Millennium Post

How cow became the mother of demigods

As protests over thrashing of four Dalit men for skinning a dead cow grow violent in Gujarat and the demand for action against the accused gau rakshaks (cow protection vigilantes) turns into a state-wide agitation, Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel announces a CID probe into the incident.

This event has once again whipped up a stormy debate on banning cow slaughter across the country. The current political discourse is highly skewed in favour of the ban while economists argue that cattle become a drain on the economy when they become unproductive and hence, they should be disposed off. Pandering to the religious sentiment of people, the Hindutva groups have been infringing upon civil liberties by bringing beef into the realm of belief.

Below are the extracts from Down To Earth’s State of India’s Environment 2016 report  explaining the nature of cattle economy and how a persistent effort to describe cow as “sacrosanct” is linked to communal politics.

The rhetoric of cow protection is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, Indians reared only those cattle that offered economic benefits. 

In November 2015, the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation imported patented semen from the US that elevates the chances of female calves by up to 95 percent. “Today, the male cattle are of no use,” says R S Sodhi, managing director of the federation, which owns the brand Amul. “Our focus is to produce only female cattle to increase milk production.” But till four decades ago, milk was the secondary purpose of domestication of cows. Then the rural economy was mostly based on the barter system, and the shorter shelf-life of milk and its products did not support the economy of milk. Besides, that was the pre-mechanisation era of agriculture, and about 300 million Indians depended on farming for sustenance. They needed bullocks for everything, right from ploughing, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, threshing, transporting and marketing of the produce to running industries like oil-pressing. Dried cattle dung was an important cooking fuel and manure. This led to the evolution of breeds that are suitable for agriculture and transportation and can exhibit a distinct superiority in utilising poor quality feed and are adapted to withstand heat and show better resistance to tropical diseases. Today, India has eight indigenous breeds of cattle that excel in draught capacity (draught breeds), and only three with high milk yields (milch breeds), and six for dual purpose.

Most of the draught breeds are not good producers of milk. Developed in arid and semiarid regions of the country, they are primarily known for their sturdiness, strength, endurance in hot and humid climate, and disease resistance. For instance, Hallikar in Karnataka is known for its trotting ability, Khillari of Maharashtra for its speed and power, Bargur in Tamil Nadu for speed and endurance in trotting, Umblachery of Tamil Nadu for strength and sturdiness and excellence in its wet-ploughing, Hariana of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh for its power, Kankrej of Gujarat and Rajasthan for its speed, power and draught capacity, Ongole of Andhra Pradesh for its heavy draught capacity, and Deoni from adjoining areas of Telangana, Marathwada of Maharashtra and Karnataka for both its strength and milk production.

Of the three milch breeds, Sahiwal is the most popular and yields between 1,400 and 2,500 litres of milk in its lactating period. The average yields of the other two breeds—Gir of Gujarat and Red Sindh of Sindh region—are between 1,400 and 1,800 litres.

Changing breeds with shifting demand
The nature of cattle economy started shifting from “agriculture and transportation” to “milk yield” after farms became increasingly mechanised in the early 1970s. In the past four decades, machines have eliminated draught breeds from fields. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data reveals that the number of livestock in rural areas has reduced by 18 percent—from 169 million to 135 million— during the period.

With the concept of intensive farming with the help of machines gaining ground, draught cattle became unproductive and useless, and the focus shifted to high-yielding cow breeds. A comparison between the 18th Livestock Census of 2007 and the 19th Livestock Census of 2012 reveals that the number of draught cattle (both indigenous and exotic breeds) has declined by 19 percent, whereas the number of milch breeds has increased by over 28 percent in just five years.

“Rearing these productive animals suits the economy of a farmer,” says Sushil Kumar, principal scientist, Central Institute for Research on Cattle, Meerut. This is particularly true when the world faces a severe scarcity of fodder. Less than 4 percent of the total land mass is being used to feed the world’s 11 percent of livestock population, he adds. In India, there is a deficit of 64 percent of green fodder and 24 percent of dry fodders, shows vision document of the Indian Grassland and Fodder Institute (IGFI).

“The impact is clearly visible. Despite owning the world’s largest livestock population, India’s productivity is quite low. This deficit is largely due to the scarcity of nutritious fodder,” says Khem Chand, principal scientist at IGFI, Jhansi.

The shift towards milk economy has given a huge boost to the rural economy. Today, more than 90 million people are earning their livelihood through milk production; 75 million of them are women. “The government policy, favouring mechanisation and usage of chemical fertilisers, further encourages the shift,” says P S Brithal, principal scientist at the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, New Delhi.

However, not all is well with the milch breeds. According to World Animal Protection Report, 2010, up to 50 million cows are suffering in dairy farms across India in unacceptable conditions. They suffer from various health problems and have shorter lifespans due to overbreeding, poor housing, confinement and overmedication. A majority of them are abandoned when they stop producing milk. According to the 19th Livestock census, the country has 5.3 million stray cattle. With more than 1 million stray cattle, Odisha tops the list of a maximum number of stray cattle and is followed by Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, and Gujarat. But growing urbanisation and shrinking grazing land make it difficult for them to survive for long. To avoid Hindu religious sentiments associated with cows, most people are now opting for buffaloes that can yield more milk, says Kumar. After all, selling off buffaloes to slaughterhouses after they become unproductive makes more economic sense. Only time will tell if this change in preference will herald another shift in cattle economy.

The subject of cow slaughter never fails to arouse passions in India. The usual perception of the situation is this: there are too many undernourished, unproductive cows in India and a lot of the cow population as a whole would be improved if a substantial percentage were “disposed off”. The biggest obstacle to this efficient solution is seen to be Hindu religious sentiment which decrees that the cow is sacrosanct.

The controversy about excess cattle being generated by Hindu religious sentiment was triggered off by a paper by economist V M Dandekar in 1964. Dandekar examined the data yielded by the 1961 livestock census for Maharashtra. He found that until the age of three, the number of cows was equal to the number of bullocks; at the adult stage, however, cows were 30 percent fewer than bullocks. This was not the result of culling but pure starvation: bullocks got good fodder to eat, while cows got only the residues.

Dandekar concluded that the problem of numbers was more fundamental than that of old and stray cattle; he worked out that only 40 percent of the cows were required to produce the necessary number of bullocks and the remaining 60 percent ought to be disposed off by a process more efficient than starvation. He finished by stating that it was simply hypocritical religious sentiment that stood in the way of livestock development.

Other researchers picked up the gauntlet. Economist Marvin Harris pointed out that even seemingly useless animals might have a use as producers of milk and dung. Other economists concurred with Harris. K N Raj developed two livestock models, one for a high-income developed economy and another for a low-income developing economy. If religious considerations were a factor then they should have affected the models, created from authentic data, but no such divergence was noted. Raj then wrote another paper in which he pointed out that Kerala had 167 adult cows for every 100 bullocks while Bihar had 67 and Uttar Pradesh 47. If religious sentiment had anything to do with it, Kerala’s predominantly non-Hindu population would have preferred bullocks to cows and Bihar and Uttar Pradesh would have shown less neglect of their cows.

The ban on cow slaughter is one of the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution and has been legislated in all states except Kerala and West Bengal. As studies show, farmers with holdings below 0.5 acres have twice as many cows as they have males, which show that slaughter would affect most the very people who depend on the underfed animals for a living, however meagre. This, legally, economically and logically, cow slaughter is not a feasible proposition—which should gladden the hearts of all those who feel that only their cries in the name of God come between the cow and the knife.

(Views expressed are strictly those of Down to Earth.)
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