27th January 2002

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Cattle battle

To modernise or not to modernise? This is the burning question that is doing the rounds of Colombo city these days.

There is a definite need to modernise and upgrade the Dematagoda abattoir. It was built in 1868 and is in such a dilapidated state that the city's beef requirement has also to be met by slaughterhouses in the suburbs. That is not a suitable situation because the checks may not be that good, says the Chief Veterinary Surgeon of the Colombo Municipality, Dr. S.D. Eleperuma.

With modernisation will come an increase in the capacity and more and more cattle will be slaughtered, argues animal rights campaigner Penny Jayewardene.

The abattoir issue hit the headlines after animal welfarists and vegetarian societies got activated following reports that the proposed modernisation of the abattoir was to start in February. 

"The CMC was only following up on a resolution brought in as far back as 1928 by Col. T.G. Jayawardena that the abattoir was utterly inadequate even then. Under the proposed project we were trying to improve, not expand," stresses Colombo Mayor Omar Kamil.

Fears of Sri Lanka becoming a beef exporting country have no basis. The agreement on the proposed project has not been finalized. We are listening to the views of the people, reiterated Mr. Kamil.

How did it start? The CMC's first priorities under Mr. Kamil had been a systematic collection and disposal of garbage, road construction, lighting of streets and traffic management, improvement and provision of amenities to under-served communities, improvement of public health and sports facilities. 

"Then we looked at other facilities and one was the improvement of the 1868 slaughterhouse in Dematagoda," says the Mayor.

In 1997, when Karu Jayasuriya was Mayor and Kamil was Deputy, the CMC requested friendly governments to assist in the establishment of a slaughterhouse using a scientific and environmentally friendly method as opposed to the primitive one now being used. 

The Netherlands Government then came forward with an offer to do a feasibility study to improve the existing abattoir at the same location. A team of experts from the CMC and the Netherlands along with Dutch architects and builders who had experience in building slaughterhouses came up with a proposal.

By that time Mr. Kamil was in the Mayoral seat and put the abattoir redevelopment proposal before the Municipal Councillors. They in turn unanimously, without division, passed it.

A further study was done and submitted to the Netherlands Government, which got a professional body, the Netherlands Economic Institute (NIE), to look into it. The NIE after four months of thorough study, recommended a turnkey project. Falling under the Dutch ORET scheme, the Sri Lankan Government would be entitled to 35% of the total of Rs. 243 million, as an outright grant. The contractor would be Dutch and selected by the Netherlands Government.

In October 2001, the proposed project was put before the CMC once again with the cost and all other details and approved. Thereafter, it was submitted to the Western Province Chief Minister who also passed it.

On December 14, 2001, a preliminary agreement was signed between the CMC and the Dutch contractor. However, the bilateral agreement between the Dutch and Sri Lankan Governments putting the final seal on the proposed project, has not been signed yet.

"Nobody is against modernization or progress, but the government is responsible to spend its money for useful projects," says Ms. Jayewardene who was part of a delegation of animal welfare societies ranged against the CMC on this issue. 

Her objections are based on the fact that with better facilities the abattoir would have a higher capacity, Sri Lanka cannot afford it resource-wise, that when animals are transported to Colombo it would involve intense cruelty and also that cattle rustling would increase.

The CMC concept is to bring animals from all over the country for slaughter at Dematagoda. Presently only about 150-200 cattle head are slaughtered there a month. But after upgrading the abattoir it will increase to 350 animals a day. To break even, at least 250 will have to be slaughtered a day, she says. 

"Can we allow 90,000 head of cattle to be slaughtered a year? The curses of these animals will come back to haunt us in the form of cyclones etc. The project is not in keeping with our culture and our gentle nature. Why can't we allow the private sector to handle it? Why can't we import meat?" asks Mrs. Jayewardene.

They will do everything within their power to stop it. She has already sent 3,000 postcards to influential people and also lobbied the Cabinet of Ministers. "We will also hold a demonstration in protest. We are also ready to go to court," she adds.

Counters Dr. Eleperuma that the capacity will not be increased, only the demand will be met. Colombo city requires 18,000 to 20,000 kilos of beef a day, which go to 126 stalls in public markets, 45 private stalls approved by the CMC, farm shops, supermarkets, five-star hotels, hospitals and prisons. "The poor conditions at the Dematagoda abattoir have compelled the number to be kept at 250 animals a month with the balance requirement being obtained from slaughterhouses in the suburbs such as Welisara, Wattala, Akbar town and Ela Kande."

To the common man, this also raises many questions about the lax checks and controls in slaughterhouses in such places. 

"The butchers are not very happy because it takes a long time and the meat gets delayed. What we are attempting to do with the proposed modernisation is to meet the city's demand in a scientific and environment-friendly manner," Dr. Eleperuma said. 

He explains that all animals brought to Colombo for slaughter are kept in quarantine for a day and if stolen, owners have a chance of recovering them.

With animal welfare organisations throwing down the gauntlet with regard to the modernisation of the 134-year-old Dematagoda abattoir, the need of the hour is dispassionate discussion on the issue and a sensible solution. 

Humane slaughter?

Getting into the nitty gritty of the proposed project, Dr. Eleperuma says the Dematagoda abattoir has three sections for the slaughter of cattle, goats and pigs respectively. The new features are:

A mechanised halal box - unlike now, the animal's legs will not be tied. The animal would be walked into the box, which would rotate for the slaughter to take place.

A hanging rail The internationally accepted, most hygienic way to process meat is from a hanging position. This would be introduced to the abattoir.

At present skinning of the carcass is done by workers using knives which damage the hide. A simple machine called the hide-puller would be installed. Skinning would, of course, be after the animal is dead.

Two important problems the abattoir faces would be solved with modernisation. With the installation of a proper plant, the disposal of blood, dung and waste water will be done in a hygienic manner, while an incinerator would facilitate the disposal of condemned meat and offal.

"Instead of using primitive weapons like the porowa and manna, mechanized tools will be used. There will also be an extensive labour force," says the Chief Municipal Veterinary Surgeon.

The new abattoir's capacity will be 300 cattle, 400 goats and 100 pigs a day. All this would be in relation to the demand. Take the case when demand dropped due to the Mad Cow and later hoof and mouth outbreaks, then processing too dropped. When it picked up to normal levels, the usual numbers were processed, he adds.

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