R N Bhaskar

13 April 2015

First, the caveat. This analysis is not meant to hurt the sentiments of any community. It is to present scenarios which should be considered seriously.

Now, the analysis.

True, India is the world #1 in both milk production and cattle population.

But there is a story that some milkmen occasionally narrate in Anand, Gujarat — the epicentre of India’s milk revolution. They speak wistfully about strange developments that have overtaken much of Western India.

Seventy years ago, almost all the cowherds in Western India were Hindus. They and their cattle got along beautifully.

Of course there were times when a calf, an old cow or bull, was not wanted. Maybe, the farmer had enough calves; or did not need a male calf; or the animal had grown old and unproductive. At that time, the farmer would sadly sell it to a trader. Especially if the cow had completed its 7th or 8th lactation cycle. That is when the milk slows or stops, medical bills and the cost of fodder multiply.

The trader sold the female calf to any farmer who wanted a milch cow. The male calf was sold to someone who wanted a bull — either to mate with his cows, or to drive his cart and plough. If nobody wanted it, or the animal was old, the trader sold it to the butcher. This was the way things had been done for centuries.

Then came laws declaring slaughter of cows illegal. Guilt, and the new laws, made many Hindus abandon the rearing of cows. It was safer to keep buffaloes instead. There were no restrictions on slaughter here. Moreover, buffalo-milk had a higher fat content; thus fetched a higher price. Hence, the flexibility that farmers enjoyed with cows for centuries was now extended to buffaloes.

Two things happened thereafter. First, the population of cows as a percentage of total cattle began diminishing. Second, unlike the past when most cowherds in Western India were Hindus, the last seven decades have seen more Muslim cowherds. Most carriers of milk, however — to the houses of people who still want cows’ milk fresh —  remain Hindus.

Holy cow in India

There were other consequences. Gradually, the Muslims (and the Parsis) became active in the veterinary trade and a good chunk of the pharmaceutical business too slipped into the hands of non-Hindus. The law of unexpected consequences was at work. When rules are brought in without much planning or understanding, the consequences are often unexpected and far-reaching.

The part about Muslim cowherds outnumbering Hindus remains apocryphal; the livestock census does not capture this information. But the decline in cow population — especially in states where there is a strict ban on slaughter of cows and their progeny — is well documented.

The 19th Livestock Census data shows cow population diminishing in states that rigorously enforced the ban (see table). The sole exceptions appear to be Jammu & Kashmir (it is difficult to enforce the law in Muslim dominated Kashmir) and Himachal Pradesh where the (same) law is not as rigorously implemented as in Haryana or Punjab.

Rajasthan is a borderline case, because the ban was introduced only in 1995. In Maharashtra it was enforced only in 2015.   Expect cow numbers to decline in these states as well.

Across India, however, the percentage of cows is higher — at 63.7%. But that is because states that do not rigorously enforce such a ban — or allow for conditional slaughter (the trade knows how to exploit loopholes) — have more cows. It is 70% in Madhya Pradesh; 62% in Bihar. It is well over 90% in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Kerala and other North-eastern states (including Assam).

Incidentally, cows are regarded as sacred in other countries as well — notably those that embraced Buddhism, which venerates cows. Hence China, Japan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar revere the cow. Chinese traditional medicine — even till today — does not allow the use of beef (unlike as in India where certain schools, especially in Kerala, occasionally use beef).

But Japan abolished the slaughter ban in 1872, and other countries have gradually eased controls on cow slaughter. For instance, in May 2013, a monk immolated himself in Sri Lanka to compel the government to take back exemptions given to minority communities to slaughter cows. The laws remained unchanged.

In India, the slaughter ban could trigger farmer resentment — especially when saddled with starving cattle during drought or unseasonal rains. Moreover, with artificial insemination and tractors becoming popular, the bull has become increasingly irrelevant. Obviously, farmers with male calves will be resentful. Giving them a cash compensation is risky. It could trigger counter-protests because such support should be given first to humans, then to animals. Moral: When passion is allowed to speed ahead of planning and policy, expect the law of unintended consequences to kick into place.

The author is consulting editor with DNA. 

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