Slaughterhouses closed down for a short while after Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath took charge. But the relief proved to be temporary.
Two years later, things have more or less returned to their original state, and local residents continue to suffer.
Soon after Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Yogi Adityanath took oath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, he asked the police and bureaucracy to clamp down on illegal slaughterhouses in the state.
Like in several other areas, a wave of cheer ran across Meerut district’s Kharkhauda, where illegally operating abattoirs have been draining blood and other waste into the ground for many years.
The slaughterhouses did close down for about a month, but the relief proved to be temporary. Two years later, things have more or less returned to their original state and their lives continue to be miserable, say residents.
Swarajya visited several villages in Kharkhauda, where residents have long had complaints from the slaughterhouses and meat processing plants that dot their landscape. These villages are most tormented by the very element that once facilitated their settlement – water.
Where River Is Terror And Sickness A Way Of Life
For 56 years, an infamous slaughterhouse operated on Hapur Road that was controversially shut down and demolished in 2012. The illegal abattoir facilitated the slaughter of thousands of animals every day, including milch cattle, without any medical examination or supervision, and all the waste went into the local drains, eventually draining into kali nadi.
In Hindi parlance, a meat processing unit that is also a slaughterhouse is called ‘kamela’, but in Meerut’s context, it specifically refers to this particular unit.
“The kamela has ruined the river forever. When we were young, the water was so clean that we would bathe in it,” Shriom Tyagi, 48, a resident of Kaul village, told Swarajya. Today, he wouldn’t even touch this water. “We used it for washing clothes and even drinking. The kamela has reduced it to its present state,” he said.
Residents say it is not just the river but the entire ecosystem around it that has been contaminated.
Radheshyam Sharma, also of Kaul village, said that the state of the groundwater had become so bad that the government itself stopped installing hand-pumps long ago. As an alternative, the government built an overhead water tank 2 km away.
“But that was all that they did. Since they built the tank, it has been us villagers and our pradhan who have been maintaining it using our own resources,” said Sharma.
Rekha Devi from Kaul village said the tank provides water only once a week. “At times, we don’t get it for 15 days in a row. So we store as much water as we can whenever we get it.”
Some well-off villagers, like Rekha’s neighbour Yogendra Kumar, have built large underground cement water tanks to store water, but others are forced to either borrow water or turn to hand-pumps as a last resort.
Residents say the soil and water have been contaminated to the extent that sickness has become a way of life in the area. They say cancer is increasingly becoming as common as fever and claim that at least 40 people have died of cancer in nearby villages in the last year alone.
In Kaul, more than 10 people succumb to one form of cancer or another every year, said Radheshyam Sharma, and took us to meet his neighbour Lal Singh, 71, who is suffering from throat cancer. He blamed the polluted water from meat plants for his illness.
Singh, a pensioner of the Indian Railways, said he was being treated for free at an empanelled hospital in Haryana’s Faridabad district, but added that most other residents don’t have this facility. Singh’s brother passed away from abdominal cancer last year.
Villagers say they learn of the disease only at the advanced stages. They say that if they go through regular check-ups, most of them would be diagnosed of cancer or some other serious disease.
When this correspondent checked for water quality, it was found that water from hand-pumps of Kaul could easily pass off as sugarcane juice by its colour, whereas water from a hand pump adjacent to a meat plant in Allipur resembled a yellowish aerated drink.
Devender Sharma, the pradhan of Khaspur village, told Swarajya that he got a reverse osmosis (RO) plant with a 3,000 litre tank installed in his village with the help of a private company.
But activists say it makes little difference.
Meerut-based Vijay Pandit, who runs a non-governmental organisation called Green Care Society, told Swarajya that contaminated water from a hand pump is fed to the cattle (many households rear cattle), and their contaminated milk in turn is consumed by residents. “This means that even if people turn to options like RO plants, they cannot escape contamination,” he said.
Health is only one of the concerns of these villages. They are affected in a number of other ways as well.
A farmer in Allipur said his sugarcane could barely produce jaggery, which he blamed on polluted soil.
Another resident said his sons could not get married as “no father would be willing to send their daughter to a place where meat plants abound”.
Villagers said “adamkhor kutte” or flesh-eating dogs around meat plants have been a nightmare. Dogs feeding on flesh often fatally attack villagers tending to their farms along the kali nadi. They recounted several cases of farmers being killed by such dogs, something that has made it to the local press in Meerut.
“Illegal Slaughterhouses Reopened After Bribing Officials”
While the kamela was certainly a major problem, villagers continue to bear the burden of a host of other illegally run meat plants in the area. Swarajya found rows and rows of meat plants, often adjacent to agricultural land, running across a number of villages around Kaul, such as Allipur, Setkuan, Peepli Kheda, Bijauli, and Bahrampur.
Activist Ravinder Gurjar, who has been campaigning against slaughterhouses in the area, said he has followed the trade for the past 15 years and found the problem to have greatly worsened in the last four to five years.
He said Yogi Adityanath’s crackdown did close some plants in 2017, but they reopened after “bribing officials and local politicians”.
“None of these plants has their building plans approved by the MDA [Meerut Development Authority],” said Gurjar, who runs an organisation called Paryavaran Sudhar Sangharsh Samiti. “The DM [district magistrate] and all the officials have been paid to keep mum. Regional MLAs and the MP don’t have a word to spare on this,” he added.
According to him, around 80 villages, which are home to over 1 lakh people, are affected by the plants.
The only relief the crackdown seems to have brought is that the meat plants don’t litter streets anymore. They no longer release their waste into external drains.
“All of these plants have dug borewells within their premises, and they pump their liquid waste into the ground. No eyebrows are raised as it’s not visible to outsiders,” said Gurjar.
A meat plant worker confirmed this to Swarajya. Speaking on a condition of anonymity, he said that even though effluent treatment plants are mandatory and all meat plants do have them on paper, none exists and all the waste is pumped underground through borewells.
This means that while the ground continues to get contaminated, it’s now done away from the public eye. The mandatory diktat on effluent plants is not followed. To make matters worse, public outrage against the slaughterhouses has reduced.
Meat plants have made another change in their modus operandi, one that could further add to the water woes of the residents in the near future.
In order to reduce waste, they have started to sell most of the solid waste as eatable, and it’s consuming a large amount of water.
A trade insider, speaking anonymously, told Swarajya that these days, parts of animals that were earlier thrown away as waste are now being supplied to the market.
“Leave aside the heads and nails of the chicken; hoofs, horns, and skin of cows, buffaloes and goats; and scrotum in the case of male animals. Everything else is now being consumed and, therefore, has commercial value,” he said. “Their intestines would earlier be discarded, but now they are not.”
The meat plant worker we spoke to, confirmed this. He said intestines, particularly that of buffaloes, are in demand abroad, particularly in China, and are thus an essential part of their exports.
The insider said that while “upper classes” eat the “better” parts, such as the chest, leg, and back of the animal, “lower classes” eat the “waste” parts, too.
“They clean intestines in boiled water and eat it after filling it with spices. Skin of the chicken, earlier discarded as a practice, is now roasted and eaten,” he said.
He said such consumption by the “lower sections” was earlier catered to by small-scale local butchers, but now even large meat plants have begun supplying this “waste” to the market.
He admitted that this trend has adverse side-effects, as it not only increases the liquid waste, which is drained into the ground, but also uses far more water in the processing of the “waste”.
Nuisance For Residents But Boon For Politics
Many people in the trade happen to be political figures with the strong backing of their parties. Yakub Qureshi, a former Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lawmaker, was the contractor of Meerut’s controversial kamela, and it is said that it was only due to bad blood between him and Samajwadi Party (SP) strongman Azam Khan that the kamela could be razed to the ground.
On the other hand, Al Fahim Meatex, one of the largest Indian exporters of buffalo meat, has demolition orders dating back to 2017 after it came to light that its plant was built on government land. But nothing has happened till date, and the plant continues to function despite sporadic calls for action.
Since the meat trade primarily involves the Muslim community, the discourse around it is highly politicised. In the run-up to the 2019 general election, the issue of stray cattle is being raked up, with a large section of the media blaming it on Yogi Adityanath’s crackdown on slaughterhouses. The crackdown is being seen as an attack on the Muslim community.
But our visits showed that slaughterhouses themselves have long evaded mainstream media attention despite being central to the woes of a host of villages, including Muslim-populated ones.
Mohammad Shaukeen, pradhan of Aadh village, told Swarajya that some years ago, a meat plant was being set up in their village, but the project was shelved after villagers protested and even clashed with construction workers on the site. “The meat plant would have been a disaster for us,” Shaukeen said.
Sajid Khan, a 22-year-old resident of Aadh village, said that unlike popular perception, meat plants don’t necessarily create jobs. According to him, neither the owners nor the workforce in most of these plants comprises locals. He said almost the entire workforce was from outside the state, such as West Bengal and Bihar, and many were even from Nepal and China.
The meat plant worker who Swarajya spoke to, confirmed Sajid’s claim of the workforce being from outside the state. He said that he himself hailed from Bihar, from a village near the India-Nepal border beyond Motihari. We said he could not confirm the presence of foreign labour as claimed by Sajid.
Sajid also said that some better-off Muslims who have given land for meat plants to operate, silence the protests against them.
Laxity and complicity on the part of officials and politicians, as claimed by Gurjar and scores of residents, is an open secret in the area. People were indeed hopeful with the present government’s clampdown, but even that hope has now faded.
Gurjar recently wrote to Adityanath and, based on his complaints (copies of which are with Swarajya), the Meerut district magistrate formed a committee to look into the matter. But Gurjar said they haven’t yet made any headway.
A frustrated Radheshyam Sharma of Kaul village said an entire generation of children has never seen clean water. “Not just clean water, they have nothing their fathers and forefathers had – clean soil, good crops, and a chance at marriage at the right age. All thanks to an industry exploited for politics and a state that keeps abdicating its duties.”