NEW DELHI // For more than 130 years, the old slaughterhouse in one of Delhi's busiest shopping districts has kept the small halal butchers of Chandni Chowk well-stocked. Now, a shiny new slaughterhouse has opened up on the outskirts of town, and it is spelling death for the dozens of small meat sellers who have plied their trade in this predominantly Muslim quarter for generations.
Last week the Supreme Court ended a 15-day butchers' strike by upholding the Idagh slaughterhouse closure. An appeal is due on November 19, but development of the site into a shopping mall by the telecom giant, Reliance Industries, now seems certain. The price of meat is rising as costs associated with the new abattoir are factored in, and hundreds of people are being pushed out of work. Crammed into Old Delhi's ancient maze of narrow alleyways, many of these small butcher families have been in the business for as long as they can remember. "This is an ancestral job," said Shamsad, sitting in an empty shop with no meat to sell. "This is the only work I can do. I am unemployed."
The same story is repeated endlessly as you walk the narrow lanes of walled Shahjahanabad, the city's ancestral heart. Dozens of tiny meat shops were closed, or the butchers were sitting inside on empty shelves, watching the world go by, or whittling idle knives. The more enterprising are switching to poultry, but even these had full chicken coops late one weekday afternoon. Without any customers, they had plenty of time to talk.
"People here at the 7,000 rupees [Dh550] per month level cannot afford these prices," said Reisuddin, a third generation butcher outside his shop, Mohd Shahid, opposite the Jama Masjid Mosque. "I have to spend so much to buy the meat now, the shop is not worth it." By some estimates, 10,000 people have lost their jobs, although no butchers' licences have been cancelled yet. "We have lost the game," said a damp-eyed MA Qureshi, the head of the Delhi Meat and Mutton Association.
"We are disappointed and we don't know how long we will manage in the future." These Old Delhi butchers blame their misfortune on the new Ghazipur slaughterhouse, which has been kitted out with the latest German steel technology and is a vast improvement in sanitation and meat production standards. Refrigeration is available, for one thing. Animals are also shocked before slaughter, and bled on stainless steel tables rather than on the floor.
But these best practices cost money - as does the 20km journey to and from the outskirts of town, which the butchers now have to take to collect their produce. "It is very difficult for us to use that. It is very far from our houses," said Mr Qureshi. "The small butchers are not allowed there either." This did not seem backed up by the facts, however, on a visit to the new 70-acre site last week with Mr Qureshi and two of his burly Halal butcher friends.
Along the way out to the new plant, Mr Qureshi outlined his group's complaints, including the redundancies caused by automation, a sharp increase in slaughtering costs, and the new site's location right next to a landfill site and two foul-smelling open drains, which he said were a health risk. The butchers are now having to travel the route twice a day through Delhi's chaotic traffic, often taking two or more buses. They are now paying more for what they buy because of higher meat processing costs in the new plant. But it is clear that standards have risen alongside prices.
MC Ranna, the site manager from the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, worked with Mr Qureshi and his friends for 35 years at the old site. Asked why the price of meat was rising so sharply, Mr Ranna declined to speculate. "That I cannot explain. I don't explain the price of anything. The only thing I can say is, the quality will improve." "We have lost the game," Mr Qureshi kept repeating sadly. The hardship felt by the butchers and their customers is real.
Butcheries such as Qureshi's Popular Meat Shop in Defence Colony will survive, thanks to an established business built over nearly a century. But his two sons have been pulled out of college to work behind the counters, which now are filled with chicken rather than mutton and buffalo. Mohammed Mushrafil, another butcher, said he, too, would cut back. But his two children, aged five and nine, will continue to attend a private school at a cost of 1,000 rupees per month each.
"Somehow we will manage," he said. "I want them to do a different job." firstname.lastname@example.org