Farmers can’t keep them, traders don’t want to buy them, and gaushalas are full. The result: Havoc on farms and roads. Sunday Times travels across the country to find out how the population of stray bovines is becoming a ticking time bomb.
The problem of stray cattle is not new in India, but in the last few months, it has reached alarming proportions. According to 2012 data from the 19th livestock census, stray cattle amounted to 58.87 lakh. This was just a fraction (2.76%) of the country’s total cattle population of 190.90 million at the time, but it exceeded the entire cattle populations of countries like Afghanistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. By all indications, this number may go up dramatically in the 20th livestock census which will be out later this year.
In the last few years, cow vigilante groups have dramatically changed the livestock business. The practice of unproductive cattle winding up in slaughterhouses and being used for meat and leather, was already in trouble. But since May, after the Centre notified the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, it has become even more difficult to buy, sell and transport cattle.
Until recently, farmers followed a pattern: they would sell their old and unproductive cattle to traders, who would then transport them to states where slaughter is allowed. The farmers, on their part, would buy young and productive bovines from cattle fairs. But this cycle is a thing of the past now. Farmers simply abandon their unproductive cattle, because maintaining them is unaffordable. This explains the exponential increase in stray cattle numbers.
Once a valued resource, cows are now becoming a farmer’s worst enemy in many places. Anirudh Kumar, a farmer from Saketu whose sugarcane and paddy crops worth lakhs were destroyed by drifting cattle, says: “The population of stray cattle has increased drastically since slaughterhouses shut down. It was a good move to save the cows, but no steps have been taken to provide shelter to stray cattle. They enter our fields and destroy our crops.”
As a deterrent, some farmers have installed electrified barbed wire fencing, even though it is illegal. “But it’s not easy to go for that option. Gau rakshaks threaten us with FIRs if we do that,” says Kumar.
The gaushalas, meanwhile, are full beyond capacity. Hingonia gaushala, on the outskirts of Jaipur, is struggling to look after more than 14,000 cows, which is almost twice as much as it can accommodate. And yet, municipal authorities keep bringing in more animals. Radha Priya Das, who is in charge of the gaushala, says their running costs are Rs 3 crore a month. Last year, over 8,000 cows in the gaushala died of malnutrition and disease.
Even though Rajasthan has 2,319 gaushalas where over 6.71 lakh cows are housed, drifting cattle on the streets are a common sight. Pushkar Narayan Bhati, president of BJP’s Pushkar unit, admits that the stray cattle menace has grown with the rise in cow vigilantism. “Cows wandering on streets are double the number sheltered in gaushalas,” he says. With barely any demand at cattle fairs, villagers just leave their unproductive animals on the streets of Pushkar, he says.
Avinash Telkar, in charge of the stray animals department in the Pune Municipal Corporation, says the civic body is finding it difficult to manage. Road safety has been affected not just in cities, but even on highways. Abdul Wasim, a driver working for a tour operator in Ranchi, says: “I have narrowly escaped accidents at least a dozen times in the last year because of herds appearing suddenly.”
The attacks by cow vigilantes on transporters ferrying cattle, coupled with tough rules on cow transportation, have forced most farmers to abandon the idea of buying cattle. “We fear taking our cows even to a hospital. The best option is to buy buffaloes,” says Vilas Patil from Palus village in Sangli district.
While there are no new buys, some farmers in western Maharashtra villages bordering Karnataka have been selling their existing livestock at throwaway prices. Traders from Karnataka, where cow slaughter is legal, come around midnight and take the cattle away, paying just Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per cow.Amra Ram, president of All India Kisan Sabha, a CPM affiliate, says that the Centre’s protective regulations are responsible for the stray cattle menace. It’s ironic, he says, because “there was a time farmers celebrated the birth of a calf in their homes. Not any more.”
Reporting by Amarjeet Singh, Kanwardeep Singh, Paul John, Palak Nandi, Radheshyam Jadhav and Sonali Das
Date : 06 October 2017