Ignoring a court ban, police restriction and latest threat of Omicron variant of coronavirus, people of coastal Andhra Pradesh are getting ready for cockfights – their traditional winter sports that involves large scale gambling running into rupees hundreds of crores.
The blood-sport held for three days during Sankranti festivities starting Friday, involves a fight between two trained roosters fitted with razor-sharp blades and knives on their legs. The fight continues till one of the cocks faces death or backs off.
More than 1,000 “baris” (arenas) are being readied for the cockfights in East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna and parts of Visakhapatnam and Vizianagaram. “More than 500 arenas are erected only in the two Godavari districts, which are known for the traditional games,” said V Raju, correspondent of a vernacular television channel from Eluru in West Godavari district.
Like every year, the police have announced that stringent measures would be taken to prevent holding of cockfights, this year, too. West Godavari superintendent of police Rahul Dev Sarma said the police would use drone cameras this time to keep a tab on the cockfights during the Sankranti festival.
He said the police had already seized thousands of cock knives tied to feet of fighting roosters and notices were served on the suspected cockfight organisers.
On Thursday, the high court admitted a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking to impose curbs on the cockfights and asked the state government to submit details on the measures taken to prevent the bloody game. The petitioner pointed out that the high court had banned cockfights in 2017 and it was upheld by Supreme Court in 2018. “Yet, the cockfights have been going on every year, as the police have failed to implement the court orders,” he argued.
According to official figures released by the state police department, as many as 1,006 cases pertaining to cockfights were booked, 4,072 people were arrested, an amount of ₹47.93 lakh was seized and 1,739 cocks were confiscated in 2021.
“This is just an eyewash. The police make a lot of hungama a week before the commencement of the cockfights. But when the real cockfights begin on the night of January 13, the police quietly disappear from the scene,” Raju said.
Everything is done rather openly. “Tents are erected with seating arrangements for thousands of people coming from different parts of the state and also neighbouring states like Telangana and Karnataka. From politicians to big businessmen to rich farmers to even NRIs, everybody takes part in cockfights,” he said.
According to Ayyappa Swamy, a cockfight enthusiast from Bhimavaram, a major hub for cockfighting, more than ₹1,500 crore changes hands in these three days in the form of betting. “The betting ranges from ₹2 crore to ₹15 crore on each fight, depending on the people involved,” he said.
Swamy said this year, the local political leaders are betting big money on the game. “It is the best way to mobilise funds for the coming elections. These leaders have spent huge money in the local body elections held last year and they have to get back their money through cockfights,” he said.
The entire Godavari belt gets festive look during the Sankranti festival and hotels are packed with punters coming from different parts of the state. “During this season, it is very difficult to get a hotel room in Bhimavaram. Some big hotels charge not less than ₹10,000 per room per day,” Swamy said.
The cockfights also provide a brisk business for liquor shops, eateries and fast food centres. There would also be make shift casinos for gambling and card games. “Even entertainment programmes like dances and singing are arranged for the visitors,” he said.
What about Omicron scare? “Yes, definitely there is a threat, when there is a mass gathering of so many people for cockfights. But it is a sensitive issue connected to the emotions of the people. We are only requesting the people to follow the Covid-19 protocols and avoid mass gathering. It is for the revenue and police department people to enforce the rules,” said state director of health G Hymavathi.