The battle of the right to freedom to eat meat has reached another level. Today, April 11, a division bench of the Gujarat High Court held on Tuesday that the right of traders and vendors to sell or trade meat or meat products “even if fundamental, has to yield to the public to food safety”. The court was hearing applications moved by aggrieved meat vendors and associations in Gujarat over the closure of their establishments for reasons such as selling unstamped meat, selling meat in unhygienic conditions or through unlicensed shops etc.
In another public interest litigation seeking a ban on illegal and unlicenced slaughterhouses and meat shops, the Gujarat High Court had earlier called on civic body authorities to act against those selling meat in violation of statutory laws. Following actions like the sealing and closure of such shops, several vendors, meat shop associations and owners had moved the Gujarat High Court, seeking to join as a party to the PIL which had been allowed.
A total of four applications were filed by the aggrieved meat vendors/sellers/associations. Three of these were all rejected by the court on Tuesday. In one application, 21 people had sought for passing an order to open the seal of chicken meat shops in Surat, reported The Indian Express. Besides, in two other applications, similar directions were sought to reopen the premises or shops or slaughterhouses of the members of the applicant association engaged in the slaughtering of small animals such as goats and sheep and further to permit the sale of mutton. Here the claim of the authorities was that laid down norms were not being followed.
The applicant petitioners had also prayed that state authorities be directed to apply the statutory provisions “pragmatically” while simultaneously permitting the applicant members to continue their business of selling the meat. The applicants had argued for their fundamental right to freedom of trade and that the closure of meat shops was illegal and amounted to deprivation and curtailment of their right to free trade. Significantly, though it was also submitted that the month of Ramadan is underway, therefore, the state should liberally act to redress the grievance of the applicants to permit them to sell the meat by allowing the opening of the shops.
During submissions, both sides, the aggrieved meat sellers and restaurant owners parties argued that the provision of selling stamped meat requires approval or licence by state-authorised slaughterhouses to approve the meat quality, and to that effect, Gujarat has eight authorised slaughterhouses, of which only three are operational. This makes it extremely difficult to function.
The court in its order observed, “Permission to reopen the meat shops cannot be granted even though the shop owners remain noncompliant of the laws. While the indirect prayer before the court is to relax the norms, such course is not possible in law. There is no challenge to any of the provisions of the Acts or regulations. No order could be passed by the court which may operate contrary to or may have the effect of disregarding the statutory prescriptions in respect of food safety and other regulatory norms required to be observed in larger public good.”
Petitioners had also submitted that the state has also failed in discharging its duties that require it to construct slaughterhouses and dedicated meat markets to regularise the vendors’ businesses. It was highlighted that meat vendors have been making repeated representations to the state government regarding the same but the requests have gone unheard so far. The consequences of the state’s abdication of ensuring that statutory norms be followed cannot be heaped on citizens argued the petitioners.
Senior advocate Percy Kavina, arguing on behalf of the aggrieved meat shop owners/vendors, had also argued that adhering to such a regulation is impractical and dissonant with the ground reality. “The idea that every meat carcass has to be stamped by a vet is so outrageous.
As per estimates, a high 63% of the population of Gujarat is occasionally non-vegetarian. These approved abattoirs are located in Ahmedabad, Surat and Vadodara. Where do you think the rest of the meat comes from? This is an ideal thing…the state government cannot say that since now we have a handle, we will implement the law with a rigour and strictness which is impossible to. The slaughterhouse in Jamalpur, it is the state government that does not give them any facilities — they do not give water, they do not have waste disposal, they do not repair the structure and then they (petitioner) say ‘go there with a doctor’,” Kavina argued.
The bench of Justices N V Anjaria and Niral Mehta, while deciding the applications moved by the aggrieved parties, noted that “any fundamental right is subjected to reasonable restrictions” and held that the right to trade has to also subserve to public health, food safety requirements and a consumer’s right to safe food.
“The provisions of Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 and the Food Safety Regulations as applicable to the meat business and meat shops, the regulatory and hygienic measures contemplated for the meat shops and slaughterhouses in the said law and the rules, the other laws seeking to fulfill the purpose of insulating the animals from cruelty and cruel acts, pollution and environment laws required to be observed by the meat vendors, are all limiting factors, which will operate as reasonable restrictions on the right of the vendors of the meat and slaughterhouse owners to run their business. In their degree, they are restrictive measures, which really do not prohibit running the meat business or slaughterhouses but requires the compliance of the norms,” the court held.
“Right to freedom of trade may be a fundamental right, but not a carte blanche. The above laws are enacted and operate in public good and public interest. The freedom to trade or right to do business have to yield the public health norms and the restrictive compulsions needed to be enforced in larger public good. The right to free trade in food items like meat, or any such food has to be subserving to public health and food safety requirements,” the court said.
The bench said that the applicants can “not be permitted to assert unrestricted freedom” to do business in meat or run slaughterhouses “on the ground of religious occasion when they are otherwise non-compliant of the norms in law”.
“A bare ground may not be permitted to be advanced to justify to seek laxity in the food safety or pollution norms. The activity of running unlicensed slaughterhouses and selling unstamped meat could not be approved or permitted without the stakeholders complying the applicable laws. Viewed from another angle, for the consumers of any food including the meat and meat products, there is a right to have safe food,” the bench further held.
The Order of the High Court may be read here:
For the past few years, there has been an assault on the sale and consumption of meat by various state authorities. Late last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled civic bodies in Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Junagadh in Gujarat ordered roadside food vendors and hawkers to cover non-vegetarian food, including eggs, saying an open display of the food could “hurt religious sentiments”. The roadside vendors had been asked to either stop selling non-vegetarian food items or keep them covered so that people cannot see them while passing on the roads or walking on footpaths.