A worker weighs beef packages at Frigerio Conserva Allana, a slaughterhouse and meat-processing facility on the outskirts of the city of Aligarh Image Credit:

Buffalo meat exporters from India fear that the election of a new government in Uttar Pradesh will undermine their trade with the GCC and other Muslim nations in the run-up to Ramadan. And already, orders due for delivery during the fasting month that sets to begin around May 25 are weeks behind schedule and will hit the exporters in their pocket and damage their reputation.

“What should have reached Dubai in the first week of Ramadan will only reach there now in the third week,” says Ayaz Siddiqui, the general manager for operations at Frigerio Conserva Allana, a slaughterhouse and meat-processing facility on the outskirts of the city of Aligarth in western Utta Pradesh.

The shortages of buffalo meat will be felt across the UAE as well as Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia – the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Allana group also exports to 72 countries including Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia and Iraq and operates abattoirs and meat-processing units in Maharashtra, Telangana as well as Uttar Pradesh. But it’s the exports to Muslim nations, which doubles during Ramadan compared to other times of the year, that Siddiqi fears for most. And if the Indian suppliers don’t come through, Brazilian and Australian exporters will fill the gap.

Fauzan Alavi, a spokesman for the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association, claims the delay in delivering orders to the GCC and other Muslim nations represents a loss of goodwill and face – as well as money – for Indian meat producers.

With Ramadan orders received well in advance, supplies of normally dispatched a month before the start of Ramadan. With Ramadan now a week away, that hasn’t happened this year because of a crackdown in Uttar Pradesh.

The Yogi Adityanath-led Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) is coming down hard on slaughterhouses that are running illegally or are not fully complying with state laws. In Uttar Pradesh, several thousand illegal abattoirs and meat shops have closed or been shut down. Across India, there are 73 export meat units registered with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Exports Development Authority (APEDA) of the union Ministry of Commerce. Nine of these located in Uttar Pradesh were recently shuttered for non-compliance of health and cleanliness rules although two have since reopened.

The crackdown, however, has had a chilling effect, with many meat producing units shutting down fearing action by state agencies or cattle vigilantes associated with the BJP or its parent organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

In Aligarth alone, Al Hamd Agro Foods and HMA Agro Industries shut down immediately after the Yogi government began its campaign, and only began operation again in mid-April.

During the drive against the illegal slaughterhouses, Hindu vigilantes targeted cattle farmers and transporters. One famer from Haryana state was beaten up while transporting milch animals on April 1 and died several days later.

The vigilante action has had an immediate negative effect, curtailing the supply of buffaloes to meat factories. Frigorifico Allana, a meat-processing facility based in Ghaziabad, near Delhi, was only operating at 25 per cent capacity in mid-April, and general manager Ayaz Lakadwala said the plant was not receiving new beasts from the marketplace. Siddiqui, Lakadwala’s counterpart in Frigerio Conserva Allana said that from March 20 to April 15 while the crackdown was underway, his factory was process 300 buffalo daily compared to its 2,000-head capacity.

The meat protests have not been limited to BJP-ruled states along like Rajasthan and Jharkhand, but also the states like Delhi. Police have largely ignored the meat protests but have booked transporters on charges of cattle smuggling.

The demonstrations have also resulted in a severe drop in beef consumption.

Haji Shakeel Qureshi, chairman of Marya Agro Foods in Bareilly, a city in Western Uttar Pradesh, said 47,000 butcher shops closed down as the state government decided to frame new rules for licensing them. “Until April 27, only, 5,640 of these had been issued licences to sell meat. With Ramadan, there may be a law and order problem as the meat supply will be woefully inadequate,” Qureshi told Weekend Review.

“The rules stipulate that there can be no meat shop within 50 metres of a religious place,” he said. “Officials are also applying it to mosques within which one can consume meat. Is it not unfair?”

Qureshi, who has just returned from a tour of Saudi Arabia, said the slaughterhouse issue was damaging India’s image internationally.

He’s also the vice-president of Jamiat-ul Quresh, an association of buffalo meat producers and is threatening to call an assembly of all exporters and butchers to announce a movement against the Yogi government.

“Meat and its by-products make up 9 per cent of the Indian GDP and 33 per cent of the economy,” Qureshi said. “The ruling politicians are damaging the country.”

The Allana group says the value of its meat exports are down $90 million (Dh330 million) in comparing March 2017 with the same month in 2016. And out of that loss, the company estimates $36 million is lost in exports to GCC nations. And across the entire meat sector, the losses could be more than $180 million.

Law across India largely prohibit the slaughter of cows, while in Gujurat, anyone slaughtering a cow faces a life prison sentence. Even when it comes to buffaloes, only males and non-productive females can be slaughtered.

The crackdown in Uttar Pradesh against abattoirs and increased vigilantism against cattle farmers and transporters has also compounded issues faced by meat producers included the demonetisation of 500 and 1,000 rupee notes and Brazil’s devaluation of its currency. After the demonetisation measures were introduced on November 8, it became mandatory for slaughterhouses to pay famers electronically.

Haji Yakub Qureshi, a former lawmaker from Meerut who runs a slaughterhouse and a processing unit, said the stipulation on digital payments made it very difficult for him to buy buffaloes from farmers. “Farmers do not accept cheques and electronic transfers and we cannot make cash payments to them,” he said.

India became the largest exporter of buffalo meat globally in 2015, pushing Brazil to the number two spot. Since then, however, Brazil has devalued its currency several times and recaptured the top position.

According to APEDA statistics, buffalo meat registered a decline of 6 per cent over the past year, with the value of exports sliding from $3.74 billion to $3.52 billion. Exports to the UAE market have declined consistently since 2014 when they fetched $130.8 million, to $114.8 million in 2015 and $83.4 million last year.

According to Dr Amarpreet Sidhu, the general manager for veterinary science and animal husbandry in the Allana group, every year 18 million male buffalo calves are born in India, and 14 million of these die within the first year itself. Since these male calves are not of much use for the farmers and can be a good raw material for slaughterhouses, several Indian meat exporters joined with farmers to ensure they live up to two years, by which stage they have achieved 70 per cent of their full-adult growth.

“Agriculture has been mechanised leaving little use of the male buffalo calves. Farmers can earn up to 10,000 rupees per calf by selling them to us,” Dr Sidhu said.

In the BJP manifesto for Uttar Pradesh state polls in March this year, the party promised to ban slaughterhouses.

Buffalo meat exporters in India either buy carcasses from slaughterhouses or purchase unproductive buffaloes directly from weekly cattle markets or farmers. A market is organised within 20 km radius of the meat factory/slaughter house.

After certification by government doctors that a buffalo was not pregnant and did not yield milk, it is slaughtered according to Halal requirements. The meat is processed, frozen, and sent to Mumbai for export to different countries overseas. India exports buffalo meat to around 85 countries, and Vietnam is largest importer of its produce. The buffalo meat industry employs 2.5 million people directly.