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Legal Eagle

Legal Eagle

Readers will pardon me for my penchant for birds (both varieties)! Post the State elections I wrote “The Dove and the Crow”, followed by “From Crow to Hawk”. Now I have climbed the evolutionary ladder to call this piece “Legal Eagle”. It does have a touch of the best seller “Where Eagles Dare”. Except that this is fact not fiction. It is about a person with an eagle’s eyes, who has cloaked his actions in “legality”.

This third part in my trilogy on the State elections is now limited to the “developments” unfolding in my home State of U.P.; and more specifically to the “legal” jargon being used to clampdown on “illegal” slaughter houses and meat vendors. An eagle is a bird with very sharp eyesight. It can identify its prey from a height of several thousand feet. I am therefore left with no option but to believe that the BJP’s crackdown on the alleged illegal meat trade is something that has been meticulously planned and executed to perfection. It is a far more precise surgical strike than its earlier avatars like the cross border one or demonetisation. This time there was hardly any collateral damage. Only the identified target was affected – the Muslims involved in the meat trade; not just buffalo meat, but all meat, mutton and chicken included.

The BJP’s master tactician, Amit Shah, identifies his targets and plans his moves carefully. The slaughter ban was not a bolt from the blue or eagle’s swoop by Yogi Adityanath. He was but the executioner (call this a pun if you so choose). This was very much a part of the BJP’s election manifesto in U.P. It achieved its dual purpose of hitting the Muslims hard and scoring brownie points with its saffron surge voters.

It is only now that the general public is becoming aware that the slaughtering of animals for food is covered by a plethora of laws, and that most of the slaughter houses in U.P. had been “legally” shut down by various orders of the Supreme Court or the National Green Tribunal (NGT); for not fulfilling various norms. So nobody could really fault the Yogi Govt for taking apparently legal steps to clamp down on patent illegality. That, unfortunately, is only a half-truth, which we know is more dangerous than a lie.

Why do I consider the ban on slaughter houses malafide? For two reasons. Firstly, because it is not the only illegality in U.P., that warranted such drastic action. Secondly, because it is well nigh impossible to “legalise” the meat trade. Let me clarify both points.

First, about illegalities. Almost every activity in U.P., be it trade, housing, transport or whatever, is illegal in some way, because it is not fulfilling the necessary criteria. I will here limit myself to two forms of illegality. The first is about places of worship. There is hardly a police station or a Govt building that does not have a temple on its precincts, let alone the mushrooming temples on public roads, pavements, parks etc. If the Govt is so enthusiastic about the eradication of “illegalities” then why doesn’t it address this glaring form of illegality? It is unbecoming for a secular State to permit temples in places where citizens of various persuasions go to seek justice or redressal. It is a criminal act to usurp Govt land.

In 1991 Parliament passed what is known as the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act. It covers temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches, monasteries and places of public worship. Sec 3 bars conversion of places of worship. Sec 4:1 states that the character of such place as on 15/8/1947 (when India gained Independence) shall remain. By implication this means that all places of public worship built on public land or premises post Independence are illegal. I am not an eagle but I would dare the Govt of U.P. to demolish all illegal places of worship without fear or favour. I might, in passing, mention that Sec 5 excludes the Ram Janmabhoomi/ Babri Masjid complex from its purview.

Now to the meat trade. We need to look beyond it to the provisions of the “Food Safety and Standards Act of India 2006” (FSSAI). Though it was enacted by Parliament in 2006 its detailed rules and regulations were formulated only in 2011. As per its provisions, any person or agency dealing in food is called a Food Business Operator (FBO). This even applies to vehicles transporting food – be it milk, vegetables, packaged items or meat. All such FBOs must be registered with the FSSAI, and renew their licences annually. I would again dare the Govt to tell us how many FBOs are registered. Unregistered ones are illegal.

I made some discreet enquiries from the concerned department in my hometown. The competent authority, on condition of anonymity, told me that when the Chairperson of the FSSAI had visited in 2014 he had insisted that all FBOs be registered. At that time 2000 major vendors and 10,000 petty vendors got themselves registered. Three years later hardly any of the petty vendors have renewed their licences. So they are all illegal. Will the Govt act against them?

Hearing a petition on non grant of licences to meat vendors the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court presided over by Justices A.P. Sahi and S. Harkauli observed that “an immediate check on unlawful activity should be simultaneous with facilitating the carrying out of lawful activity, particularly that relating to food, food habits and vending thereof that is indisputably connected with the right to life and livelihood”. Obviously, in its inordinate haste to score brownie points, the Govt has given the go-by to the right to life and livelihood of all those connected with the meat trade. This is why I consider the Govt’s motives suspect. It was harsh in its crackdown, but sluggish in its role of a facilitator.

Now let us examine some of the provisions of the FSSAI. An FBO submits an application for a licence (sub sec 3). The Designated Officer (DO) may decline to entertain the application after a hearing and giving the reasons in writing. If after two months of the application, and it has not been rejected, then the FBO may undertake food business. The DO cannot refuse the grant of licence, but can only issue an improvement notice u/s 32. Obviously most FBOs, including meat traders, are ignorant of these provisions, and the DOs have acted arbitrarily in denying/ rejecting licences or not renewing them. Besides, most of the “objections” raised by the Supreme Court and the NGT come under the gambit of “improvements” like hygienic conditions, sought to be made, and cannot be termed illegalities. Even if an application is rejected the aggrieved FBO may seek redressal from the Commissioner of Food Safety u/s 8. Hence the Govt has itself acted illegally and arbitrarily, in imposing a blanket ban on “illegal” slaughter houses and vendors by exploiting the ignorance of the FBOs.  

It has also capitalised on their fears. Overzealous cops and vigilantes are not concerned with the intricacies of the law. They would just say, “If you don’t have a licence you cannot function”. Period. The fear was palpable, with vendors of mutton, chicken and pork also downing shutters. Several allegations of extortion by cops have been reported. The vigilantes were no less. One night, just near my residence, a group of lumpen elements with wooden staves had blocked the arterial GT Road. They had seized a truck load of bovines. The cops were mute spectators. The irony was that the bovines were buffaloes, not cows. The streets are now buzzing with saffron scarf wearing young men on two wheelers, brandishing their identity. “Don’t mess with us”, they seem to say.

As per media reports poultry vendors and fish mongers need to have a tiled surface, clean knives and boiling water, in order to maintain hygienic conditions of sale. A DO of the FSSAI, on condition of anonymity, told me that the FSSAI rules are so strict that nobody can follow them. This means that meat vendors in particular will always be at the mercy of our overzealous enforcement agencies or prejudiced Govts. A great pity. The greater pity is that such officials turn a blind eye to similar unhygienic conditions rampant among street side vegetable vendors, halwais and chatwallahs. Hypocrisy and double standards.

Further, the BJP manifesto had reportedly stated that the buffalo population had come down, as also milk production, hence the urgency to clamp down on these “illegal” slaughter houses. Writing in the Sunday Hindustan Times (2nd April) Niha Masih quotes various Govt sources to show that the buffalo population in U.P. actually went up from 229 lakhs in 2003 to 306 lakhs in 2012, and milk production similarly went up from 24,863 tonnes in 2012 to 29,086 tonnes in 2016. This despite India exporting 26,681 crore rupees worth of buffalo meat in 2015-16 (20% of total world exports).

Let me drive one last nail into the eagle’s coffin. The BJP is now blaming the previous SP Govt for turning a blind eye towards illegal slaughter houses in places like Lucknow and Kanpur. They had been ordered shut by the Supreme Court/ NGT in 2014. Ironically in both these metros the BJP had its own Mayors and a majority in the municipal corporations. Should it not then share the blame for the “illegalities”? Finally, the erstwhile Mayor of Lucknow has now been elevated to the post of Deputy Chief Minister.

So this scribe dares to cast a legal eye over the eagle and its prey. Pray that things don’t go from bad to worse as elections 2019 approach. For that is what the eagle is unabashedly eyeing.

(Published on 10th April 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 15)#