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Let’s get the cow economy back on rails

Cows are back in the news. They are making a splash in Aligarh district of Uttar Pradesh. It all started a few days ago with Timoteo village, where irate farmers fed up with stray cattle eating up their crops, rounded up 500 heads of cows and locked them up in the local primary school. It was not just to get the rampaging cattle off their land; it was to get the government administration to find a solution.

The protest has spread like wildfire. Aligarh farmers are rounding up stray cattle and locking them up in nearest government buildings — hospitals, offices, schools. Work in these government outposts has come to a halt, and the local administration is paralysed. Cities and towns too are facing traffic accidents and people are being horned by stray bulls. India’s ‘stray’ cattle population is believed to have hit 5.2 million, and Maharashtra alone is estimated to have 7.5 lakh heads roaming untended on the roads.

A frustrated sub-divisional magistrate from Aligarh, A K Sharma, summed up the crisis thus: “Once a cow stops giving milk, they leave it on the streets. We have to rescue cattle and transport them to overflowing gaushalas.”

Dairy farming disrupted
The crisis we see in Aligarh and elsewhere is a fallout of the disruption of the dairy economy by last year’s ban on trade and sale of cattle. The situation has been aggravated by cow vigilantism, where gangs of extortionists have attacked dairy farmers. The crisis was triggered with the notification of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Market) Rules on May 23 last year, which banned the sale of cattle for slaughter in animal markets. It was withdrawn in October 2017 and a fresh watered down draft issued in April this year.

Arvind Subramanian, then Chief Economic Advisor when the 2017 ban was first imposed, broke ranks with the government and said that if the farmer was not able to sell his less productive cattle for meat, it would lead to dairy farming becoming uneconomical. He also warned: “Stray cattle, and a lot of it, will have to be looked after, otherwise diseases (foot and mouth) could spread, leading to health hazards and social costs.” Subramanian’s warning is now playing out.
Ban policies and cow vigilantism have knocked the bottom off the normal cycle of the dairy economy. The milch cow has a normal productive period of eight to nine years, after which the farmer sells his aged stock and uses the money to renew his herd. The old stock earlier went to abattoirs as meat or as hides for the leather industry. It’s like selling your old car, investing a little more, and buying a new one. Abattoirs are now closed and for the dairy farmer, this ‘resale’ option is not there. Expectedly, prices of cattle of all varieties have plummeted.

Thus, the farmer has no investible surplus to renew his livestock; and to add insult to injury, he is now saddled with unproductive cows he is forced to feed. The only option he has is to dump his old herd on the roads or in someone else’s field.

Rollback necessary
After Bulandshar, where cow vigilantes lynched a police officer, it is Aligarh. And these are warning signals the Centre can scarcely afford to ignore. India is too diverse a country to be foisted with a unitary diktat on food habits and cultural norms. Beef is consumed by over 80 million Indians as a staple diet and 12.5 million of these are Hindus. In the seven north-east states as well as Kerala and Goa, beef is sold openly and there is no ban on cow slaughter.

But more than pleas for diversity, it is economics that must prevail. Despite all the brouhaha, India is the world’s second largest beef exporter in 2018, accounting for 1.9 million tonnes. Over two decades, it has increased its milk production tenfold to 185 MT a year; and by 2020, it is all set to overtake the European Union as the largest dairying nation. To disrupt all this by restricting bovine trade is to hit jobs and farm incomes.

It is time that some of these trading and cattle restrictions were rolled back. Supporting ill and aging livestock can be crueler. Thousands of cows have died in ill-equipped and overcrowded gaushalas. People’s sentiments have to be respected and there should be no open display of slaughter and sale in Hindu localities, but at the same time shackling Indian agriculture to religious bigotry is not an option.

Date: 30 Dec 2018
Source: http://www.newindianexpress.com/nation/2018/dec/30/lets-get-the-cow-economy-back-on-rails-1918186.html