Farmers can’t keep them, traders don’t want to bu them, and gaushalas are full. The result: Havoc on farms and roads. Sunday Times travels across the country to find out how the population of stray bovines is becoming a ticking time bomb

The problem of stray cattle is not new in India, but in the last few months, it has reached alarming propor tions. According to 2012 data from the 19th livestock cen sus, stray cattle amounted to 58.87 lakh. This was just a fraction (2.76%) of the country’s total cattle population of 190.90 million at the time, but it exceeded the entire cattle populations of countries like Afghanistan, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. By all indications, this number may go up dramatically in the 20th livestock census which will be out later this year.In the last few years, cow vigilante groups have dramatically changed the livestock business. The practice of unproductive cattle winding up in slaughterhouses and being used for meat and leather, was already in trouble. But since May , after the Centre notified the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017, it has become even more difficult to buy , sell and transport cattle.

Until recently, farmers followed a pattern: they would sell their old and unproductive cattle to traders, who would then transport them to states where slaughter is allowed. The farmers, on their part, would buy young and productive bovines from cattle fairs. But this cycle is a thing of the past now. Farmers simply abandon their unproductive cattle, because maintaining them is unaffordable. This explains the exponential increase in stray cattle numbers.

Once a valued resource, cows are now becoming a farmer’s worst enemy in many places. Anirudh Kumar, a farmer from Saketu whose sugarcane and paddy crops worth lakhs were destroyed by drifting cattle, says: “The population of stray cattle has increased drastically since slaughterhouses shut down. It was a good move to save the cows, but no steps have been taken to provide shelter to stray cattle. They enter our fields and destroy our crops.“

As a deterrent, some farmers have installed electrified barbed wire fencing, even though it is illegal. “But it’s not easy to go for that option. Gau rakshaks threaten us with FIRs if we do that,“ says Kumar.

The gaushalas, meanwhile, are full beyond capacity . Hingonia gaushala, on the outskirts of Jaipur, is struggling to look after more than 14,000 cows, which is almost twice as much as it can accommodate.And yet, municipal authorities keep bringing in more animals. Radha Priya Das, who is in charge of the gaushala, says their running costs are Rs 3 crore a month. Last year, over 8,000 cows in the gaushala died of malnutrition and disease.

Even though Rajasthan has 2,319 gaushalas where over 6.71 lakh cows are housed, drifting cattle on the streets are a common sight. Pushkar Narayan Bhati, president of BJP’s Pushkar unit, admits that the stray cattle menace has grown with the rise in cow vigilantism. “Cows wandering on streets are double the number F sheltered in gaushalas,“ he says. c With barely any demand at cattle fairs, villagers just leave their unproductive animals on the streets of Pushkar, he says.

Avinash Telkar, in charge of the stray animals department in the Pune Municipal Corporation, says the civic body is finding it difficult to manage. Road safety has been affected not just in cities, but even on highways. Abdul Wasim, a driver working for a tour operator in L Ranchi, says: “I have narrowly est caped accidents at least a dozen times p in the last year because of herds appeara ing suddenly .“

The attacks by cow vigilantes on transporters ferrying cattle, coupled with tough rules on cow transportation, have forced most farmers to abandon the idea of buying cattle. “We fear taking our cows even to a hospital. The best option is to buy buffaloes,“ says Vilas Patil from Palus village in Sangli district.

While there are no new buys, some farmers in west ern Maharashtra villages bordering Karnataka have been selling their existing livestock at throwaway pric es. Traders from Karnataka, where cow slaughter is legal, come around midnight and take the cattle away , paying just Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per cow.

Amra Ram, president of All India Kisan Sabha, a CPM affiliate, says that the Centre’s protective regulations are responsible for the stray cattle men ace. It’s ironic, he says, because “there was a time farmers celebrated the birth of a calf in their homes.

Not any more.“

Reporting by Amarjeet Singh, Kanwardeep Singh, Paul John, Palak Nandi, Radheshyam Jadhav and Sonali Das

Livelihoods get a hiding

Vinod Kumar Jatav (40) never went to school. He has been skinning dead animals for the last 30 years, and knows no other job. But as trade in animal parts is now fraught with risk, he has been virtually unemployed for the last year.“We are under constant threat when we go out to skin an animal.Cow vigilantes have made us feel like criminals. Now even the police are working with them,“ says the Bareilly resident.

Jatav’s misery underscores what the government’s chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian had warned about in June.Soon after the government came out with its cattle sale restrictions, he cautioned: “If social policies impede the workings of the livestock market, the impact on the economics of livestock farming could be considerable.“

It has been over 14 months since four Dalits were thrashed in Gujarat’s Una district by vigilantes for allegedly killing a cow, despite the victims’ pleas that they were merely skinning a dead animal. Cow vigilante outfits evoke palpable fear in rural areas now. Sampat Singh, a BTech from a Haryana university who heads one such outfit called Gau Putra Sena, proudly tells TOI: “Over time, we have developed such expertise that one look at a passing vehicle, and we can make out whether it is carrying cows or other animals.“ He adds that members of his outfit carry weapons as “many of them have been attacked by cow smugglers“.

The fear of cow vigilantes, coupled with the shutting down of illegal abattoirs in UP and the Centre’s notification on cattle trade, has also affected the movement of buffaloes. A senior official of a tannery association in Kanpur said the number of buffaloes being brought to the city’s slaughterhouses daily has dropped from 1,200 about three years ago to just 200-300 now. UP Small Tanners Association secretary Feroz Alam says supply of hides has shrunk to just 30%. “The tannery industry has lost almost Rs 1,600 crore of business this year,“ he says.

Consequently , the entire chain of trade in hides and its ancillary industries, right from raw material to finished products, has been hit. Babu Miyan, the 74-yearold owner of a leather processing unit in Bareilly has shut down his business. “We now trade only in goat and sheep hides. There is no future in this business. People who own big units are already shifting to synthetic alternatives,“ says Babu Miyan.

Traders at Buta Mandi in Jalandhar, the biggest hide market of north India after Kanpur, say prices have dropped to less than half. “This started happening as cow vigilantism hit international headlines,“ says Seth Satpal Mal, president of Punjab Hide and Skin Merchants Association. He adds that the uncertainty about the supply of raw material shook the confidence of international buyers, which led to a fall in orders.

“A major part of our raw hide was going to export-oriented units,“ he says, adding, “I have never faced such bad conditions in 49 years of business.“ Amar Nath, another trader, rues the fact that Pakistan and Bangladesh have gained at the cost of Indian manufacturers.

Reporting by Pankul Sharma, IP Singh, Sat Singh & Faiz Rahman Siddiqui