Goats can save us the trouble of stubble

Why burn stubble when you can get goats to chomp up the paddy stalks? This might be the most pantheistic solution yet.

Published : Nov 30, 2023 11:00 IST - 5 MINS READ

India has several popular breeds of goat—Sirohi, Jamnapuri, Surti, Tellicherry, Beetal, Malabari, Barbari, Gujarati.

India has several popular breeds of goat—Sirohi, Jamnapuri, Surti, Tellicherry, Beetal, Malabari, Barbari, Gujarati. | Photo Credit: India has several popular breeds of goat—Sirohi, Jamnapuri, Surti, Tellicherry, Beetal, Malabari, Barbari, Gujarati.

Whenever I hear news of the stubble burning in the prosperous granaries of Punjab and Haryana, I fall into a Tansen-like stupor. I marvel at his ability to seed the clouds just by the power of his voice. I dream of goats.

”Send in the goats! Send in the goats!” I want to sing along with Frank Sinatra. Or to quote the original lines: ”Is it a trick?/Are we a pair?/Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air./Send in the clowns.”

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The autumn harvest is a time for celebration. The moon appears for a few moments like a ripe pumpkin that hangs low in the sky. Dark battalions of ash-laden particles move in serried ranks across the northern skyline. They find fellow travellers in the diesel fumes spewed by aging motorised vehicles along the highways. They spread darkness at noon, even in the heart of the nation’s capital. Since the season of festivals follows the harvest, citizens rejoice by bursting firecrackers and rockets that illuminate the sky. It is evident from the satellite pictures of cities circled in smoke, painted sepia by increasing levels of pollution, that this is the norm.

Imagine introducing carefully chosen goats after the harvest. They could turn the tide against the trouble with stubble. For goats, to be allowed to chomp on freshly cut rice stalks would be the equivalent of a gourmet meal. One can imagine hundreds and thousands of goats teetering on their Ferragamo hooves like shop girls during a lunch break, chewing methodically on the genetically modified rice stalks that have resisted being cut down by traditional methods. Goats are not fussy eaters. They are nature’s combine harvesters.

Mahatma Gandhi inspects goats at the Dairy Show in London on October 30, 1931.

Mahatma Gandhi inspects goats at the Dairy Show in London on October 30, 1931. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In California, on the other side of the planet, another kind of devastation by fire takes place. Aggravated by the summer heat, uncontrolled forest fires have laid bare whole mountainsides and premium built communities. Despite the latest fire-fighting techniques—dousing the raging flames using water laden drones and planes—the best deterrent so far has been to send in the goats before the dry spell begins.

“The goats remove the stubble from the fields in a methodical manner that leaves the mountainsides bare and yet not completely denuded,” explains one of the owners living in the area. Their thick lips and prehensile tongues allow them to work around the toughest knots of wild grass growing on the steep sides of hills, not easily accessible by any mechanical device. They cannot stop the fires, but they can certainly contain them.

Giving goats a mythology

Goats have their own mythology. The early Greeks found a hero in Pan—half-man, half-goat, seducer of young maidens hiding behind trees, playing on his magical flute. One legend describes how Pan the goat-man fell in love with a river nymph named Syrinx. When she heard Pan coming after her, she ran through the forest until she reached the riverbank where her sisters were waiting. Her sisters turned her into a reed. Pan took out the reed and cut it into seven pieces, fashioning them into a flute. Which is why Pan’s flute is also called a Syrinx. Pan also had a wild streak. He would shriek suddenly and panic the horses into a stampede.

In India, both Hindu and Jain mythology have the figure of Naigamesha, a goat-headed god associated with fertility and childbirth.

“Goats are not fussy eaters. They are nature’s combine harvesters. ”

Do goats define the feminine dilemma—to be free or not live at all? This question is posed by two very different authors. The famous French author Alphonse Daudet’s “The goat of M. Seguin” (1866) is about a beautiful white goat called Blanquette who lives in a small Alpine village with her owner M. Seguin. She’s the seventh goat he has kept. He treats her like a princess. At first, Blanquette is happy. She rewards his hospitality with her milk. Yet, after a while, she gets tired of the monotony. “I want to go to the mountains,” she tells M. Seguin. He warns her that she will certainly be eaten up by the wolf up there. He locks her up. Blanquette escapes that night. She spends the next day enjoying her freedom. She meets a wild antelope-goat and has a romantic fling. But with the night, comes the wolf. Blanquette spends the entire night fighting the wolf. Was it worth the price of one day of freedom?

Perumal Murugan’s story written in 2018 is about a little black goat named Poonachi given to an old couple. It is a much more nuanced story. It is about hunger, greed, of being different, and of the difficulty of being a woman in a small Tamil village.

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Benyamin’s powerful 2008 book Aatujeevitham (Goat Days), about an abused migrant worker who in his isolation and misery begins to identify with the goats he tends, was longlisted for the Man Asian prize.

Gandhiji, of course, had his own reasons for his experiments with goats, mostly because Kasturba persuaded him to drink goat’s milk for his health.

India has several popular breeds of goat—Sirohi, Jamnapuri, Surti, Tellicherry, Beetal, Malabari, Barbari, Gujarati…. The goat, in fact, is often called the “poor man’s cow”.

We really should consider sending in the goats.

Geeta Doctor is a Chennai-based writer, critic, and cultural commentator.

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