How cow became the mother of demigods

The current political discourse on cow protection disregards the history of beef eating in India

By Jitendra, Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 20 July 2016

Cattle economy

Editor's Note: Once again, the issue of banning cow slaughter has whipped up a stormy debate. On his first day in office, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adiyantah ordered shutting down of two slaughterhouses in Allahabad. In fact, banning slaughterhouses is on top of his agenda. As uncertainty descends on the future of state's meat industry and the large workforce employed by these slaughter houses, there's a need to pay heed to economists when they say that cattle become a drain on the economy when they become unproductive and hence, they should be disposed of.

Below are the extracts from Down To Earth's State of India's Environment 2016 report  explaining the nature of cattle economy and how the rhetoric of cow protection is a recent phenomenon. Traditionally, Indians reared only those cattle that offered economic benefits

In November 2015, the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation imported patented semen from US that elevates the chances of female calves by up to 95 per cent. “Today, the male cattle are of no use,” says R S Sodhi, managing director of the federation, which owns the brand Amul. “Our focus is to produce only female cattle to increase milk production.” But till four decades ago, milk was the secondary purpose of domestication of cows. Then the rural economy was mostly based on barter system, and the shorter shelf-life of milk and its products did not support the economy of milk. Besides, that was the pre-mechanisation era of agriculture, and about 300 million Indians depended on farming for sustenance. They needed bullocks for everything, right from ploughing, irrigating, weeding, harvesting, threshing, transporting and marketing of the produce to running industries like oil-pressing. Dried cattle dung was an important cooking fuel and manure. This led to the evolution of breeds that are suitable for agriculture and transportation and can exhibit a distinct superiority in utilising poor quality feed and are adapted to withstand heat and show better resistance to tropical diseases. Today, India has eight indigenous breeds of cattle that excel in draught capacity (draught breeds), and only three with high milk yields (milch breeds) and six for dual purpose.

Most of the draught breeds are not good producers of milk. Developed in arid and semiarid regions of the country, they are primarily known for their sturdiness, strength, endurance ability in hot and humid climate, and disease resistance. For instance, Hallikar in Karnataka is known for its trotting ability, Khillari of Maharashtra for its speed and power, Bargur in Tamil Nadu for speed and endurance in trotting, Umblachery of Tamil Nadu for strength and sturdiness and excellence in its wet-ploughing, Hariana of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for its power, Kankrej of Gujarat and Rajasthan for its speed, power and draught capacity, Ongole of Andhra Pradesh for its heavy draught capacity, and Deoni from adjoining areas of Telangana, Marathawada of Maharashtra and Karnataka for both its strength and milk production.

Of the three milch breeds, Sahiwal is the most popular and yields between 1,400 and 2,500 litres of milk in its lactating period. The average yields of the other two breeds—Gir of Gujarat and Red Sindh of Sindh region—are between 1,400 and 1,800 litres.

Changing breeds with shifting demand

The nature of economy of cattle started shifting from “agriculture and transportation” to “milk yield” after farms became increasingly mechanised in the early 1970s. In the past four decades, machines have eliminated draught breeds from fields. The National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) data reveals that the number of livestock in rural areas has reduced by 18 per cent—from 169 million to 135 million— during the period (see ‘Declining livestock population...’).

Source: National Sample Survey Office

With the concept of intensive farming with the help of machines gaining ground, draught cattle became unproductive and useless, and the focus shifted to high yielding cow breeds. A comparison between the 18th Livestock Census of 2007 and the 19th Livestock Census of 2012 reveals that the number of draught cattle (both indigenous and exotic breeds) has declined by 19 per cent (see ‘As male cattle fall from grace...’) whereas the number of milch breeds have increased by over 28 per cent in just five years (see ‘...Cows gain acceptance’).

“Rearing these productive animals suits the economy of a farmer,” says Sushil Kumar, principal scientist, Central Institute for Research on Cattle, Meerut. This is particularly true when the world faces a severe scarcity of fodder. Less than 4 per cent of the total land mass is being used to feed the world’s 11 per cent of livestock population, he adds. In India, there is a deficit of 64 per cent of green fodder and 24 per cent of dry fodders, shows vision document of the Indian Grassland and Fodder Institute (IGFI).

“The impact is clearly visible. Despite owning the world’s largest livestock population, India’s productivity is quite low. This deficit is largely due to scarcity of nutritious fodders,” says Khem Chand, principal scientist at IGFI, Jhansi.

The shift towards milk economy has given a huge boost to the rural economy. Today, more than 90 million people are earning their livelihood through milk production; 75 million of them are women. “The government policy, favouring mechanisation and usage of chemical fertilisers, further encourages the shift,” says P S Brithal, principal scientist at the National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research, New Delhi.

However, not all is well with the milch breeds. According to World Animal Protection Report, 2010, up to 50 million cows are suffering in dairy farms across India in unacceptable conditions. They suffer from various health problems and have shorter lifespans due to overbreeding, poor housing, confinement and overmedication. A majority of them are abandoned when they stop producing milk. According to the 19th Livestock census, the country has 5.3 million stray cattle. With more than 1 million stray cattle, Odisha tops the list of maximum number of stray cattle, and is followed by Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Gujarat (see ‘States that dump their cattle’, p73). But growing urbanisation and shrinking grazing land make it difficult for them to survive for long. To avoid Hindu religious sentiments associated with cows, most people are now opting for buffaloes that can yield more milk, says Kumar. After all, selling off buffaloes to slaughter-houses after they become unproductive makes more economic sense. Only time will tell if this change in preference will herald another shift in cattle economy.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
Related Stories

India Environment Portal Resources :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.