Come back holy cow

Cow, from being an axis of a farmer’s economy to being abandoned, is too big a change people would bargain for

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 11 February 2022

A novel story started emanating from Uttar Pradesh late 2017: People describing night-long farm vigils against raiding herds of cattle; farmers breaking their limbs while chasing away cows; some even taking a cut on income to barbwire their land so that standing crops could be saved. 

That was the year the incumbent state government assumed power. Its first major campaign was to shut down “illegal” slaughter houses and a massive cow-protection drive. Bruised by anti-cow slaughter laws and widespread vigilantism, cow rearers simply abandoned them. Instantly, the cow economy collapsed. And another menace took shape.

Now, elections to the Uttar Pradesh legislative Assembly are again underway — the first phase of polling was March 10. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government which made cow protection as a major achievement in its initial years is facing a strong adversarial electoral issue: The menace of stray cows.

The exceptional story of stray cows disrupting the farming economy is a significant issue of concern in the state. By 2019, as the 20th Livestock Census-2019 All India Report shows, UP reported an exceptional increase of 17.34 per cent in stray cow population; the country overall reduced this population by 3.2 per cent.

Cow, from being an axis of a farmer’s economy to beING abandoned, is too big a change people would bargain for. But as they abandoned them in fear and also the imminent burden of maintaining non-milking cows (as trade in cattle for non-agriculture purposes is banned), the state is overwhelmed with stray cows. Now, they come back to raid the same farmers’ crops and are found everywhere in the state, rural or urban.

The Election Commission of India has majorly restricted big rallies and road shows this election due to the threat of COVID-19 spread. One can argue, as candidates do just small shows with limited audiences and deploy campaign vans, they face more stray cows than people. Along with it, the issue of managing stray cow population has also emerged as a major election issue.

The switch of campaign from big rallies addressed by leaders playing a major role in garnering votes to ones that involve closer contact with voters has enabled people to confront the candidates more on local issues. Stray cow menace has fast emerged as an issue that voters want candidates to address.

Stray cattle are both a rural-urban issue. Strangely, the issue that the incumbent government took pride in has come back to haunt them the most as an anti-incumbency factor. In the last five years, the state government responded to the stray cow crisis by declaring creation of cow protection shelters to appeal to people to adopt them.

The state has levied cess to put them in shelters. It also penalized people for abandoning cows. In November last in a desperate major government decision to “cattle catchers” in rural areas to put them in shelters.

But, with over 1.18 million stray cattle and increasing day by day, it is simply not manageable. Locals see this as the state government’s failure in ensuring their livelihood twice: first the collapse of the cattle economy and second, the stray cow again hurting them economically by crop damages and more investment on protection of farms.

This election is not a conventional one due to the pandemic-related restrictions. The rise of the cow menace as an electoral issue is also unusual. India’s electoral history doesn’t have evidence to show whether cow protection measures helped parties to gain. But the current elections in UP may be an occasion to see whether tinkering with the cow economy adversely will lead to electoral losses.

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