Fowl fights cast shadow on Sankranti cheer in AP

At a point in time when traditions are falling by the wayside, there is one that seems to be going strong for the wrong reasons despite a ban and all out efforts by the law enforcement authorities to stamp it out. As Andhra Pradesh prepares to mark Sankranti this week, the state’s police force is on the war path against cockfighting events that are part of the three-day celebrations that mark the harvest festival.

Sankranti is a major festival that is celebrated almost all over India. In Andhra Pradesh, cock fighting, which involves pitting two roosters against each other, usually in a fight to the finish, is a major component of the festivities.

Cockfights have been a part of the region’s history and folklore for centuries. A cockfight between two kingdoms supposedly led to the 11th century War of Palnadu, a region in modern Andhra Pradesh, often described as the Mahabharata of the medieval ages. There are many instances of zamindars and aristocrats being proud owners of prized fighter roosters, in coastal Andhra Pradesh, in pre-independence era.

For many years, cockfighting events were a matter of local pride, and has enjoyed the backing of local bigwigs and politicians. The Sankranti cockfights were a special attraction that attracted tourists and NRIs.

Specially reared and trained roosters armed with a sharpened knife attached to the leg, fight each other. The cockfights at Sankranti provide the backdrop for betting on a mass scale. Conservative guesstimates peg the financial transactions due to betting, at Rs 400 crore.

Apart from this, the venues of the cockfights also provide the setting for various other gambling activities, and several illegal activities. Since it is an unregulated and unorganised activity, there are no records of the financials involved. However, insiders and observers peg the value of betting and money transactions at around Rs 500 crore. Not a small amount for a bloodsport spread over just three days a year!

Just as jallikattu or bull racing in neighbouring Tamil Nadu has been targeted by animal rights activists, cockfighting is also in the cross hairs.

In 2014, cockfighting was banned in Andhra Pradesh under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 and the AP Gaming Act 1974. The ban was upheld by the courts again in 2018.

“Cockfighting is illegal in many places around the world, but abroad, murders have even occurred at cockfights. This is no surprise as studies show, people who are cruel to animals often move on to human victims.” said Meet Ashar, from the Emergency Response Team at PETA India.

Although banned by law, cockfighting continues unabated in parts of coastal Andhra Pradesh – East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna, Guntur and Nellore to be precise. The operators, punters, and patrons operate clandestinely through a well-established infrastructure that includes setting up cockfighting venues, lining up participants or contestants, food, drink, even transport, and lodging, and a network of informers to keep tabs on police operations.

Even as police step up vigilance and swoop down on organisers, thousands of these fights are organised at venues set up in agricultural fields and private premises. But police continue their search operations doggedly.

Two weeks ado, around 1,300 knives, sharpening equipment and other paraphernalia, including a rooster were siezed from a person. According to West Godavari police, the siezed materials are worth around Rs 6,90,000. It’s just like the tip of the proverbial iceberg, a police official said.

Speaking to IANS, West Godavari Superintendent of Police, Rahul Dev Sharma said: “Dipping into our database spread over the last five years, we have tracked down previous offenders and taken personal bond from over 3,000 persons with sureties of Rs 1 lakh each to abstain from cockfighting activities.”

This apart, the police are actively maintaining a vigil. But with lakhs of acres of land area in question, it’s an uphill task for them.

While the Covid pandemic has somewhat put the brakes on the activity, according to data available from 2018, and 2019, around 7,000 to 8,000 cases were registered against people involved in cockfighting activities, including organising events, and placing bets. Authorities have clamped down on the activity since the beginning of the new year. Past offenders have been warned to stay away from the activities.

Although cockfights are organised during Sankranti festivities, an entire business ecosystem has developed around the activity, despite the ban. Hatcheries that specialise in breeding and supplying fighter fowls, specialty feeds, trainers – there’s an entire chain of allied business activities that are thriving in the region. The business potential of cock-fights has attracted quite a few youngsters – some of them techies – to set up specialty farms that breed only fighter breeds of roosters.

According to people in the business, a fighter rooster can cost anywhere between Rs 3,000 to Rs 3 lakhs. The range of bets also vary according to the pedigree of the birds, the promoters of the event, and the profile of the gamblers.

The hatchlings are selected at the tender age of two months. Thereafter, the chosen birds are nourished with special foods, trained by experts, and prepared for the fight by the time they are between 16 and 18 months old.

These fighter birds are lavished with a diet that includes almonds, mincemeat, and protein supplements. They are trained for strength, stamina, and ability to endure pain. A bout lasts around 6 to 8 minutes, making lots of people richer or poorer. But it’s the roosters that are actually paying the price.

“Coaxed to fight, roosters used in cockfights suffer punctured lungs, broken bones and pierced eyes. Their legs are fitted with razor-sharp steel blades that have even killed and injured cockfighters and spectators,” Asher explains.

But strict vigil by local authorities and Covid breakouts have put the brakes to some extent. Police and district authorities are organising games and socio-cultural activities to wean away people from cockfighting. With Sankranti set to be celebrated from January 14 to 16 this year, the police are on alert mode. Prohibitory orders will be in force to keep things under control as well.

“We want people to enjoy Sankranti in the true sense with family and friends. We are telling them that there’s more to Sankranti than cockfights” SP Sharma signs off




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