It's that time of year again. Makeshift tents have cropped up in almost every neighbourhood of the city — some replete with fancy truffles and buntings befitting a grand wedding. The nose-tingling, slightly acrid odour of fresh cow manure fills the air as cows, goats and sheep take centre-stage for a few days before being grilled on skewers over Eidul Azha.
For now, however, the centre of attraction is the site of the cattle market — set up each year along the M9 Motorway in the dusty suburb of Gulzar-e-Hijri Scheme 33 in Karachi's District East, located around 20 kilometres from the city centre. The site, which may have once been considered inaccessible, has lately been swallowed up by the robust real estate sector, with scores of housing societies cropping up in the area over the last decade.
Nestled amid these housing societies is a 960-acre make-shift city that has cropped up for the sale and purchase of livestock ahead of Eidul Azha. Here, traders from across the country bring their livestock to sell to Karachi's residents, aiming to strike gold in the port city, where the trade of livestock is estimated to run in the billions around this time each year.
As of July 11, over 350,000 livestock had been brought to be sold in the market.
The tent city
Around two dozen men stand guard at Gate No. 1 of the cattle market on a busy Friday night. Their main job is to only allow the cars, whose owners have bought the Rs6,000 seasonal pass, to go through. The rest of the crowd will park their vehicles — at a cost of Rs70 for a car and Rs30 for a motorcycle — in the parking lot and explore the market on foot.
Visitors arriving on foot at the entrance are made to pass the walk-through sanitisation gates. There is no such provision for those who have bought the passes and are allowed to go in through their own vehicles.
The vast majority of the visitors, largely comprising young men but also women and children, are not wearing masks. While a pre-recorded message blares from a speaker in the background, urging people to follow Covid-19 SOPs, there is no visible enforcement.
"When we try to be strict, people end up fighting with us," says Mutahir Chawla, the media cell in-charge of the cattle market. "There are almost 250,000 people visiting the market every day and the number rises to north of 400,000 on the weekends," he says. "We try our best, but people never listen," he adds helplessly.
According to guidelines issued by the National Command and Operations Centre, the respective administrations must ensure the implementation of SOPs at all such markets. This includes, but is not limited to, the wearing of face masks and maintaining social distancing at all times.
Chawla says the administration has made it mandatory for traders to ensure the implementation of SOPs at their stalls. "We have even fined seven traders for violation of SOPs till now," he says. Dawn.com spent several hours over three days in the market and did not find any evidence to corroborate Chawla's claim of traders implementing the SOPs. In fact, several traders we spoke to from across the cattle market denied they were given any such instructions.
It's not like the traders are too bothered about the virus either. "Corona[virus] is everywhere, not just in the market," says Mohammad Omer, a stall owner in Block 3 of the market. "If God wills, we will die. So why be scared of this virus?" He added, however, that he was taking all necessary precautions for himself, but that the general attitude in the market was pretty lax.
Besides, the Ministry of Health Services has also made it mandatory for all traders and staff at cattle markets to be vaccinated before being allowed entry. Asked about the implementation of the guidelines, Chawla said they were trying to get as many traders vaccinated in the market as possible.
For this purpose, the Sindh health authorities inaugurated a vaccination camp at the market on July 6. The camp will run from 9am to 7pm and traders will be encouraged to get the single-dose Cansino jabs, said Chawla.
Almost 60,000 people, working in two shifts, are employed to look after the arrangements at the market, according to Chawla. The biggest concern is security, for which around 360 CCTV cameras have been installed at strategic points across the market — 74 at the main entrance alone. You are not, however, allowed to take pictures or record a video at the main entrance.
"There are intelligence personnel here," says Ali Mohammad, who identifies himself as a member of the cattle market's media team, pointing towards an unmarked vehicle surrounded by men holding automatic assault rifles.
Asked why there was a need for intelligence personnel at a cattle market, he simply shrugs.
When Chawla is asked about this a day later, he cites security reasons. "There are almost 100,000 people present in the market, including traders and administration personnel at any given time. Then there is the huge influx of visitors," he justifies, adding that the local police, Rangers personnel and even the Pakistan Army have been deployed on security duty to avoid any untoward incidents.
Big bulls, big bucks
Security is obviously a big concern when millions of rupees in cash are changing hands every day. When you enter Gate 1, the VVIP tents have been erected along the left of the long, unpatched road that leads to other parts of the market.
The VVIP section boasts the biggest and most beautiful cattle you can find. Years of selective breeding, combined with modern nutritious feeds and advanced farming methods have made it possible for these cattle farms to produce the best livestock on offer. They are also the priciest — some may even cost more than the price of the land they stand on.
Muhammad Nabeel Lodhi, who hails from Lahore and has set up a stall for the first time in Karachi's market, has around 30 cattle heads to sell. They are all priced between Rs0.25 million and Rs0.6m. Asked what makes the cattle so expensive, he says incredulously: "I've spent over 1.1 million since I've brought the cattle to the market." The cost of raising them and transporting them from Sahiwal is separate.
The cost Lodhi has alluded to includes the 40 foot x 80 foot parcel of land where he has set up the stall, the rent for the tent that makes up the enclosure, electricity for lighting and water and fodder for the livestock.
All of these facilities are provided by various contractors — albeit at steep prices.
Where is the money going?
This year, the contract for setting up the market has been awarded to livestock trader Rana Imran. The tender has been awarded by the "cantonment board", according to Chawla, the media cell in-charge. He is elusive about the details and says he doesn't know how much money was paid for the tender.
He also doesn't have much idea about what the cantonment board has to do with the cattle market that has been set up on the land of private housing societies, which were in turn allotted the land by the Karachi Development Authority. Chawla says the cattle market pays rent to the housing societies.
While Imran has been awarded the tender for setting up the market and renting out spaces to traders, separate tenders have been awarded for the provision of other services — electricity, water supply, parking lot etc.
According to Chawla, a 30-foot by 120-foot plot in the VVIP section costs Rs250,000 to rent. Then comes the VIP section, where the prices range between Rs175,000 and Rs100,000, depending on the size and location. The prices in other blocks are even less, says Chawla, starting from Rs50,000.
"In all, the cattle market comprises 48 blocks, of which 22 are paid and the remaining are free of cost," he says. Each block has all the basic facilities, for example toilets and shower stalls, where you can relieve yourself for a nominal charge, restaurants, prayer areas, etc.
Faisal Javed, who owns Pearl Cattle Farm, told Dawn.com that he paid Rs250,000 for a 40 foot x 80 foot stall in the VVIP section. He paid another Rs350,000 to an outside vendor for erecting the tent and decorations — stall owners in the VVIP section are allowed to outsource the tent. He has a generator for the lighting and gets water delivered every day for Rs1,300.
According to Chawla, traders have been provided the facility to rent tents from a contractor associated with the cattle market. The rents range from Rs10,000 to Rs110,000, depending on the size.
Besides, he says, the administration is providing 16 litres of water for each animal per day free of charge. "They just pay Rs1,800 per animal upfront and Rs2,500 for a drum to store the water," he says.
The traders must also purchase fodder from the stalls set up in the cattle market. Chawla says this is to maintain quality standards and is being sold at 20 per cent less than the market rate. Traders who spoke to Dawn.com disputed this claim.
"Pfft ..." says 40-year-old Sher Ali, who had set up his stall in Block 10 of the market. "They are milking us out of all our profits," he says, referring to the administration. Ali, along with other traders from his village, have brought over 100 cattle heads from Punjab. "We have paid Rs350,000 for this double plot," he says. "They charge us Rs25 per bulb per day for 100 light bulbs. Then we bought several drums at Rs2,500 apiece and paid Rs1,800 per animal on entry," he says, counting off the costs on his fingers.
Ali and his fellow traders cook their own food, comprising lentils that they brought with them and fresh vegetables sourced from a nearby market. "We simply can't afford to purchase food from the restaurants set up here."
The restaurants, according to Chawla, have been given space free of charge. This claim, too, is disputed by the owner of a temporary food stall in Block 9 of the market.
"I paid Rs65,000 for land measuring 30 feet by 30 feet and another Rs65,000 for the tent," says Kaleemullah. "They were asking for Rs30,000 for the lighting but I refused and brought my own generator," he claims, adding that besides this, he is paying Rs860 for two drums of water every day.
"Business is bad. I don't know if I'll be able to cover the cost."
Abdul Rasheed, who runs a small corner store, selling cigarettes in Block 10, shares the same concern. He paid Rs35,000 for the stall and doesn't seem hopeful of covering the costs. Then there was Khanzada, who has a stall selling decorative items for cattle on the median of the market's main artery. He paid Rs60,000 in rent and was yet to see any return on his investment.
Back in the VVIP section, Lodhi, the trader from Lahore, whistles when asked about his experience so far. "I think I made a big mistake," he says. "I have spent Rs1.1 million in this market so far," he exclaims again in disbelief. "I simply don't know how I'm going to cover all the costs."
For Chawla, however, the costs are nominal compared to the facilities being provided to the traders. "Imagine this place is covered with wild bushes and shrubs all year round. We flatten the land and essentially set up a whole city, with the provision of all basic necessities, to facilitate traders and customers. That costs money," he says, brushing away the traders' complaints.
Header image: A large-sized bull is on display at one of the stalls in the VVIP section of the cattle market. — Photo: Shahzeb Ahmed