As logjam continues between butchers and the administration over mutton prices in Kashmir, the focus has once again shifted to augmenting the local meat production, which is currently just 30% of the total consumption.
Several butchers told Greater Kashmir that the government should encourage the sale of sheep from its own subsidized units in an organized manner at district level trade fairs. This will reduce the need to purchase sheep from outside dealers and thereby keep the prices in check, they said.
Kashmir valley has been facing an acute mutton shortage since November last year when the butchers decided to shut shops after the divisional administration fixed the mutton rate at Rs 480 per kg. Several rounds of talks between the dealers and divisional administration have failed to break the ice since, with the former rejecting the revised government rate of Rs 515 per kg in the last meeting on March 6. Selling at this price, the dealers said, would incur them huge losses.
Indicating an acute shortfall in the domestic production of mutton in Kashmir, seventy percent of the sheep consumed in Kashmir are bought from outside with authorities attributing the scarce local production to the escalation in the production cost especially during winters.
According to official data compiled by the Sheep Husbandry Department in Kashmir accessed by Greater Kashmir, around 22 lakh sheep are consumed in Kashmir every year on an average which roughly add up to a whopping 2,10,00000 kg annual meat consumption in the region.
However, of the 22 lakh sheep consumed in the valley, a meager 6.5 lakh sheep are raised locally of which the government subsidized sheep farms contribute 2.5 lakh kg of the total mutton consumption, the data reveal.
Besides, with regard to the private sheep farmers in the valley- around 70,000 of them as per officials- mere 541 of them are able to raise more than hundred sheep, which according to the experts is very low. The below par local production of the sheep in Kashmir is because of the escalation in the production cost especially during the months of harsh winter, Director Sheep Husbandry Kashmir Dr Abdul Salaam Mir suggested.
"As Kashmir witnesses harsh winter for six months, it becomes very difficult for the farmers to raise sheep on a big scale," Mir said while speaking to Greater Kashmir.
While there is a minimal expenditure on the sheep during summers, the production cost shoots up exponentially during winters, as apart from shelter, a farmer has to worry about feeding the animals in absence of grazing.
Although the Sheep Husbandry Department has been distributing fodder seeds to the farmers, Mir acknowledged that they have not been able to scale up the fodder production.
"We distribute five kilograms of seeds to every subsidized unit and also try to distribute them among the private investors also but we are not yet capable of distribute these seeds among everyone," Mir said. The Director Sheep Husbandry however informed that they were working on a project to "demonstrate low cost construction of sheep barns which can accommodate fifty sheep".
"I have researched on this and found that a shed which is normally constructed in Kashmir at the minimum cost of Rs 4 lakh, can be constructed at Rs 1 lakh. This low cost shed will also provide insulation and ventilation facilities for the animals and can be a game changer for the farmers," Mir said.
According to Mehraj-u-Din, a mutton dealer from south Kashmir's Anantnag, who has been in this business from last twenty four years, the J&K government has failed to establish subsidized units at a scale which will benefit the society and the traders.
Mehraj also accused the divisional administration in Kashmir for perpetuating the monopoly of a selected few traders including those from outside he said has led to the escalation in mutton prices. He suggested organizing trade fairs at the respective district levels in order to stabilize the prices.
"But the government doesn't bother to follow the process and after establishing the units, the farmers sell their produce to butchers at arbitrary prices who in turn sell it at much higher cost leading to price rise," Mehraj said.
He said the period from October till March every year is particularly testing for the mutton dealers due to the frequent closure of the Jammu-Srinagar highway. In this period even as the dealers purchase sheep from the Bakerwals during their seasonal migration in autumn, but the demand is not fully met.
"Sellers from outside are well aware of the high demand for meat in Kashmir and when the highway reopens after several days, they raise the selling price, hence escalating the meat prices in Kashmir too," Mehraj said.
He suggested that if the administration encourages the sale of sheep from its own subsidized units in an organized manner at district level trade fairs, they will not need to purchase sheep from dealers outside and that will also keep the mutton prices in Kashmir in check.
"Why would we want to go through the hectic process of transporting sheep from outside when we are able to buy the produce locally at a lower cost? Lower cost because such units would be backed by government subsidy," Mehraj added.