Economic and ecological concerns

Running roughshod over livelihoods

Print edition : November 10, 2017

In arid regions such as Bundelkhand, farmers resort to Anna Pratha, a system where farmers "free" their domestic animals and unburden themselves in the process. A file photograph of abandoned cattle on NH-86. Photo: A.M. FARUQUI

Stray cows along NH 24 in the NCR. The goverment-run gaushalas have stopped taking in cows because they have reached their maximum capacity. Photo: SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Meat pieces being weighed for further processing and packing at a meat-processing centre in Kochi. India's meat industry employs approximately 22 million people. Photo: K.K. MUSTAFAH

Developments following the “cow protection” efforts of the government and other social organisations have not only crippled an already beleaguered livestock sector but also resulted in the proliferation of stray cattle, raising serious economic and ecological concerns.

THAT livestock has been one of the mainstays of rural economy the world over since prehistoric times is a widely accepted fact. In India, 20 million people are dependent on livestock for their livelihood. It is a reliable source of income for households in rural areas and contributes a substantial portion of the income of all rural households. The importance of livestock as livelihood is even more significant for small farm households, as their incomes from land are lower due to the small size of the landholdings. Consequently, it also contributes significantly to national income. In 2012-13, the livestock sector contributed 4.11 per cent of the total national gross domestic product and 25.6 per cent of the total agriculture GDP.

In India, unlike other countries, cattle rearing is mainly for milk production. Fragmentation of agricultural land and an increase in the demand for milk on account of rapid urbanisation made the dairy business popular among the unskilled and semi-skilled workforce in rural areas. Farmers as well as landless labourers found the business profitable. In 2013, the Akhilesh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh started the Kamdhenu Yojana, which involved providing interest-free loans to milk producers. The scheme proved to be immensely popular, and Uttar Pradesh became the top producer of milk in the country.

Overall, the cattle economy was working well for farmers and was, in many ways, helping to tide them over the larger crisis in agriculture, which has been felt in varying degrees over the past decade. A 2016 report titled “Situation Assessment Survey of Agricultural Households in India”, based on a countrywide 70th round survey of nearly 35,000 households by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), documented livestock as the principal source of income for 23 per cent of small and marginal farmers. The report pointed out that besides its importance as an income source, the livestock sector was also poised for faster growth at 14.9 per cent. In comparison, the cultivation sector was at 4.2 per cent, wages and salary at 1.8 per cent and non-farm business at 0.6 per cent.

This background makes it even more crucial to examine the impact of the recent developments in the livestock sector, especially the hue and cry that has been raised in the name of protecting the cow. These recent developments pose a serious threat to the sustenance and viability of this sector. Incidents such as killings and beatings of Dalits and Muslims in different parts of the country under the pretext of cow protection have created a sense of fear among the rural populace. To add to that, the Uttar Pradesh government’s recent crackdown on abattoirs has impacted the rural economy in a direct way by cutting off a substantial source of income for cattle traders. A Central government order in May on the ban of sale of cattle for slaughter added to the woes of an already suffering cattle economy.

The generally held belief is that the government’s recent interventions will hurt the Muslim community the most as it is dependent on cattle for food (beef) and a sizeable section of the community is engaged in cattle-related businesses. These include running of slaughterhouses and associated businesses as owners, exporters, butchers and commission agents. As per informal statistics, 80 million Indians eat beef or buffalo meat. Amongst them, 63 million are Muslims. This amounts to 40 per cent of the Muslim population. So, any restriction on the meat industry will hurt Muslims on account of their food habits and will also have an economic impact, including loss in employment opportunities. India’s meat industry employs approximately 22 million people, of which nearly 15 million are from Uttar Pradesh. The economy of the Uttar Pradesh meat industry was worth Rs.22,000 crore before the meat crackdown.

Cattle ownership patterns

However, a study of the patterns of cattle ownership does not present a straightforward reflection of the religious and economic linkages that are projected as part of the general impression. The NSSO conducted the All India Debt and Investment Survey in 2013 on 110,000 households in rural and urban areas. The collected data show that cattle ownership is highest among Sikhs, with 40 per cent of Sikh households owning cattle. This is followed by Hindu households, where 32 per cent own cattle, followed by Muslim households at 18 per cent. The all-India average stands at 30 per cent. Cattle ownership patterns differ across regions. In Kerala, where the employment rate is high, only 7 per cent of Hindu and 5 per cent of Muslim households own cattle. In an agrarian State such as Uttar Pradesh, the corresponding figures are 52 per cent for Hindu households and 21 per cent for Muslim households. In Jammu and Kashmir, 57 per cent of Muslim households own cattle, compared with 37 per cent of Hindu households. We can see that patterns of cattle owning are region-specific but not religion-specific.

The study also revealed two other important findings. First, in different economic quintiles, the likelihood of owning cattle is the same among Hindus and Muslims. Second, as regards the ownership ratio between milch and non-milch animals, only 15 per cent of households own non-milch animals, which is half of the overall cattle ownership figure of 30 per cent. The pattern is almost the same across different religions. The end use of the non-milch animal is in the meat industry. It is the Muslim community that is primarily dependent on the meat industry for food and employment. And this is exactly where the hullabaloo around the cow created by the BJP gets communal in nature.

Flawed notification

On May 23, the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a notification banning the sale and purchase of cattle from markets for slaughter. First, it was stayed by the Madras High Court, and the Supreme Court upheld the stay in August. When Harsh Vardhan took charge of the Environment Ministry after the demise of Anil Dave, he first indicated that the notification could be withdrawn—probably because he was new to the Ministry and did not know what had transpired behind the scenes before the notification was issued. Thereafter, the Minister has been silent on this issue. In the Supreme Court, Additional Solicitor General P.S. Narasimha had said that the government was looking into the objections from various stakeholders, that rules were under scrutiny and that the notification would be tabled in Parliament after the scrutiny.

There are some basic flaws in the notification. How does a seller know that the cattle (both cow and buffalo) he is selling will be used for a particular purpose other than slaughter? Suppose someone runs out of money to maintain a cow or a buffalo, what is the harm if he sells them? Is it not better to sell rather than keep them and allow them to die of starvation? The Chhattisgarh incident where cows died at a shelter run by an influential Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader bears this reality out in a stark and shocking manner. Evidently, the present government, which says that it has a sociopolitical-ideological commitment to protect cows, is not making enough of an effort to help farmers manage their cattle. There is also the sense, at least in some States, that the entire burden of protecting non-milch cows is being shifted on to cow shelters. The Centre’s Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries launched the National Gokul Mission in December 2014 after the BJP assumed power. The focus is on doling out money to cow shelters, while no help is provided for individual farmers. The aid provided to cow shelters should instead be diverted to individual farmers who can, and will, do a much better job of managing cattle.

With rapid urbanisation and the declining population of indigenous breeds of cows, many States have kept grazing land exclusively for that purpose and have not changed the land use policy. Since almost 70 per cent of the population lives in rural India, and almost each family owns cows or buffaloes, cattle rearing is still a traditional form of livelihood. It is closely linked to the agricultural economy. India has about 199 million cattle, which accounts for 14.5 per cent of the world’s cattle population.

Of this, about 166 million are indigenous breeds. It would indeed be a humongous job to manage 199 million cattle, and if a ban (such as the one proposed by the Environment Ministry) is made effective, it would be nothing short of disastrous for the dairy industry and farmers. As per the estimate of the Lucknow-based Kanha Upwan, Asia’s biggest shelter for stray cows, the expenditure on feed for a single cow is Rs.1,950 a month, while as per the NSSO report, the monthly income of a farmer family is Rs.6,426. Therefore, it is obvious that for economic reasons neither farmers nor dairy farms can keep unproductive animals.

The economic consequences

The result of the recent interventions of the government and so-called “social organisations” is an increased population of stray cattle. These animals can be seen both on urban streets and in farmers’ fields. Several breeds of cattle are not useful for the farmer in his field, and the restrictions on sale of cattle and the closure of abattoirs has arm-twisted the farmer into releasing these animals and leaving them to fend for themselves. The released animals are often found grazing on fields, and end up destroying valuable crops. Ironically, the “revered” cow has now become a menace because of the actions of its “protectors”.

While the damage caused by these stray cattle on the rampage is yet to be tabulated, there is little doubt that the numbers are huge and run into crores of rupees. On the other hand, if dairy farmers are forced to rear unproductive animals, their cost of production of milk will also go up.

While the damage caused by the situation in terms of farming is yet to be quantified, there are some indicators as to how the buffalo meat industry has been impacted. It is already suffering as can be deduced from the drop in the country’s beef (buffalo meat) exports. They fell by 7.62 per cent to $257.06 million in April, immediately after the Yogi Adityanath government closed several slaughterhouses across the State. The situation has also made it clear that India will have to import hide from the United States (U.S.) to meet its demand for leather. The Calcutta Leather Complex Tanners Association has already expressed its apprehension that the U.S. leather industry may take over the Indian industry in the long run. The government needs to exclude buffaloes from the ban when the rules are framed again. Otherwise, Indian exporters will have no option but to look to the U.S. to import hide to meet their trade commitments. Buffalo hides form more than 50 per cent of the total leather demand. Thus, the economic impact of the “cow initiative” of the Union and BJP-led State governments has already proved to be disastrous and is bound to get worse if course correction is not set in motion immediately.

Ecological impact

The proliferation of stray cattle and their going on a rampage are bound to have serious ecological ramifications too, which would add to the damage caused by the negative economic impact. To start with, an ever increasing number of cattle coupled with the declining growth of fodder, both green as well as dry fodder, would trigger unprecedented health issues among the cattle population. As per the livestock census of 2012, there was a 28 per cent growth in the population of buffalo and a 10 per cent growth in cows during the 2007-12 period. The vision document of the Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute reported a shortage of green fodder to the tune of 63.5 per cent, while a report from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research said that the shortage of dry fodder was about 23 per cent. According to the 54th round of the NSSO, common property resources, which include village pastures and grazing grounds, have been declining annually at the rate of 2 per cent.

In Bundelkhand and other arid regions, farmers resort to Anna Pratha, a system where farmers free their domestic animals to survive in wild habitats. Recent legislations on cattle trade and slaughter have already prompted farmers in other regions to adopt the Anna Pratha practice to get rid of uneconomic animals. In Uttar Pradesh, there are 25 wildlife sanctuaries and one national park for the conservation of biodiversity and wildlife. The probable impact of increased stray cattle will result in the import of diseases, especially foot and mouth disease in wild animals, and vegetation composition change owing to selective grazing and finally affect the predator-prey relationship too.

It is well-known that in forest ecosystems animal grazing is always an issue of concern because of multiple effects on wildlife. Vegetation and wild herbivores co-evolved in many rangeland systems and are connected through a complex food chain and energy pyramid. Cattle invasion of the wild ecosystem is an area of concern worldwide; there are several impact studies on biodiversity loss from Tanzania, Kenya and other African countries. In 1956, the Fauna Preservation Society commissioned Professor W.H. Pearsall to conduct an ecological survey of the Serengeti in Tanzania. On domestic livestock, he made the following observation: “It is almost universally the case that herded animals do more damage than wild game of similar requirements, and in similar numbers. Damage from trampling and over-grazing is inevitable when stock are continually brought back to the same watering-places or stock yards. Also their gait is different and the mere fact of continual herding makes them habitually move in long lines and keeps them from dispersing widely over the plains.... Many pastoralists still favour large herds of livestock, moving them across swathes of wilderness, all of which researchers say escalates soil erosion, watershed degradation, deforestation, habitat fragmentation, and the indiscriminate killing of pesky wildlife. It is part cultural, part political, part coterie, all one giant conundrum.”

The social and political developments in Tanzania that led to this observation, which is more than six decades old, seem to be getting a rerun in India albeit on account of different social and political factors. Clearly, the cow protection policies and cattle trade regulations need to be reviewed and recast with some new policy measures and budgetary provisions. Otherwise, non-productive animals will become an even greater economic burden on already stressed farm economy and vulnerable wild ecology.

Professor Sudhir Panwar teaches molecular genetics and genomics at the Department of Zoology, Lucknow University, and is the president of Kisan Jagriti Manch, a non-governmental organisation addressing agrarian issues.

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