Cow vigilantes prepare to set up a road block near Chandigarh, India, July 6, 2017. Picture taken July 6, 2017. To match Special Report INDIA-POLITICS/RELIGION-COWS REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
© Reuters

Sohan Lal, a 52-year-old sharecropper in India’s heartland state of Madhya Pradesh, has long faced the typical problems of the country’s 120m farmers, from the vagaries of the weather to fluctuating commodity prices. But these days, Mr Lal, who cultivates wheat and soyabean on 3 acres in Pipaliya Mira village, is confronting a new menace that is causing havoc across India’s rural economy: stray cows that intrude on his fields and eat his crops.

In 2004 the state government, controlled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party whose orthodox Hindu supporters revere cows as near deities, passed a new law banning all cattle slaughter. The legislation — which also prohibits taking aged cows out of the state for slaughter — was amended in 2012 to extend prison sentences and to shift the burden of proof on to suspects, who are now presumed guilty unless they can prove their innocence.

With patrols of aggressive youth acting as enforcers, the ban upended the economics of keeping dairy cattle, destroying a thriving market for aged cows or male calves, which were previously valued for meat and hides. Today, unwanted bovines are just dumped, under cover of darkness, along highways or in other villages, resulting in a sharp surge in feral cattle.

“People can’t afford to feed them so they just abandon them at night,” Mr Lal says. “Crops are being destroyed by both bulls and abandoned cows. If we are awake, we chase them away from the fields. Otherwise, they just destroy everything.”

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Already the world’s largest milk producer, India is struggling to keep pace with the demands of a more affluent population for nutritious food. But stray cattle are a growing problem as an ascendant BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, uses its expanding power to strengthen cow protection laws and restrict the bovine trade, fulfilling its longstanding pledge to defend the gau mata, or “cow mother”.

The disruption of complex supply chains that had linked Indian dairy farmers to leather and meat exports worth about $11bn in 2016, highlighted a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Mr Modi’s administration.

In 2014, the prime minister was swept to power on a promise to accelerate economic growth and create new opportunities for the 12m young Indians entering the job market each year. But his promise of economic revival was laced with an undercurrent of Hindu nationalism, which seeks to privilege the religious sensibilities of India’s Hindu majority in public policy.

In its pursuit of stronger cow protection laws — at the expense of industries that together employ at least 5.5m people — Mr Modi’s BJP has signalled that the Hindu nationalist cultural agenda trumps economic interests, including the urgent need for job creation.

Cow protection has been a core issue that has defined the Hindu nationalist movement since its inception,” says Gilles Verniers, a political science professor at New Delhi’s Ashoka University. “It’s not something that can be ditched easily for the sake of an economic argument. They are ready to bear the cost. And politically, they think it’s more rewarding. The gains outweigh the cost.”

To go with India-politics-religion-beef,FOCUS by Abhaya SRIVASTAVA In this photograph taken on November 5, 2015, volunteers of the vigilante group of Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Squad) inspect a truck on a highway in Taranagar in the desert state of Rajasthan. Cow slaughter and consumption of beef are banned in Rajasthan and many other states of officially secular India which has substantial Muslim and Christian populations, and almost every night a vigilante squad lie in wait for suspected cattle smugglers, in a bid to enforce the ban. AFP PHOTO/CHANDAN KHANNA (Photo credit should read Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)
Volunteers of the Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Squad) inspect a truck on a highway in Taranagar, Rajasthan © AFP

Economists say the tough cow protection policies are a blow to rural households, half of which keep bovines, both as a source of milk for their own consumption and to generate income. Experts warn of stagnating milk production, and sharp increases in price.

“It’s bizarre that the macro implications of this haven’t been considered,” says Ravi Srivastava, an economics professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Centre for the Study of Regional Development in Delhi. “You are turning an asset into a liability.”

“If farmers are not able to sell their redundant cattle, the cost per unit of milk would have to go up horrendously for the rest of the dairy economy to be viable,” he adds. “More and more farmers are very disinclined to keep cattle.”

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The country’s cow protection movement began in north India in the late 19th century, as upper-caste Hindus sought to resist western influence and spur nationalist sentiment. The cow, the heart of rural economies, was elevated to the symbolic “mother of the Hindu nation” — an idea propagated in posters, pamphlets and public meetings.

Cow protection societies sprang up across north India and in big cities, pushing — unsuccessfully — to criminalise cow slaughter. “The cow was always an essential companion of everyday life in rural India,” says Mr Verniers. “It essentially became a symbol of Hindu national identity, which was not so much centred around religion, but around cultural symbols that are evocative of the motherland.”

The elevation of the cow to a sacred national symbol also fuelled tensions, dividing Hindus from Muslims, who had no taboo on eating beef and sometimes sacrificed the animals for their own festivals. Communal riots over cow slaughter erupted in 1893, and recurred in the following decades.

Indian leather exports chart

After India’s independence in 1947, conservative Hindu leaders pushed for a national cow slaughter ban in the constitution. That demand was rejected, though a “directive principle” urged individual states to prohibit slaughter of cows or draught animals that could pull ploughs or carts.

Since the 1950s, many states have banned the killing of productive cattle. But the killing of aged animals was often allowed, creating a robust rural market for animals that could no longer give milk or pull ploughs, many of which were sold to traders in neighbouring Bangladesh.

As India’s milk production has risen in the past two decades, so too have meat and leather exports, driven by the natural rotation of milk-producing animals and growing mechanisation of agriculture, which has seen a sharp rise in the use of tractors and reduced demand for bulls.

But on the campaign trail in 2014, Mr Modi publicly decried India’s rising meat exports, which he described repeatedly in emotive terms as a “pink revolution” — a reference to flesh and blood — destroying the local cattle population. “People who slaughter cows, who slaughter animals, are destroying our rivers of milk,” he told a large rally.

An Indian tannery worker carries cow skins to be dyed with a traditional method using acacia tree sawdust at a tannery in Jalandhar on October 25, 2017. Tanneries in Jalandhar in the northern Indian state of Punjab export the finished leather made from cow and buffalo hides to the international textile markets. / AFP PHOTO / SHAMMI MEHRA (Photo credit should read SHAMMI MEHRA/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian tannery preparing cow skins in Jalandhar, Punjab © AFP

Since then, the BJP has pushed to quash the cattle trade. BJP-ruled states widened their cow protection laws to stop the slaughter of even aged, unproductive animals, ban the interstate transport of cattle and impose tougher penalties on the guilty — up to life imprisonment for killing a cow in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat.

This summer, New Delhi issued a national order making it a criminal offence to buy or sell any bovines — including buffaloes — for slaughter in any cattle markets, though the rules were set aside by the Supreme Court in response to legal challenges.

North India has also seen the rise of violent “cow defenders”, responsible for a series of lethal attacks on Muslim farmers and livestock traders, killings that have created a climate of fear and severely depressed once-active markets for cattle, both young and old. “The supply chain has been completely disrupted because there are no traders coming into the villages,” says Mr Srivastava. “They are very, very afraid.”

The most immediate hit has been felt by India’s leather industry, especially established leather hubs in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh in northern India, where the supply of hides has become highly erratic, due to the vigilantism.

“People are afraid to move the hides because the vigilantes can stop the leather movement on the ground,” says M Rafeeque Ahmed, former chairman of the Council for Leather Exports.

Digvijay Nath Tiwari (L), the commander, and other members of a Hindu nationalist vigilante group established to protect cows, are pictured with animals they claimed to have saved from slaughter, in Agra, India August 8, 2016. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton - S1BETUILZYAA
Hindu nationalist members of a cow vigilante group in Agra, Uttar Pradesh © Reuters

The domestic hide supply, he says, is “on and off. It’s OK for a while, until something happens, then it gets disturbed for a few weeks. Then it gets back to normal. But factories cannot function like that. We should have assured supply all the time.”

Given this, many Indian leather goods producers — including those making shoes and other products — have started importing hides from abroad. “People that have been using Indian leather want to be sure that their factories run, so they are importing more,” Mr Ahmed says.

But the cow protection movement has also cast a long shadow over milk production.

“Dairying is totally tied in with the freedom of the farmer to sell your animal and replace your stock,” says Sagari Ramdas, a veterinarian affiliated with the Food Sovereignty Alliance. “If the farmer is no longer going to have that freedom, it could have severe implications for the production of milk.”

The prosperous agricultural state of Punjab — where Nestlé has its largest Indian milk packing and processing plant — is at the forefront of India’s efforts to increase its milk output.

With supply still lagging behind demand, rising milk prices have been big drivers of food price inflation over the past decade.

“We do need more milk,” says Amarjit Singh Nanda, vice-chancellor of Ludhiana’s Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University. “Our animals are not having the best productivity compared to the developed world.”

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Punjab’s enterprising farmers have largely turned their back on India’s indigenous cattle, instead raising foreign cross-breeds like the Holstein-Friesian, regarded as the world’s highest-producing dairy cows. As a result, Punjab produces 8 per cent of India’s milk, from just 2 per cent of its dairy animals.

Punjabi farmers have also been breeding the high-yielding Holstein-Friesian cows — which are worth nearly Rs100,000 ($1,500) each — and selling them to farmers across north India, helping to raise the nation’s milk output.

But restrictions on cattle sales and cow protection vigilantism in BJP-ruled states have led to a collapse in demand for the expensive animals, with farmers reluctant to make such purchases any longer, due to uncertainty over whether they can recoup their costs.

FILE PHOTO: India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering during his visit to Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, India, June 29, 2017. To match Special Report INDIA-POLITICS/RELIGION-COWS REUTERS/Amit Dave/File Photo
How Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s administration handles competing pressures to please voters and maintain fiscal rectitude will be watched by investors © Reuters

Vigilantes in Punjab’s neighbouring states often demand that transporters pay Rs15,000 ($230) or Rs20,000 per cow before they will permit the trucks to proceed to their destination.

“The cow I was selling for Rs90,000, now I’m selling for Rs50,000,” says Avtar Singh, a cattle breeder who says his only sales are now to farmers in Punjab. “People are humiliating the traders, saying these animals are their mothers.”

Mr Nanda warns that “India will face a milk crisis” if such trends continue. “The growth in dairying will stop.”

Ajay Vir Jakhar, chairman of Punjab Farmers Commission, agrees that the disruption to the livestock trade will have significant repercussions for the production of milk. “People will stop keeping dairy animals because it’s not viable any more,” he says.

“India will become a net importer of milk in 10 years’ time,” he adds. “We will be completely dependent on buying milk from abroad.”

Additional reporting by Jyotsna Singh

A woman worships a cow as Indian Hindus offer prayers to the River Ganges, holy to them during the Ganga Dussehra festival in Allahabad, India, Sunday, June 8, 2014. Allahabad on the confluence of rivers the Ganges and the Yamuna is one of Hinduism’s holiest centers. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Worshipping a cow at the River Ganges © AP

Cost of care: states step in to stem the rise of stray cows

As stray cow numbers grow with the tightening of controls on their slaughter, the government led by the Bharatiya Janata party is supporting the establishment of “gaushalas” or cow shelters, which are intended to provide shelter to elderly, unwanted cattle.

In Madhya Pradesh, the state government has provided land for setting up village gaushalas, as well as a Rs500 annual subsidy for each resident bovine. But Lalit Tyagi, who helps his grandfather run a community gaushala in Titora village, says the state funds are insufficient as the cost of feeding a cow for one year is nearly Rs6,000.

“It costs a lot more to run these gaushalas than the government provides in subsidy so people are not accepting the cows,” he says. “If we bring abandoned cows to the shelter but can’t feed them, they will starve here too. It is better to let them roam around and graze on the green patches.”

In Rajasthan, which has its own cow ministry, the state government this year levied a cow protection tax — a 10 per cent surcharge on stamp duties for property transactions — to raise revenues for the care of geriatric cows.

But experts question just how many unproductive cows Indian taxpayers can afford to support. According to the last livestock census in 2012, India had around 5.2m stray cattle, but that number is believed to be rising fast.

“If we keep all our male calves alive, and if we do not smuggle or sell infertile cows, the number of useless animals would increase by 20 per cent a year,” says Amarjit Singh Nanda, vice-chancellor of Ludhiana’s Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University.

In Titora, Mr Tyagi says farmers are turning away from dairy. “Earlier, 80 per cent of houses reared cows, but now not so many people are keeping them. The investment is more and the return is less. It’s cheaper to buy milk.”

Letter in response to this article:

Hindu piety does not extend to slaughterhouse / From Amit A Pandya, Silver Spring, MD, US

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