Beef off menu in Maharashtra

MUMBAI // Until recently, Babu Qureshi had cooked the same dish every day for the past eight years: beef kebab masala. The 67-year-old chef, who works in Al Rehmani restaurant in south Mumbai now stands idle, having been demoted to the position of a waiter following a ban on beef in the state of Maharashtra. He faces an uncertain future.

“What can I do?” he sighs.

The beef ban, which was imposed by the state this month, ruled by the Hindu nationalist BJP, extended the existing prohibition of slaughtering cows to bulls and bullocks. Under the new law, sale or possession of the meat can result in imprisonment for up to five years. Cows are considered sacred by majority Hindus.

This is having a major impact on businesses across Mumbai, the state’s largest city, involved in the meat trade.

“About 15 million people in Maharashtra are directly or indirectly dependent on beef,” said Mohammed Aslam Khan, a beef trader, who was among those led a protest in Mumbai last Tuesday, which attracted hundreds of those affected by the ban. “We’re not sure what’s going to happen to our livelihoods. We demand that the government reverses the ban or provides us with alternative employment.”

In Crawford Market, one of the Mumbai’s most popular and historic markets, butchers who sell beef have gone on strike because of the ban.

Anis Qureshi, 50, says he has been working as a beef butcher almost all his life, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

“The government has got it wrong,” he says. “We’ve been working here selling beef since the time of the British.”

He says that there are 200 stalls which used to sell beef in Crawford Market, each one on average employing six people.

The Qureshi community – a Muslim sub-caste in India – has been associated with the beef industry for generations.

Aslam Khan, 21, a migrant worker from Lucknow in Utter Pradesh is a labourer for the butchers in the market. He was earning 250 rupees (Dh14) a day, 100 rupees of which he would send home to his family in north India. Now, he is earning nothing, he says.

Zahoor Khan, 55, another butcher in Mumbai, says that his family of four children and his wife who live in the Gonda district of Uttar Pradesh were dependent on the 3,000 to 4,000 rupees he would send home, largely generated from sales of beef.

Those butchers could still sell water buffalo meat but have chosen to shut down completely in protest.

The Deonar abattoir in Mumbai, which according to Bloomberg, slaughters 400 buffalo and bullocks a day and generates 250,000 rupees a day for the city’s government, has stopped operations following the ban. Other abattoirs across the city have also halted the slaughter of water buffalo by way of protesting against the ban.

Water buffalo meat, which sometimes comes under the definition of beef, however, is still permitted in the state. The vast majority of bovine meat which is produced and exported from India is actually buffalo meat.

India is the world’s largest producer of buffalo meat, known as carabeef, accounting for 42.8 per cent of production globally, according to the US department of agriculture (USDA). It expects production of the meat to grow from 4.1 million tonnes last year to 4.3 million tonnes this year, with exports to the Middle East, Africa, and South East Asia predicted to rise.

Exports of buffalo meat to the UAE reached about 7.8 billion rupees and 43,793 tonnes in the year ended March 2103 compared with 6.6bn rupees and 43,651 tonnes the previous year.

Exports of cow meat from India are not permitted under the law, although it is widely believed that exports out of the country do consist of some cow meat. Cattle are often smuggled to states where slaughtering cows is not illegal, including Kerala.

Al Qureshi Exports in Mumbai, which exports buffalo meat to countries including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, has its own abattoir and meat-processing plant, has not felt any impact from the beef ban.

“We have no problem in our business and volumes,” says Shakir Qureshi, who runs the company. “Everything is working as normal.”

Russia in December announced that it would accept buffalo meat from India, which is expected to help boost business for exporters.

In India, consumption of bovine meat is about 2 million tonnes a year, the USDA’s figures show.

Several states in India, including Gujarat, prohibit the slaughtering of cows, although some of them allow consumption of beef if it is brought in from outside of the state.

Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, is against cow slaughter and has expressed discontent with what he has described as “a pink revolution”.

Bovine meat exports rose 11-fold to reach $4.4bn in the last financial year to the end of March 2014 compared to $395 million 10 years earlier, according to data from India’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority.

One of the major appeals of beef is its price. Mohammed Zakir Qureshi, 45, a butcher, says that he was selling beef for 120 rupees a kilogram. Goat meat, meanwhile, sells for 500 rupees per kg and the price of chicken is about 50 per cent more expensive than beef, he explains.

“I used to buy three kilograms of beef a day for my own household of 10 people,” he says. “Now we’re eating vegetarian food, which is more costly. I’ve been eating beef since I was a child.”

Mohammed Mushtaq, a 50-year-old taxi driver in Mumbai, says that he is buying goat meat instead of beef now, but because it is four times in price, he can only afford to buy it in small quantities.

“Nobody has the right to tell me what to eat,” he says. “I am more inconvenienced than angry.”

A number of restaurants in Mumbai and the rest of India, including McDonald’s, do not serve beef at all anyway, because having it on the menu would deter many Hindu customers.

But for some eateries, beef was driving sales.

Yasin Kadiwal, who manages Al Rehmani restaurant, which was popular for its beef dishes, says that he has seen a drop in business because of the ban.

“We’re giving chicken instead but there’s no taste with chicken,” he says.

A manager at another restaurant in Mumbai said that a number of customers were turning up and asking for beef and would then walk out out when they found it was unavailable.

There are concerns that the ban could lead to a rise in prices of other meats and to a rise in black market trade, as well as impact on other industries including leather.

Wilfred D’Sylva, a retiree, 80, says that he relishes the taste of beef and managed to pick up half a kilo of the meat last week in Mumbai, but he paid double the market rate compared to when such a purchase would have been legal.

“I’m upset because the price of everything else will go up. Why not ban alcohol? Why not ban chicken?”

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Rebecca Bundhun

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