisk, and traders talk not just about cattle, they crack jokes and build a camaraderie, that becomes lasting relationships sometimes. By 12 noon, the Sandhai is closed.

“We wound it up an hour before the usual closing time today. We cannot afford to take any risks,” says Yesumani from Vengal, a nearby village. Yesumani is a cattle trader and also runs a slaughterhouse at Vengal. For over three decades now, Yesumani has been a regular at the Thamaraipakkam Koot Road cattle fair, but has never felt as nervous as he has been for the last couple of weeks. “We are not even sure if running this cattle fair is still legal,” he says.

In Tamil Nadu, cattle fairs are huge weekly affairs bringing traders from across the length and breadth of the country. The Thamaraipakkam fair is one of the busiest though not as big as its counterparts in Pollachi or Vellore. “We have people from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and even far off places in Tamil Nadu visiting this fair,” says Yesumani. “They still do but unlike a month ago, they cannot afford to leave immediately [with their purchase]. They have to wait for the right time to take their cattle away.”

This May, the Central government introduced a new set of rules to regulate livestock markets ‘with the objective of preventing cruelty to animals and streamlining trade in cattle.’ The regulations, heavy on the red tape and swarming with proposed committees (that will include the police), are aimed at ensuring that the livestock markets cannot be used to sell or buy cattle for slaughtering them for meat. A cattle buyer has to make a written declaration to a committee, which will hold on to it for six months, that s/he will not re-sell the livestock for slaughter. The rules apply to camels, buffaloes, cows and bulls.

A week after the regulations were announced, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court stayed the slaughter ban for a period of four weeks, and directed the Central and State governments to file counter-affidavits. In her petition, Madurai based activist-cum-lawyer S Selvagomathy called the ban an intrusion into the fundamental right to food. Undeterred by the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the regulations, Selvagomathy said she will continue to fight the ban.

But the four-week stay does not mean much to cattle traders who have been extremely anxious since the regulations came into force.

Cattle traders from different parts of Tamil Nadu at the fair. (G Rajaram)

In practice, this means Yesumani will have to live in fear to undertake a livelihood that he has always practised. “I know nothing else. Every week I take my bike and go to places in Andhra Pradesh to find good cattle that I can sell in the Thamaraipakkam Koot Road Sandhai. I use them at my slaughterhouse. I have been doing this for years. Now it all seems so scary.”

Every week at this particular cattle fair, at least 700 cattle are sold (in the bigger weekly sandhais like in Pollachi or Vellore, as many as 5,000-6,000 cattle are bought and sold.) On 13 June, when this reporter visited the Thamaraipakkam Sandhai, only 300 cattle were sold.

“I could only sell eight cows though I had more. I got money only for five. Normally, we get the money immediately. But with so few takers for our cattle, we have to agree to give them on credit even though we are not sure the money would reach us as promised next week,” Yesumani says.

R Anbuvendhan, president of the Tamil Nadu Beef Merchants and Workers Association in Chennai, agrees that the livestock markets are plunged in gloom and fear. He says, “In a place where we normally get 5,000 cattle [for buying and selling], we only get 1,000 today. The regulations have severely affected the cattle trade.”

The regulations have affected the prices too.

Traditionally, the price at the sandhai is fixed by shaking hands under cover of a piece of cloth. Under the cloth, the buyer indicates his price by stretching the corresponding number of fingers while the seller bargains by stretching his own number of fingers. Experts say the prices were once never discussed openly.

Narendran, an angry young man among the group of traders this reporter met, says all that is passé. He is ready to talk numbers. He points to an emaciated buffalo. That one, Narendran says, is difficult to sell even for Rs 8,000. To give a sense of scale he says, “A healthy cow can be sold at Rs 30,000.”

Narendran adds furiously, “But today even that is a problem. A family has to spend Rs 300 every day to feed its cow or buffalo. If it yields milk, it is fine because the milk can be sold at Rs 500. But look at her.” He points to another sturdy looking buffalo. “She is ten years old now. She should have borne a calf from when she was three. She hasn’t had even a single calf till now. How do we maintain her? Many families that are breeders are essentially poor. It is difficult for us to spend hundreds of rupees every day to maintain a cow or a buffalo that doesn’t give milk. Why would anyone sell a healthy cow?” Narendran asks, countering the argument that the aim of the slaughter ban is to ensure that only healthy cattle are being sold.

Kumaresan has his own unhappy story. He has come to the Thamaraippakkam sandhai from Theni near Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu. After buying a few cows, he hasn’t been able to go home. “Usually, some of us pool in money and hire a lorry to transport the cattle. Until about two weeks ago, we’d leave immediately. We know we have to pay the traffic police on the way and handle the groups that claim to save cows. But now everything is super-priced. If I used to pay Rs 100 to a traffic cop in May, now I have to shell out Rs 500. My wife keeps calling to ask when I am heading back. I am just waiting for the time when the cops would perhaps be a bit relaxed and not worry about collecting money from us.”

Selvaraj, also from Theni, says he can no longer borrow from moneylenders because his cattle ‘have now become useless.’ “I am a farmer and I rear cattle. If I have 10 cows, I could get borrow a few lakhs of money for credit to invest in my farm. After this ban on slaughter, people think we cannot sell our cows and refuse to lend money.”

From Yesumani to Selvaraj, farmers and traders alike in Tamil Nadu share a fear about continuing to rear cattle. “With people so worried about buying, selling or even keeping cattle, how do we even claim they are property anymore? My cattle are becoming a liability for me. We are viewed with suspicion by those outside our community,” Yesumani says.

Buffaloes being loaded for transportation. (G Rajaram)

Veteran journalist P Sainath agrees that there is going to be a drop in livestock numbers. He says, “This ban is directed against several livelihoods, against Dalits, against minorities, against OBCs and in some cases even against a few members of dominant castes who are farmers rearing cattle. But in the final analysis, it is anti-cow, the very same animal that these so called Gau rakshaks are trying to save. Since 2007, the livestock census has indicated a serious drop in the population of cattle. This ban will mean there would be a drop in desi breeds because of the doubled reluctance of farmers to go in for the maintenance of such breeds. It will also mean an increase in stray population.”

Sainath points out that many families of agricultural workers and landless labourers in many states, including Tamil Nadu, survive solely on renting out the bullock pair that they own. “That is all they have. Now that takes a hit. This ban is effectively making it difficult to buy, sell, trade and slaughter cattle.”

Back in Chennai, Anbuventhan argues that there is no blanket ban but only regulations. He admits that the market is affected by the mood, not just the word of law. “There is also this psychological factor. Even if Sadhvi Saraswathi speaks of hanging beef-eaters somewhere outside Tamil Nadu, our people get worried. They are reluctant to buy or sell beef anymore.”

In Chennai alone, at least 25,000 families are dependent on the beef business, according to R Ethiraj, the president of the Tamil Nadu Slaughter House Association. “Beef is poor man’s food. Even a few weeks ago it was sold at Rs 200 per kg. Now it is being sold at Rs 300 per kg. This ban is only helping officials and politicians. Poor people are badly hit by this,” he says.

Ethiraj says the number of cows that come from fairs to slaughterhouses have dropped by over fifty percent. “There are 1,000 licensed beef shops in Chennai. While people continue to seek and eat beef, we are seized by fear when selling or buying it.”

Yesumani perhaps puts it best when he says it is not just about fear as it is about shame. “The government has made it a matter of shame now. To buy or sell cattle. Every sandhai opens early and closes early. We have to buy and sell cattle like we are involved in some kind of crime. This was not so till two months ago. Cattle trade had a dignity about it. This government is destroying it and that is most painful.”

Breaking into tears, angry Narendran nods in agreement. “This government is destroying our lives and livelihoods to cater to the interests of a few.”

But for now, they are in no mood to cave entirely. Narendran says, “We have no option. We will continue to buy and sell cattle, even if we are killed for it. We have to defy the ban. Because this is our livelihood.”

(Published in association with GRIST MEDIA)

First Published: Jun 27, 2017 08:04 IST