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Posted at: Sep 8, 2019, 7:37 AM; last updated: Sep 8, 2019, 9:28 AM (IST)

Economic value lost, no clear roadmap for stray cattle

Governments watch — almost without a clue — as spent bovines released by farmers wreak havoc in cities and villages post slaughter ban and cow-related vigilantism

Vishav Bharti in Chandigarh

DARA SINGH, along with his three grandchildren, was on his way back home after paying obeisance at Fatehgarh Sahib’s historic Jyoti Saroop Gurdwara last week when a stray bull hit his bike. A truck-trailer coming from the opposite direction ran over the four. The 75-year-old and his eight-year-old granddaughter died on the spot — the latest additions to the 370 lives lost in Punjab in the past three years as a result of stray cattle roaming on the roads. 

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After agriculture, it is dairy farming in which the maximum number of people are engaged in rural Punjab. Rich or poor, almost every household keeps cattle. As per the provisional data of the 20th Livestock Census, there are around 25 lakh cows (over 70 per cent exotic breeds) in the state.

Every year, there is a significant addition to the number of low milk-producing cows and oxen which turn unproductive. Dr VK Taneja, former Vice-Chancellor, Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, Ludhiana, says the major reason for the increase in the number of stray cattle is their poor economic viability as the input costs have gone up. Feed and labour together account for around 80 per cent of these. Cow vigilante groups’interference in the transportation of cattle has added to the problem.

Till a decade ago, Punjab was a huge source for meat plants running in Uttar Pradesh and other states, which would take these unproductive cattle for handsome amounts. However, around five years back, the situation started changing.

Sukhdev Kokri, general secretary, Bharti Kisan Union (Ugrahan), says the sudden rise of cow vigilante groups has completely halted the transportation of not only unproductive cattle from Punjab, but also the trading of productive ones. “The farmers who would earlier get Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000 for the unproductive cattle are now left with the only option of either feeding the cattle for years, which is not an easy proposition, or paying someone to get rid of these.” So, setting them free on the roads remains the easiest option. The outcome is the sudden increase in stray cattle population. On national and state highways and in markets across the state, stray cattle have been blamed for deaths. As per the last livestock Census (2012), there were 1.1 lakh stray cattle on the roads of Punjab. A study by the Rural Development Department puts the number at 1.75 lakh. However, experts feel the figure has seen a sudden rise in the past five years and the official figures fall way short.

Cities feel the heat

Till recently, the stray cattle issue was seen through the lenses of Hindu versus Sikh, village versus city and farmer versus shopkeeper. But amid the unending destruction of crops, daily loss of lives on city roads and the crisis of leather and soap industry deepening, even the Hindu community in the state is not shying away from calling the presence of stray cattle a nuisance and not being averse to endorsing the sale of spent cattle for meat plants, if that is the only viable solution in the long run.

Farmers have been the biggest sufferers of the stray cattle menace as they destroy freshly sprouted wheat crop — which is sweet in taste — most commonly. Such is the enormity of the problem that during wheat season, farmers have to take services of ‘experts’ from Rajasthan for shooing away the cattle. They charge Rs 300 to Rs 500 per acre per season. “It is a new kind of tax on agriculture,” says Kokri.

Letting the cattle loose

Mansa-based activist Sukhdarshan Natt says that for the past several years, it has been a common practice among the farmers of Malwa region to take truckloads of cows to gaushalas in the cities. But gaushalas accommodate only desi breeds, so the farmers would often set them free in the city and that would lead to clashes.

As per the police records, over 500 road accidents related to animals have been reported in the past three years, with 370 fatalities and 226 persons sustaining injuries. However, not every accident is reported and the number may be higher, says Navdeep Asija, Traffic Adviser to the Punjab Government. The problem seems to have forced those residing in cities to have a rethink, keeping aside the religious sentiments attached with the cow. 

Last week, a large number of people, majority of them from the Hindu community, gathered in Faridkot’s Kotkapura town to demand a solution to the problem. Omkar Nath Goyal, president of the Chamber of Commerce, Kotkapura, who was one of the main organisers, said none of the roads in the town is safe.  “The government has been collecting crores as cess but has  neither addressed the problem, nor compensated a single victim’s family or farmer. Have you ever seen a goat or buffalo roaming on the road? The only solution is to open meat plants in Punjab,” he says.

Natt agrees. He says a farmer earns money from cattle in three ways. “Milk is the primary and longest source of income, and after the cattle stops producing milk, the farmer earns from the meat and hide.  Thanks to cow vigilantism, now only milk is left,” he adds. 

Experts say the natural cycle of cattle rearing and disposal has been broken and that is why the situation will get worse in the coming days. Dr Taneja says, “This problem would become more serious in the days to come as farmers shall not be able to  support unproductive cattle, males or females.”

One reason why it happened: The other view

Home to the largest livestock population in the world, India is the biggest producer of milk. It is also the third largest bovine meat exporter. Discounting popular opinion that cow slaughter was rampant before 2015, the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association claimed in an opinion piece that only spent buffaloes are used, and that is why a stray buffalo is a rare sight. It attributes the problem to ending of the illegal ‘spent cattle’ trade to Bangladesh and Myanmar, keeping religious sentiments in mind. “But no one thought about the consequences of this enforcement.” 

Tap additional resources, says Mohindra

"The stray cattle menace has reached an alarming situation. Cow cess is not being utilised properly in cattle shelters. I have sought details of the year-wise collection and utilisation in cattle pounds. I am taking up the matter with the Finance Department. I have told the DCs to firm up their strategy to the tackle menace and tap additional resources to contain it." — Brahm Mohindra, Punjab Local Bodies Minister

New model to tackle issue

"The Centre is seriously concerned about the problem. I am trying to create some model in the next four-six months. The model will be based on technology and linked to agriculture." — Giriraj Singh, Union Animal Husbandry Minister

Suffering for wrong Central policies: Bajwa

"This whole mess has been created by the Centre. We are also sufferers of its wrong policies. I have asked them to identify the breeds of the cow that they consider holy so that we could do something about the rest. But they have done nothing about it and people are becoming victims of stray cattle menace." — Trip Rajinder Singh Bajwa, Minister for Rural Development & Animal Husbandry

Care missing now: Sud

"Earlier, people did not abandon cattle rendered unproductive. They would take care of them till the end. We need to revert to the old practice to deal with this grave issue." — Tikshan Sud, Senior BJP Leader

(With inputs from Balwant Garg in Faridkot and Surinder Bhardwaj in Fatehgarh Sahib)


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