Bruised by anti-cow slaughter laws and widespread vigilantism, farmers simply don’t want cows around. This means tactical abandoning, with decreasing options to trade unproductive cattle. But several states, including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, and Rajasthan, have formed laws to penalise such abandonment too.
Stray cattle has become a menace in villages as well as towns in several areas, to the extent that some states have taken to levying cess to put them in shelters. The prevalence of such instances is proportional to restrictions and violence related to the cow. Many attribute the current phase of cattle abandonment to trade restrictions.
- In MP, abandoning cows is a punishable offense; districts collectors are authorised to book cow owners. Its legislature has debated over the menace and widespread crop damages in drought-prone areas like Bundelkhand
- In Haryana, abandoning a cow can draw a penalty of Rs 5,100. Its effort to be the first stray cattle-free state included a plan to send the bovines to MP.
- Recently UP Chief Minister Adityanath ordered district collectors to act against those abandoning cattle after citizens locked up stray cattle inside government premises. His government has allocated Rs 11 crore to every municipal corporation to manage stray cattle and formed a committee under the chief secretary to evolve a financial package.
The history of the livestock economy is replete with such restrictions that disrupt the rural economy. Many states have decades-old laws banning cattle slaughter that have led many farmers to shift to buffaloes from cows.
India’s buffalo count soared 150 percent between 1951 and 2012 while the cattle population increased by only 23 percent.
States with tough anti- slaughter regulations have more buffaloes than cattle: Rajasthan has 50 percent of its livestock in buffaloes, Haryana 77 percent, UP 61 percent and Punjab 67 percent.
On the other hand, in Kerala and West Bengal, which don’t have a ban on slaughter, the proportions are 7 percent and 3.5 percent.
As raids on cattle trade/movement become the new normal, villages are fast turning into economic bad zones, and the cow is inching towards being a pariah breed.
The livestock economy is at the crossroads. The nature of the economy of cattle 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 data reveals that the number of livestock in rural areas has reduced by 18 percent–from 169 million to 135 million during 1971-2012. 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. But during 2007-2012, the number of milch breeds has increased by over 28 percent.
Rearing these productive animals to suit the economy of a farmer. But there are challenges to this booming economy already. According to the 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 live less due to over-breeding, poor housing, confinement, and overmedication. A majority of them are already being abandoned after reaching the unproductive age.
According to the 19th livestock census, the country has 5.3 million stray cattle. Odisha tops the list with more than a million, followed by UP, Rajasthan, MP, West Bengal and Gujarat. Most of the states are under the grip of cow vigilantes.
Behind this ongoing abandonment is the economy of sustaining cattle at an unproductive age. The cost of rearing a cow varies from region to region based on its breed.
Down To Earth collaborated with Go Anusandhan Sanstha, a cow research institute in Mathura, calculated the economic cost and return in rearing a milch cow: A Sahiwal cow can earn Rs 85 per day. But an unproductive cattle can incur a loss of Rs 60 a day. It means to maintain the 5.3 million stray cattle the cost would be around Rs 11,607 crore.
But the big question is: will it help “conserve” cows? No. Rather, constant restrictions and a regime of conservation purely based on “faith” or “sentiment” will make cows a pariah breed.
As indications are already there, people are showing signs of quitting rearing cattle, particularly cow. Punishing abandonment would be the proverbial last nail on the coffin. An owner abandons cattle because after a productive phase a cow is no more economically viable to maintain. His or her best option at this stage is to sell them. Sellers are least bothered what the buyers do with the cattle.
But restrictions on trade in recent time means owners take the easiest way out: abandon them. Now, this is becoming illegal as well, what should they do? With all probabilities, they would not even own cattle. And it is not a surmise but a reality too close.
We have a precedent in the once highly restricted sandalwood trade. In Karnataka, even now it is common to see people weeding out and throwing away nascent sandal plants sprouting in their backyards. The reason: Sandalwood is legally a state property, even if it is grown on private land. There is no ownership over the lucrative tree even if it is growing in one’s own land. But that person would be responsible for its well-being; if it is stolen the owner would be the first person for legal actions.
A 1792 edict by Tipu Sultan declared sandalwood to be a royal tree. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu later adopted the edict and kept sandalwood under government control. But this did more harm than good, as many legal obligations were imposed on sandalwood cultivation.
These restrictive laws led to a thriving black market for sandalwood, and it gave birth to the bandit Veerappan who traded in sandalwood from Karnataka’s forests illegally.
On the other hand, the government also lost the dominance in sandal trade globally, while other countries took our place by allowing people to take sandal plantation in their private lands. Finally, in the early 2000s, the government allowed private plantation but again with restrictions on sale. For example, private growers of sandalwood can sell it only to government agencies. After more than a decade, it seems there is no boom in sandal trade as expected. Neither did the government benefit, not private growers.
Smuggling of sandalwood from already depleted forests, however, continues, benefiting many other Veerappan.
There is a difference between sales restrictions on sandalwood and cattle tough. Sandalwood is not an essential economic asset while cattle are, particularly for the poorest who treat them as insurance against crop failures. What the sandalwood trade restrictions show that government can’t conserve or protect anything by banning or restricting activities, more so for a basic economic activity. Cows prospered and became a part of our socio-cultural life because it is of survival importance to humans.