RK Nagar writes; Cows, grass and beef

It has been fifty years since I have witnessed the most controversial and highly emotional issue raise its head again and again without any visible sign of early resolution.

Yes, I am referring to the issue of cow slaughter.

Although at this point in time, the issue is in cold store and no one (including our media that often goes in overdrive on this subject) is even whispering about it, I am raising it.

I am raising it because, as a dairy professional I feel about it, I feel bad, sad and anguished when I see our cows scavenge on recklessly thrown green garbage mixed with non-biodegradable pieces of plastic and other trash.

And where do you find these cows? Of course on busy roads and streets of small towns, crowded areas of old cities, and of course in large villages that have acquired an urban character.

So is the problem with the cows that are ‘city dwellers’, and not the ones that are actually raised, often very lovingly by the farmers?

Not quite true. It is a problem with cows everywhere, be it in cities, towns or villages. I am being specific, the problem is only with the “Cows”, as you hardly find any buffalo scavenging on the roads.

Surprised? I am too. The unprotected sister of cows- buffalo doesn’t scavenge means it is better looked after by the owners, while the ‘Holi mother’, the Cow is neglected. And the reason is obvious-despite massive increase in numbers and productivity increase through cross breeding, cows are still behind buffaloes in terms of percent contribution to total milk production. Buffaloes still contribute close to 52% of all bovine milk.

And why the cow is neglected? Here I am referring to the indigenous/non-descript type simply because they are poor performers in terms of milk yield. They have further lost the sheen because its male progeny is no longer in demand due to increased mechanisation of agriculture.

Interest groups and their perspective:

There are 3 interest groups, each one with its own perspective on this issue.

The cow vigilantes:

Self appointed protectors of cows and its progeny. Their argument is that in Indian tradition, especially for Hindus, cow is akin to mother and must be kept alive till natural death occurs. They want the farmers to keep and maintain the progeny of the cow- male or female, productive or unproductive till natural death. They are most active in small towns and often take law in their own hands to punish the offender- generally a meat or beef trader found to carry the head or carcass of cattle or even a buffalo.

I am still at a loss to understand how, by merely seeing the head of
the dead animal, they conclude that it is a female cattle.

The beef eaters:

Mostly non Hindus (although a small proportion of Hindus too traditionally eat beef and thus logically form part of this interest group) who treat cow as any other animal and for them the right place of a male cattle and unproductive female cattle is the dining table. Their argument is simple, “for me cow is not holy. So, why am I being denied the choice of food”.

Farmers engaged in milk production

The third most important interest group is the farmers engaged in milk production. For them a cow is an investment that is supposed to give income and profit. It is true that most of them revere the female of the species and would not directly slaughter the unproductive animal, their argument is that “an unproductive cow is a drain on my limited resources and why should I be denied the right to trade in animals? If a buffalo or a goat or any other farm animal can be traded, why not my unproductive stock of cattle”?

The farmers’ argument is very clearly reflected in numbers. Let us have a quick look at the livestock census figures with regard to cattle

These numbers clearly bring out the fact that:

female progeny has been on a steady increase but with a changed composition. The proportion of high yielding exotic/cross breeds increased from 28% in 2007 to 35.58% in 2019.

The growth of exotic/ cross bred cattle over the previous census has shown a remarkable increase. Of the numbers that increased between 2007 and 2012, exotic/cross bred females constituted 88.6%, and between 2012-19, 54.1%.
Thus farmers clearly show a preference for high yielding female progeny over low yielding non-descript breeds.

Can anyone be forced to accept a particular group’s belief? Why should a farmer be forced to change his perspective of viewing the cow from a farm asset to “holy mother”?

During the period 2007 and 2019, the population of male cattle declined by 45%. Clearly, farmers do not want to rear male animals as they do not add value to farm output but only put pressure on the limited feed and fodder resources.

Thus it is clear that the farmers trade the male progeny and rear to maturity the females as they add value to farm output in terms of milk. Female cattle are viewed by farmers as assets, while the males are a net liability. A farmer’s choice of specie -cow or buffalo, breed-indigenous purebred/ exotic pure/ cross bred and the numbers is therefore based purely on business considerations and how well does his choice fit into his resource mix.

These numbers further lead credence to the argument that for the farmers, a cow is only a productive asset and that they do not attach any sentiments to it as a “holy animal” that must be treated as mother.

This scenario gives rise to following questions:

Do the farmers have a right to pursue their chosen profession in a manner that best suits their economic interest?

In a democratic country, do the people have a right to choose what they eat, especially if their religious or cultural beliefs are at variance from those of who treat cow as holy mother?

Isn’t forcing someone to change his/her belief or professional practice violative of his/her fundamental rights as a citizen

Isn’t it the responsibility of the believer himself to protect the animal he treats as holy mother? Why should the believer shirk his responsibility and force the farmers to take the believers’ responsibility on his shoulders?

It raises another question. Let us for brevity’s sake assume for a minute that the cow is protected (under the pressure of cow vigilantes) by law. At the same time, the rights of the farmers to trade in unproductive animals is also protected.
I would like to add another dimension to the scene here- all the unproductive cattle-males as well as females are purchased by the cow vigilantes and reared till their natural death, although there is an extremely low probability of the cow vigilantes coming forward to take this responsibility.

What could happen in this scenario? Will it give rise to more questions and complicate the situation further?

All unproductive male cattle will be raised to maturity exerting a tremendous pressure on feed, fodder and water resources that are already scarce. How and from where would the demand for the additional feed /fodder and water be met?

Will it starve many animals to death as farmers would trade in fodder only after meeting their own needs. After all they are in business of milk production and they can not afford to underfeed the stock and risk drop in milk production and in turn income.

This scenario will deny the beef eaters access to food that their belief permits them to eat. Again, will they accept this situation or challenge the legality of ban on cow slaughter as “violative of their fundamental right to life style”? Will it not affect the prices of other animal products- meat, eggs and poultry, fish etc.
Where will millions of these animals be kept? Most cow vigilantes are urbanites. Will they move millions of these cattle to cities and towns? And if it does happen, what is the guarantee that these poor animals will not be left on streets to scavenge on garbage?

This scenario is pretty complex and given the sensitive nature of the problem, it will continue to haunt us until rationality overcomes sensitivity and ugly display of pseudo love for the cow.

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