Economic cost of worship
If over-devotion to cows hurts the economic interests of those living on the margins, the society will erupt someday
Gabiasarai is a small village in Uttar Pradesh, close to the Nepal border. The villagers are mostly former East-Pakistan (now Bangladesh) displaced persons resettled here some 70 years ago. For the last two years or so the village which grows vegetables on the rich farmland have been facing a new problem, that of stray cows damaging their crop. Farmers who used to keep cows for additional income by selling milk used to trade off the cows beyond milking age to cattle traders and buy younger cows of milking age. But now that these cattle traders had stopped their trade fearing the cattle protectors, hapless farmers let loose such cattle to graze on their own. These strays damage crops causing loss to vegetable growers. The villagers of Gabiasarai united and drove these stray cattle across the river and across the international border to the forest in Nepal. This is a real-life incidence not captured by the national media. Predictably this cannot be only one such collective effort to solve the problem of stray cattle.
For an ordinary poor man, a cow is more of an economic asset than an object of worship. In fact, if they worship a cow, the very reason is a low-cost asset that provides an economic return. The cost of maintaining a cow is low – fodders are available easily, mostly free or cheap and milk brings in cash or provide additional nutritious food for the poor family. Gone are the days when bulls were also well sought after economic assets for ploughing or towing carts. Mechanisation has replaced bulls while cows could not be since machines cannot produce milk. And thanks to the Government's Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, cow dungs have turned less useful as fuel. But the tradition of venerating the bovine community, arising primarily out of its economic returns, continues.
Cows provide milk only after giving birth to calves. When it stops giving birth it also stops generating milk for the dairy farmer. It becomes an unproductive uneconomic asset then, a burden in fact. But for particular communities cows are useful even after it reaches the age of reproduction. They use the meat and also the hides. For a poor farmer, the economic cycle must go on, supported by the traders of beef and cow hides. This helps farmers to sell the unproductive asset and replace it with a younger calf, about to reach reproductive age. Then the cycle of milk-producing business can go on. The community raising cows for producing milk need the community putting the unproductive cows to other economic use. The cycle of economics goes on.
The problem starts if the cycle comes to a stop abruptly, like it has come in many parts of the country, as in the village Gabiasarai. All of a sudden, a group of cow worshippers have risen. They have taken the worship leaf out of the cow economics and placed it on a puja mandap (seat of worship). One factor that had created such activists could be the never-ending tussle for cheap/free economic asset. A cow left for grazing unattended in a village fallow is an easy target for stealing. More so if the animal can be slaughtered and used economically without being tracked by the original owner. The root of the tussle between two communities – one rearing cows for milk and the other slaughtering it for meat and hide – lies in the two separate forms of economic exploitation of cow. It is as economist Gary Becker would have liked to call it, an economic issue taking the shape of the communal problem. The cow vigilante groups came into being to protect the interests of the dairy farmers.
Sadly their overzealousness has given rise to several problems -- law and order attracting headlines often enough. The attendant issue of the nation getting painted as a land of ruffians, "a communal cauldron", is brushed aside by the supporters of cow vigilantes as western bias against Indian sensitivities. Be that as it may but the unavoidable fact remains that the cow vigilantes tarnish the image of an otherwise promising and performing nation. The point that is completely winked at in this debate is the problem suffered by farmers, city-dwellers and common people.
Those travelling through city roads, in Varanasi or in Delhi, often enough face the roadblock created by stray cattle. Those with little more interest in the surroundings might have seen how cows eat plastic and die on roads. Those having a less superficial interest in farmers' issues will know how stray cattle damage the crops. The economic cost of cow vigilantism, if collated meticulously, will not be insignificant. More so if one takes into account the plight of those living on the margins of a trillion rupee economy, the cost is indeed significant.
Coming back to the point of cow worship one may safely assume that the economic gains from cattle had been the trigger for the veneration of cows. When such blind veneration hurts the individual's economic interest will they continue to worship cows (Gaumata)? One parallel could be how Indians used to be ostracised for crossing the oceans in the 18th and the 19th centuries. And today those who do not go abroad are looked down upon. Like it or not the irrefutable fact of civilisation is that economic interest controls all other passions – religion is certainly one of that. If over-devotion to cows hurts the economic interests of those living on the margins, the society will erupt someday. It is time for the right-minded among the cow worshippers to rethink the vigilantism and bring back the rule of economics in dairy business.
(The author is Director, Integral Advisory Services Pvt Ltd. The views expressed are strictly personal)