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Kashmir mutton price war persists at consumers’ cost

Kashmir mutton price war persists at consumers’ cost
Butchers resist selling meat at price set by government which regulates mutton as ‘essential commodity’ under law

By Hilal Mir

SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir (AA) – One of the weirdest market sights in Kashmir is a butcher shop that has dressed chicken, rather than sheep hanging from iron display hooks. For the most part of the past month, this was a common sight in Kashmir and the people were growing sick of it.

During the past more than two months, the government sealed nearly 100 butcher shops for selling the mutton at 600 Indian rupees ($7.36) a kilogram against the government-fixed price of Rs535 (around $6.56), forcing the butchers to sell it clandestinely from their home much before government employees join offices.

For the rest of the day, both as a form of protest and to supplement their income, they sold chicken. Mutton had thus become a luxury accessible only to early risers.

The tussle over rates is one of the oldest running disputes in Kashmir, apart from the disputed region’s political question itself. A meeting on Saturday that was expected to resolve the issue was canceled at the last moment. No new dates have been announced.

The latest bout of pricing war started in November 2020, when butchers stopped the sale of mutton to protest the government order asking them to sell it at 420 Indian rupees (around $5.15) a kilogram against then reigning price of Rs600 (around $7.36) per kilogram. Several meetings between the two sides ended in a deadlock even after the government raised the price to Rs535.

Butchers gradually started selling it for 600-650 rupees a kilo. But this time, the government was unrelenting in having its say, which resulted in officials of the Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution Department sealing shops.

The root cause, according to Mehraj-ud-din Ganai, general secretary of the All Kashmir Wholesale Mutton Dealers Association, is a law that makes mutton in Kashmir an “essential commodity”, like food grains. The law can be invoked in times of crisis.

The second major cause is Kashmir’s near total dependence on outside markets. Only about 5% of the sheep consumed annually are locally bred. Merchants in outside markets, therefore, have the last word on wholesale prices, Ganai told Anadolu.

Further complicating the matters is an unregulated chain of unlicensed middlemen and suppliers who, according to Ganai, are driven purely by opportunism.

- Import-driven market

Ganai said Kashmir province imports about 2 million sheep a year from several Indian states and estimates the trade is worth $350 million, involving 4,000 to 5,000 retail mutton sellers and others associated with it, like truckers.

Jammu and Kashmir has a sheep population of 3.2 million, according to India’s 20th livestock census conducted in 2019, down from 3.4 million in 2012. It ranks sixth in India, but given the demand, it is sufficient for a year and a half.

About 200,000 to 300,000 locally bred sheep are supplied to butchers by pastoral nomads and cattle farmers every year, in addition to 2 million imported from Indian states, Ganai told Anadolu. The supply from nomads is also dwindling because they are moving into other professions. Mutton is the costliest of the three types of meat — chicken and beef are the others — consumed in Kashmir province (population 6 million).

Ganai said the sheep merchants in outside markets dictate the prices but Kashmiri dealers cannot raise them accordingly because the government is always lurking around.

“The government should either control prices from outside sheep markets or cede the control and let the market decide prices like that of other non-essential commodities,” Ganai said.

But Abdul Salam Mir, the director of the Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution Department, told Anadolu that wholesalers haven’t renewed their licenses since 2014 and trade without a license is illegal.

“They have repeatedly been asked to renew licenses and now again they have been given time to renew licenses. If they don’t, the government will take alternative measures,” he said.

A licensed trader could be held accountable. But mutton dealers, according to Ganai, are asking the government to issue licenses to only those associated with the trade. In 2008, he added, there were 200-250 licensed wholesalers. Today, only 20-25 are active in the trade.

Ganai agrees with the government's view that licenses can end the monopoly of those who fix prices in markets and says that as a block, licensed traders can build pressure on outside traders. At the same time, he said, the process of issuing licenses is not immune to widespread official corruption. Let the local traders decide the eligibility for licenses, he said.

- ‘Mutton sold like contraband’

The customer has been at the receiving end of this pricing war. Nearly every locality has its own resident butcher, which makes relations with him more than business ties.

“People don’t protest much although they hold a grudge privately. Who wants to confront a butcher who is like your neighbor for 50 odd rupees,” said Ghulam Mohammad Wani, a resident of Bemina who just paid his favorite butcher Rs1,200 for 2 kilograms of mutton, against 1,100 rupees.

He said even when the butchers were on strike, he would pay Rs600 for a kilo of mutton sold like contraband at the butcher’s home.

source: News Feed
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