Would anyone buy a car with little resale value after five years of use? Most probably, no. And what if an additional condition — that the owner would have to continue filling petrol, whether or not he uses it — is inserted? The emphatic answer is there won’t be takers for such a car. The same logic applies to cows, even though the self-appointed gau rakshaks may not like it.
A typical cow, from the time of birth, takes two to three years to deliver its first calf and start producing milk.
Subsequent calvings happen every 12 to 15 months, assuming three to five months of postpartum rest and nine to 10 months of pregnancy. An average cow can undergo up to about eight lactations, each of 300-305 days. By then, it would be 10-11 years old, with another three or four years to live.
Most farmers, though, particularly those rearing crossbreeds for the commercial sale of milk, rarely keep cows beyond five lactations. The moment milk yields fall below, say, 2,000-2,500 litres over any lactation — from 4,000-4,500 litres in the first three or four cycles — they seek to dispose of the animal. The reason is fodder and feed, which, for them, is as precious a resource as petrol is for car owners. They would want to reserve as much of it as possible for high-milking animals or the young heifers and calves that will produce in future.
One way to dispose of the unwanted cow is to sell it to another farmer, for whom the animal’s value is not in the milk but in the calves with good milking potential that it might produce. But even he will not find it worthwhile to keep the cow once it stops calving. This unwanted animal then ends up at the pinjrapole or gaushala or slaughterhouse, if not found foraging in garbage dumps in cities.
What the recent cattle slaughter ban legislation by the BJP-led governments in Maharashtra and Haryana essentially do is render virtually impossible the disposal of unproductive animals. These laws make both cow slaughter and sale of beef non-bailable offences, inviting five to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment and laying the onus of proving innocence on the accused. They also prohibit the slaughter of bulls, bullocks and calves.
Now, view this from a farmer’s perspective: What if his cow gives birth to a male calf? In today’s world, where tractors and artificial insemination technology have significantly reduced the utility of rearing work bullocks and breed bulls, do male calves serve any real purpose? The odd farmer may, for religious reasons, maintain his cow for three to four years, even after it has exhausted its milking and reproductive potential. But will he accord the same treatment to male animals, to the extent of keeping and feeding them for 14 or 15 years? They are more likely to be starved or abandoned.
The contrast with buffaloes cannot be sharper here. In their case, there are no issues with regard to disposal. You can milk and slaughter, and sell and export their meat freely. In 2013-14, India shipped out $ 4.35 billion worth of buffalo meat. During the 10 months ended January, exports have grown by 16.8 per cent and are set to cross $5 billion for the whole of 2014-15. This, even as we see more and more stringent laws against the slaughter of cows and their progeny.
Again, from the farmer’s standpoint, wouldn’t it make economic sense — in an environment where the disposal of redundant cattle is becoming increasingly problematic — to rear buffaloes instead? There are no religious and legal hurdles stopping the slaughter of buffaloes that have stopped giving milk or happen to be male. Even if the farmer may not slaughter or eat buffalo meat himself, so long as others do, it at least guarantees a resale value for the animal. Why venture into a production line where there are risks of 10-year jail terms, harassment from newly empowered inspectors and cattle vigilantes, and the burden of having to prove one hasn’t committed or facilitated slaughter? In the event, our fictitious car analogy could become a reality over time with cows, as farmers compare the hassles of rearing them with the relative ease of keeping buffaloes. This is pure economics and not an issue of religious sentiment.
The gau rakshaks will, of course, baulk at such a possibility. They must be told that nearly 55 per cent of India’s bovine milk output now comes from buffaloes. Even within the balance 45 per cent, 55 per cent is from crossbred cows containing the genetic material of “Western” breeds like Holstein Friesian, Jersey and Brown Swiss. Just over a fifth of the national milk production is thus accounted for by indigenous and nondescript cattle — the true holy cows. When Indian farmers have overwhelmingly voted for buffaloes and crossbreeds, it is common sense that draconian laws enacted in the name of protecting the gau mata would only further hasten its marginalisation.
Some idea of what cattle slaughter ban legislation might lead to can be had from the accompanying table. It can be seen that while buffaloes make up around 36 per cent of India’s total bovine population, the ratios are higher for Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Bihar.
These are largely states in the country’s Vaishnav-Jain-Arya Samaj heartland, where the cow is especially revered as gau mata. In contrast, we have West Bengal, the Northeast, much of the south and states with high tribal populations (Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh) where cattle populations far outnumber buffaloes, despite the absence of blanket bans or fewer social taboos against cow slaughter.
The message is clear. You cannot save the gau mata unless farmers have an incentive to keep cattle. Just as the classical arts cannot survive without practitioners, stringent laws for the protection of the cow and its progeny can never substitute for the willingness to rear them in the first place. Fundamental to this willingness is a viable mechanism for disposal of unproductive cattle. At the current rate, the cow has a future only in the states that at least permit selective culling.
The farmer is ultimately under no obligation to bear the responsibility of protecting the gau mata without any compelling economic rationale. He is already being asked to shoulder the burden of food security, national defence (most of our jawans are the children of kisans) and industrialisation (by parting with land without consent). This additional responsibility he is unlikely to take on. The price of his not maintaining cattle — especially crossbreds that yield twice the amount of milk that desi cows and buffaloes do — will be paid by consumers.