Ramnath Patel, a 47-year-old farmer from Sarai Dangri village in eastern Uttar Pradesh, had a largish family six months back. Apart from his four children, he also owned two cows, a bull and a pair of calves. Patel had fondly named his cows Radha and Bholi. The bull was Shankar, the calves Purba and Chhote. But tragedy struck in mid-2018 when herds of abandoned cattle, roaming the streets of Sarai Dangri, entered his agricultural land and destroyed a standing wheat crop. After the disaster, Patel, too, set his animals free. “It was not easy but when others are letting loose their domestic animals who are destroying our crops, why should I keep them?” he asks.
Sarai Dangri is about a dozen kilometres south of Varanasi, and the Ganga flows serenely on the south and east. Standing on his two acres of land that sports a fresh crop of bright yellow mustard flowers, the lanky farmer explained the wrenching experience of having to choose between feeding your children and feeding the cattle. “I could barely feed my children. Keeping the cows and the calves was beyond my means,” he says. And if everybody else was doing it to make ends meet, why not him, Patel asks.
Stories like Patel’s are aplenty in Uttar Pradesh. In Mooradev, a few kilometres from Sarai Dangri, at least 150 abandoned cows and bulls roam the streets, damaging multiple crops and attacking and injuring children. Mooradev Gram Pradhan Ramesh Sahni himself has lost half his mustard crop. About 300 km to the west, at Mahui in Bundelkhand, villagers have a roster for night guard duties and have built watch towers (machaans) to keep an eye on stray cattle. “Just one chance will be enough for the cattle to destroy my entire crop,” says Malkhe Shrevaas, a farmer from Mahui.
An extraordinary situation is prevailing in rural India with regard to livestock. With many parts experiencing agrarian distress, farmers are under financial stress from their main vocation. While that has made it difficult for them to afford the upkeep of their livestock, the ban on cattle slaughter in several states, combined with the lethal vigilantism of cow protection gangs, have meant a complete collapse of the market for cattle, and in turn, their commercial value. This has resulted in farmers abandoning their cattle in droves, giving rise to a massive stray cattle problem that has hit headlines in recent weeks. In UP, instances of people locking up cows and bulls in school and hospital buildings have been reported.
The problem of stray cattle, wandering into fields, attacking children or older people and sometimes dying and rotting on the street side, is not restricted to UP. It affects Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra — states that have virtually banned slaughter and sale of cattle. It’s been brewing for four years or more — since state governments then led by the Bharatiya Janata Party started tightening laws for protecting the cow and its progeny from slaughter at the end of their productive lives. Vigilante activism and lynching of people in the name of cow protection also made dairy farming risky, and spoilt the economics of owning a cow as an alternative farm income source. It forced the likes of Patel to release their cattle, to live and die on the streets.
In 2012, India had five million stray cattle roaming the streets. That is before the current cycle of legislative action started. India also had an estimated 40 million cows and bulls aged above 12, that are at high risk of being abandoned. Various surveys say India has 5,000 cow shelters. At 200 cows per shelter, that capacity would be barely 1 million. Given the numbers, no easy solutions are possible. The ones being deployed today by governments run on weak legs and little funds.
Collapse of the Market
Abandoning unproductive cattle is not very unusual in India. In some parts of the country it is a tradition called Anna Pratha. Even young cows, when not producing milk, are released with the expectation that they would graze on public land and return to their owners when pregnant. Patel of Sarai Dangri feels he is simply following tradition. The commissioner of Animal Husbandry of Maharashtra, Kantilal Umap, admits a similar practice exists in his state as well.
Practices such as Anna Pratha are easy to justify, when there are no other solutions for unproductive assets. With the fear of vigilantism, the cattle trader who would collect cattle from farmers and take them to markets has disappeared. As a result, even the markets are vanishing. Much of the unproductive cattle from UP would earlier be sent over to West Bengal, the nearest state that permits cattle slaughter. Some would also be smuggled over to Bangladesh. Markets in West Bengal have seen a drop in supplies.
Farmers in UP who spoke to ET Magazine said that earlier usually they could bribe abattoir officials into accepting cows, even though their slaughter was banned in UP. However, after government action on illegal abattoirs, that option has closed. As a result the market for productive cows has also collapsed. Krishna Kumar, a farmer from Nasirpur, Unnao, says that a milch cow that used to fetch upwards of Rs 50,000 is now available for less than Rs 15,000. “And there are no takers for a male calf even if you offer an inducement,” says Kumar. The traditional cattle fair at Unnao has also ceased.
Similar stories are unfolding in other states. Islampur in southern Maharashtra’s Sangli district celebrates a festival on Kartik Purnima (mid-November), called Shambhu Appa Ke Urus. Earlier, during the festival, the area adjacent to the syncretic shrine usually saw a flourishing cattle market where between 5,000 and 8,000 animals would change hands. This year, however, there were few. Sanglibased farmer leader Raghunath Dada Patil claims as few as 150 bulls were on sale this year.
Patil, also leader of farmers’ body Shetkari Sanghatana, has been a strong opponent of the Maharashtra state government’s legislation of March 2015 that banned slaughter of the cow and its progeny, and also the subsequent Central government directives on preventing cruelty to cattle and restricting the sale and transport of cattle. After the current NDA government came to power at the Centre in 2014, Patil was made a member of a NITI Aayog Expert Committee on Agriculture. He says he repeatedly stressed on removal of the laws on cow slaughter ban. Very soon he stopped getting invitations to the meetings of the committee, Patil says.
Patil points out that the cost of keeping an unproductive cow at home for a farmer would be around Rs 7,500 a month, including its food and cleaning costs. He says that for a farmer tackling farm sector duress, drought and loan defaults, this is not a viable proposition.
Farm distress in Maharashtra isn’t new. In March 2018, more than 20,000 (40,000 by some estimates) farmers walked 180 kilometres to Mumbai from Nashik, demanding farm loan waivers and forest rights. Ajit Navale, the main organiser of the march on behalf of the CPM-affiliated All India Kisan Sabha, hails from Akola in Ahmednagar district of eastern Maharashtra. The district is also the highest producer of milk in the state. Navale says that if a farmer makes money out of selling milk, he would take care of his cows. If that falters, there is no way out. He says: “The drop in milk prices coupled with the restrictions on cow trade have made dairy farming unviable.”
The biggest change, of course, is that the mechanisation of agriculture has reduced the utility of the male animal, which used to do the job of tractor, thresher, fertiliser producer and transporter. SK Dwivedi, a professor of political science at Lucknow University, says the growing abandonment of cows is also a sign of social change, of mechanisation of agriculture and diminishing dependence on cattle. “The lives of farmers have always been intertwined with cattle. I remember, sweets were distributed and songs were sung to welcome the birth of a calf. It was considered auspicious. Such large-scale abandonment of cattle disturbs the social order,” he says.
The problem of stray cattle may not have easy solutions, and difficult ones can come about only when heads are put together and governments and people join hands.
Instead, there is a bit of blame-game going on already. Patil of Shetkari Sanghatana says the Maharashtra laws banning slaughter of the cow are anti-farmer, and is calling for their repeal. Patil has already launched a political outfit to agitate for it. SP Singh Rathore, UP’s minister for animal husbandry, meanwhile, blames farmers for not taking care of cows. “Have these cows come from foreign land? Visit the house of any farmer and you will find only milch cows. Male of the species has been released. On the one hand, they want no cow to enter their fields but their own cow is set free to roam around. I would appeal to the farmers not to abandon their cattle.” Maharashtra’s animal husbandry commissioner, Umap, says farmers could be more entrepreneurial and try newer stuff like using cow-dung to produce mosquito repellant sticks etc.
The Maharashtra government has tried different models to solve the stray cattle problem. One of the ideas floated last October is that of a Cow Club, where farmers can keep all their cows. The dairy sector in Maharashtra operates through cooperatives — farmers keep cows at home and sell the milk through the cooperatives. The cow club model envisages farmers leaving all their cows at the club, and getting paid for the milk. The club will use the milk, create value-added products such as curd and paneer, and invest in brand-building. The model also envisages use of cow urine and dung for a biogas power plant.
The Maharashtra government had also announced its flagship cow club at Dapchari in Palghar district, about 100 kilometres north of Mumbai. Dapchari is a tribal area —the Warli tribe, famous for their paintings, reside here. In 2016, the land was offered to NGOs for setting up a cow shelter, but none came forward. If the Cow Club works out in Dapchari, the state government wants to try a second one in Osmanabad.
Apart from Cow Club, the state has also started a new scheme called Govardhan Goshalas or Cow Hostels. This scheme has allotted Rs 36 crore to 36 cow shelters across the state. Around 28 of these have already received a first tranche of Rs 25 lakh.
A drought is again a bad time for cattle, as their source of food dries up, even if they are abandoned and allowed to roam freely. The problems of keeping livestock at home would not be lost on Maharashtra Animal Husbandry Minister Mahadev Jankar, who himself hails from Dhangar samaj, traditionally a community of goatherds. In an interview with ET Magazine, Jankar said the state has now worked out a plan with the Indian Railways to send out fodder trains carrying feed for cattle across the state.
“We are creating charaa chaunis (fodder tents) in four places — Osmanabad, Beed, Aurangabad and Jalna — for distribution across the state. We are also tying up with forest departments, so we can use grass growing in forests for feeding the cattle,” Jankar said.
Uttar Pradesh is trying a more permanent and dramatic solution. It’s piloting a sex-sorted semen project to ensure the birth of fewer male calves. Tests have been successful in Lakhimpur, Etawah and Barabanki. The method has a 92% success rate in pilots. Of 581 calves, 522 were females. Soon, the project will be launched in all the districts, says Baghel. A production unit for the project is coming up in Babugarh, Hapur.
Till the Cows Come Home
While these look at the long term, there is clearly no solution visible in the short term, which is more a logistical issue of herding cows together, dealing with the dead and feeding the living.
Earlier this month, angry farmers locked stray cattle in schools, hospitals, police stations, panchayat offices and even cemeteries. Some 260 cattle were locked up in a cemetery at Purva village in UP last Monday. By the time local administration reached the spot, dozens had fallen ill due to the cold and lack of food and water. The local administration claimed no cows died in the incident.
Farmers have taken many measures to protect their crops, including building a hedge, getting an iron fence done at a high cost and setting up raised platforms to keep vigil. It also means sleepless nights at the height of winter.
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