By Girish Linganna
There are around 5 million stray cattle roaming the streets of India. The cow is a sacred—and revered—animal in Hinduism. But stray cattle, primarily abandoned males, cause havoc in the country. Cattle have been reported to attack people, cause traffic accidents and spread diseases.
During the past decade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tightened restrictions on animal slaughter, which has contributed to the number of strays rising in the country. In addition to allowing producers to require fewer head of cattle, modern technology has enabled them to euthanize surplus livestock.
India has about 1.4 billion people, and about 1 billion are Hindu. Hinduism is a decentralized faith, but its myths often speak about cows and the sacred role they play in feeding and caring for people.
Even though it is not unusual to see stray cattle on the streets in Indian towns, things have been getting out of hand in recent years, with cattle populating garbage dumps, or even nearby ponds at the height of the Indian summer. Over the past decade, the situation seems to have worsened and India now has approximately 5 million stray head of cattle. They are predominantly male and, frequently, in poor condition—either starving, or injured after being hit by rash vehicles on the roads.
Most Indian farmers used to butcher unproductive cattle until quite recently. Since beef is a relatively inexpensive source of protein, Muslims—of whom India has 200 million—also freely partake of it. But, in recent years, all that has started to change as Hindu nationalists have aggressively pushed for the government to take more action to preserve cows.
Modi, who was elected as the Prime Minister in 2014, took up the matter. His Right-wing Hindu party was interested in the issue because the majority of the people who butcher cattle and eat beef are Muslims and from other minority communities, such as tribals. Modi referred to the slaughter of animals and the export of beef as a “pink revolution” during his campaign. He has tightened laws in 18 states since taking office to prevent the slaughter of cattle. According to The Economist, Modi had “a fixation with cows”. According to the report, his political party fought to make India a Hindu nation by using the cow as a symbol.
India is the second-largest producer of beef and the largest producer of milk in the globe. So, a prohibition on the slaughter of cattle had significant consequences. The majority of dairy cows can survive up to 15 years, but they cease producing milk after seven years. Approximately 3 million cows in India cease producing milk annually.
Farmers view cows that can no longer calve, or produce milk as a burden. Prior to Modi’s restrictions, these cattle were frequently sold to Muslim merchants and smuggled abroad for their flesh and leather. But now that the farmers cannot kill cattle they do not need, they just let male calves and older, less productive females go. “At night, people quietly let loose their cows that don’t give milk,” one farmer told the media.
The rise in the number of stray cattle in the country has also been helped by new technology. A few decades ago, male bulls were very important on a farm because they helped till the fields and made manure. But now, there are tractors and chemical fertilizers, so they are not needed as much.
Stray cattle may not sound like a big deal, but when there are millions of them, they can create problems. They often do not get enough food, which makes them turn aggressive. Local newspapers often run stories about people being attacked by bulls on the street. Some of these people have died, while others have been badly hurt. Car accidents can also be caused by stray cattle. Between 2018 and 2022, more than 900 people died in Haryana because of stray cattle that ran amuck on the roads.
Diseases can be spread by stray cattle, too. Farmers, sometimes, let go of sick cattle because they cannot kill them, and this can cause outbreaks. This is, possibly, what happened in 2022, when more than 2 million head of cattle got afflicted by the ‘lumpy skin disease’.
Crops, too, are destroyed by stray cattle. About 85% of the farmers in India do not own more than 5 acres, so any damage to their crops has a long-term effect. Some farmers put up fences around their plots or employ guards, but most farmers cannot afford to do this. The head of a farmers’ group in Uttar Pradesh, Anjani Dixit, told National Geographic, “A herd can destroy a whole crop in just an hour.” Instead, many farmers spend the night on their farms to make sure cattle do not eat anything.
Ashok Kumar, a farmer, told Bloomberg that the government had made his life “miserable” by forcing him to accompany a stray herd off his property. “We could go to jail and won’t be eligible for bail for months if we caused physical harm to the cows for ruining our crops,” he lamented. “The ones who should be in jail, in fact, are the ones who abandon the cows.”
People are often afraid to take steps to rectify any situation on their own. Bloomberg says that, in addition to the government ban, the cow militia kills people who break the law. Between 2015 and end-2018, vigilantes killed 44 people and injured 280 others. The fact that the local police rarely follow up in most cases just worsens the situation. According to Human Rights Watch, they have, occasionally, even been charged with participating in the crimes. Locals in Uttar Pradesh are expected to notify the authorities of any dead cows. Every suspicious death necessitates a post-mortem examination.
Until August 2018, Modi, himself, did not condemn the killings. “I want to make it clear that mob lynching is a crime, no matter the motive,” he declared. In order to house wandering cattle, Modi’s administration also invested around US$41 million between 2014 and 2016 in the construction of gaushalas, or cowsheds. In India, there are now over 5,000 gaushalas. But the BBC says it is insufficient. The government is proposing to build a 130-acre cow sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh in the interim.
In order to almost ensure the sex of their calves and reduce the number of male calves, some farmers have begun artificial insemination of cows. However, this is a costly method. There is a drive to convert cow urine and dung into medicinal remedies, which is not new in India, although it is not backed by scientific experiments.
Vallabh Kathiria, former chairman of India’s agency to safeguard and promote cows, told the National Geographic that the plan was to make stray cows a symbol of something positive. He stated that he wanted people to “feel as if they’ve discovered a gold ornament” when they see one. But it seems unlikely that perception, alone, will be sufficient to resolve this pervasive issue. (IPA Service)