Mumbai: Cattle ownership as a percentage of total livestock ownership in India has declined from 37% in 2007 to 35% in 2019, while ownership of buffaloes, sheep and goats has increased, according to the 2019 Livestock Census published by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry & Dairying.

One significant trend that emerges from the census is that the population of total indigenous/nondescript cattle has declined by 6% from 151.17 million in 2012 to 142.11 million in 2019; this decline was even higher at about 9% during the 2007-12 census period. The population of male animals in this category has declined from 61.95 million in 2012 to 43.94 million in 2019, while female animals’ numbers have increased by 10%--from 89.22 million in 2012 to 98.17 million in 2019.

Meanwhile, the central government’s May 2017 ban on cow slaughter--purportedly to preserve and improve indigenous breeds, and prohibit the slaughter of cows, calves and other milch and draught cattle--has had an impact on farm incomes and increased the numbers of stray cattle, experts said. Cow slaughter is now prohibited everywhere in India except in Kerala, West Bengal, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Tripura and Sikkim.

Veterinary scientist and bovine economy expert Sagari R Ramdas is a member of the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India, a platform for adivasi, dalit, pastoralist, landless, small and marginal farmers. The food sovereignty movement avers that people should be able to define their own food and agriculture systems. Ramdas also heads the education programme at the Kudali Intergenerational Learning Centre in Telangana’s Sanga Reddy district, a learning space for dalits and adivasis.

As a founder and former director of Anthra, a Pune-based organisation of women veterinary scientists, Ramdas has worked with small and marginal farming communities on livelihood issues. She has been involved in the revival of gongadi, yarn woven from the wool of the rare, black Deccani sheep of Telangana. She has published extensively on gender, food sovereignty, livestock and ecological governance.

Excerpts from an interview:

Do the Livestock Census figures indicate that farmers have moved away from cattle ownership due to cow vigilantism and the slaughter prevention laws?

There are three aspects of the recent census which strongly point towards the overall decline in cattle ownership--from farmers’ response to a scenario created via stricter slaughter laws, especially the complete ban on the inter-state transportation of animals, and vigilantism, which has made it completely impossible for them to sell their cattle when they need to. These are:

i) An unprecedented decline in the male cattle population between 2012 and 2019, as compared to the past several censuses.

ii) A significantly lower percentage increase in the female cattle population during 2012-2019, as compared to 2007-2012, in states which have tightened their slaughter laws, as compared to states with no ban on cow slaughter.

iii) A significant increase in the stray cattle population in states with slaughter laws and ban on inter-state transportation of cattle. The burgeoning stray cattle population is very obvious in the no slaughter-no transportation states, [the increase is] ranging from 15% to 100% (the latter in Madhya Pradesh).

Regarding the first, while male cattle populations have been on the decline since the onset of mechanisation in agriculture (tractors replacing draught animals) from the mid-1980s, the all-India decline, which was -18% between 2007 and 2012, nearly doubled (-30%) by 2019.

An analysis of the male cattle population data across the states tells us the story of how criminalising interstate transportation of animals; tightening slaughter laws in states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab; forcibly shutting down the so-called ‘illegal’ slaughterhouses in UP [Uttar Pradesh] because of the state’s failure to renew their licenses--all of which occurred over the last five years--coupled with violent vigilantism, has resulted in massive depletion of male cattle populations in those states.

It is quite usual for farmers to sell their draught animals, soon after the main agriculture season is over, and then reinvest in a new pair of animals for the next season. With robust beef, offals and leather markets, the sold animal, if not work-worthy, would still command nearly one-fourth or one-third of its original price. The vigilantism and inability to sell animals, which have resulted in a massive collapse of the animal markets, has manifested overwhelmingly in the unbelievably high rate at which farmers have stopped replacing their male cattle. Draught animals have been replaced with tractors and chemical fertilisers.

In the case of female cattle, farmers usually sell their fourth or fifth lactation females [which have given birth the fourth or fifth time], and these would end up being transported to states that permitted slaughter. The money would be used to partially offset the cost of purchasing a younger animal. What is evident once again is a much slower percentage increase in female cattle population as compared to the earlier census.

West Bengal, where there is no ban on slaughter, has the highest percentage increase in female cattle population, 34%.

What also happens if there is no market value left for a draught animal is that male calves are neglected and allowed to starve to death. This is already happening with crossbred male calves, which are poor performing work animals compared to indigenous cattle.

What was done with aged cattle traditionally?

They were always sold for slaughter. Beef has traditionally been a part of our food culture, and leather and other animal offals a part of the economy.

The government has admitted in the Rajya Sabha that the stray cattle population has increased since the slaughter ban. How do stray cattle impact farmers? How do aged cattle impact farmers' incomes?

Stray cattle belong to no one but they need to eat and drink. So they enter fields, graze on crops, try to drink water from any source. Farmers end up using any means to keep the animals out, chase them, beat them, maim them, which in turn angers the animal and provokes an attack. Read the newspaper reports from these states--this is the tragic, gory story that has unfolded.

Aged animals are a complete economic and labour burden to poor farming families, who are mostly dalit, bahujan and Muslim. They need feeding, grazing, watering, cleaning and healthcare. And who provides this labour? Women. It is hours of women's unpaid labour that upholds the Brahminic holy cow culture. The supposed earnings from the sale of cow dung and urine do little to offset the above.

Due to UP’s slaughterhouse crackdown, butchers, farmers and traders have been hit while big businesses have gained, as IndiaSpend reported in July 2017. In one of your articles, you said that the ban on cow slaughterhouses enables big corporations to enter the Indian market. Could you explain how?

Your article clearly brought out how these decisions have completely disrupted the chain of distribution of buffalo beef, which was livelihood and employment to large numbers of primarily Muslim citizens. So I wish to point out that under the garb of legality and hygiene, the state is using its might to intentionally target Muslims, and completely destroy their lives.

By doing this, they have ended up ensuring that the big private players in beef, created as export points, have monopolised the domestic beef markets. The closure of the so-called ‘illegal slaughterhouses’ has facilitated the monopolisation of the market, forcing small butchers who sell beef to become vertically integrated into these export companies.

There is 100% FDI [foreign direct investment] in food processing and animal husbandry in India, and we have already witnessed such trade partnerships and joint ventures between top global dairy players in the Indian dairy markets--Le-Lactalis-Tirumala Dairy, Fonterra-Future Milk, Danone-Epigamia. So it is not outside the realm of the possible to imagine the potential interest of global beef companies in capturing some of the profits to be made from the Indian beef industry.

One of the top players in the global beef market is JBS from Brazil, and let’s remember that on the recent visit of president Jair Bolsonaro to India, one of the 15 MoUs inked concerned animal husbandry. There were industry reports that the primary aim of the accompanying delegation was to promote trade ties between India and Brazil in the agri, food processing and meat and poultry sectors.

Has a ban on cow slaughter helped farmers and preserved indigenous breeds? Indigenous cattle breeds declined in India from 151 million in 2012 to 142.1 million in 2019 while exotic breeds grew in numbers, from 39 million to 50 million.

I have written about this earlier, and I restate that Article 48 of the directive principles--“the State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle”--is fundamentally flawed in its articulation. The centrality of slaughter to sustainably operationalise and balance the cycle of animal production towards preservation of the species, including cattle, has been diabolically and completely ignored. Erroneously, in Article 48, slaughter has been implicated for driving down cattle populations. This Catch-22 continues to haunt us to date and be manipulated to serve dreadful ends.

Having said this, let's look at the rise in the population of crossbreeds and decline in indigenous breeds. A driving factor for the change in breed composition has been farmers’ responses to various state policy decisions from 1960 onwards via various ‘revolutions’: green, white and then ‘livestock’, post economic reforms. The mechanisation of agriculture that began in the 1960s in highly irrigated regions, and then covered the bulk of dryland regions post economic reforms, has critically involved mechanisation of farm operations.

Between 1972 and 2007, there was a rapid decline in India’s draught/work animal populations, which fell by over 20 million. Academic studies have clearly attributed this decline to the rapid mechanisation of agricultural operations. The contribution by draught animals significantly reduced from 61% to 23% between 1971 and 1991. Researchers confirm how most of this decline occurred in the 1980s. In 1996-97, the contribution from animal power reduced to 14% while mechanical and electrical power increased to 79%. Farm power sources from mechanisation in India have increased from 0.32 kilowatt per hectare (kw/ha) in 1971-72 to 1.21 kw/ha in 2000-2001. Human and draught animal power has reduced from 58% to 17% during the same period, according to a 2013 paper by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research.

The White Revolution, of course, complemented the marginalising of animal power by foregrounding intensive dairying as the primary goal of animal husbandry. The limited budgets allocated to animal husbandry were predominantly to promote dairying, via upgrading local breeds with exotic semen from Holstein Friesians and Jersey animals, which are dairy breeds with high genetic potential as far as milk yields go.

The crossbred that is the offspring of these HF/Jerseys and local breeds, has genetic potential of average milk yields higher than the indigenous cattle breeds. Despite this, even today the dominant discourse continues to be how ‘the average milk yield of a cow in India is so much lower than the average milk yield of a cow in the US or EU, and we have to improve its productivity’.

The indigenous breeds were quadruple purpose breeds: draught, dairy, dung and meat/beef. They were bred to meet the multiple needs of agriculture, food, income and soil.

Economic reforms, which resulted in the expansion of the formal/organised dairy markets--with the explosion of value-added products meeting the bottomless greed of a 300-million strong middle and upper classes and dominant castes in India--has further driven up the demand for milk. Farmers responded by intensifying their production by rearing crossbred cows rather than indigenous.

Slaughter had absolutely nothing to do with driving down the numbers of indigenous breeds. Despite existing slaughter bans in some states, the ability to transport animals out of the state enabled farmers to reinvest in the animals they wanted.

Exports of India’s leather industry declined more than 5% in the financial year 2018-19 and 3% in the first quarter of 2017-18, according to the latest available figures, and compared to a growth of more than 18% in 2013-14, according to an IndiaSpend analysis of trade data. How has the slaughter ban impacted sectors other than agriculture?

Your figures speak for themselves--it has utterly destroyed the livelihoods of those who depended on processing of skins and hides, and then the manufacture of leather products. Why is India today importing cattle skins and hides from the US and processed leather goods from China? It can be directly linked to a decline in local availability. At the same time, India has reduced its export duties on skin and raw hides from 60% to 40%, which leather industry spokespersons have protested.

Gau rakshaks (cow defenders) help in legal transactions of cows while gaushalas (cow shelters) help take care of old cows, said Vallabh Khataria, president of the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog (national cow commission), in an interview with IndiaSpend. Do you agree with his view?

Cow defenders and cow shelters are successfully contributing towards the destruction of people’s livelihoods, which have been intertwined and dependent on India’s cattle wealth. The fear of being lynched is halting farmers from owning cattle (male and female) and non-farmers from trading in cattle. Cattle are being forced to live in the most cruel conditions, dying of starvation, cramped into overcrowded cow shelters. If this is not cruelty, what is?

The slaughter laws too, coupled with the cow protection ideologues in power, provide complete protection to these so-called cow defenders, who act with utter impunity.

Finally, there are a lot of intentional data gaps on the disposal of the unproductive cow which are not being honestly recorded and put out in the public domain. What is in fact happening to the cows? Let’s take the growing crossbred cow population for instance. What is the farmer in cowbelt India, (which of course is now predominantly the buffalo belt), Gujarat or Maharashtra or Rajasthan, doing with the fourth and fifth lactation crossbred cows? They are unable to even transport them out of their state, which is legally possible in states like Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka. Where do they just mysteriously disappear?

The current census data on stray animal numbers alone--along with absolutely non-existent data on numbers of cows in cow shelters--does not total up to the population of animals that need to be replaced each year. Farmers are obviously disposing of these animals--either there has been a massive underreporting of stray animals in the current census or there is an unreported trade in non-productive cows. Going by some reports, for instance, of the economic interests of the gau rakshaks in the cow business, this might well be the explanation.

Everyone, including the government veterinarian, is scared of calling out the truth; terrified of the vicious unconstitutional violence of the Brahminical Indian cultural and political brigade which rules India today.

(Salve is a contributor with IndiaSpend.)

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