They may survive the drought. But they cannot survive government policies. When people have to abandon their livestock, they are reduced to misery, as is happening in Gujarat and Rajasthan. Because India's rural economy is built around livestock, which carries more freight and passengers than the Indian Railways, sustains the poorest of the poor, and provides renewable energy and organic manure. Then why is India's livestock labelled 'unproductive' and 'damaging' to the environment, asks Sopan Joshi

Published: Thursday 15 June 2000


RajpurAS FAR AS the eye can see, it is a mass of horns in a desiccated, semi-arid landscape. The horns emerge sideways from the head, turn up, and then arch back at the tips, as if swept back by the wind. Kankrej, native to northern Gujarat, is quite a regal-looking breed of cattle. But the hundreds of animals here look horribly emaciated, as if waiting for death. They have been abandoned by the rural people of Gujarat as they are left with nothing to feed the animals. There is a drought. If you stand on a highway and count the number of trucks that haul fodder, you will think it is the most precious commodity. It is.

This has been a common sight for the past seven months at many of the 242 pinjrapols (cow sheds) of Gujarat, managed by the Jain Mahajan community, which has a long tradition of jeev daya (compassion for all life forms). As early as February this year, there were more than 150,000 abandoned animals in the pinjrapols, mainly cattle. Apart from the overheads, the daily expense on fodder is running into several lakh rupees.

This is not unusual. Pinjrapol literally means a locality of cages. It is a shed where people traditionally left old or crippled animals who they could not support. In times of drought, it has been common practice in most parts of India to leave animals at a pinjrapol. People would come back for the animals after the monsoon rains, when grass would become available.

However, these are different times. In the past few years, people keep pouring in to leave their animals. But they do not take them back after the monsoon rains, say the managers of pinjrapols. Even if there is no drought, it is not easy to get grass as most gauchar land (grazing areas managed by village communities) has either been redistributed by the government or usurped by powerful farmers with political connections.

There is no place in government policies for the poor who depend on these animals. Although 70 per cent of India's farmers cannot afford tractors, government subsidises tractors, diesel and chemical fertilisers. This has tampered with the two most important reasons for rearing cattle: draught power for farm work/transport and dung for manure.

In fact, the government's promotion of tubewells has spelt doom not just for the livestock but has worsened the suffering in the present drought. As the government started providing cheap diesel and electricity for extraction of groundwater without putting in place any regulations against overuse, farmers and industries started milking underground aquifers. The water table has fallen abysmally. The animals have landed up in pinjrapols. Human destinies are tied with those of livestock. The state of one indicates the state of the other.

Ask Ishwarjibhai Kanaji Solanki, 25-year-old farmer who stands by a state highway just outside Rajpur town in Banaskantha district of Gujarat, waiting for a lift. He waves to a vehicle, hoping to be dropped to village Chandarva, where he lives. He is waiting for another lift, figuratively -- one that may help him get a job in the city. This distinction holder in Sanskrit says if he is lucky, he might land a conductor's job in the state road transport corporation. Without any hesitation, you can add another name to the list of the urban poor. Another shanty in the city slums. Each slum dweller in Indian cities is a story somewhat similar to Solanki's.

Solanki had bought two pairs of oxen a couple of years ago to plough his fields. Last winter, when he realised that there was no way he could feed the animals, he sold them at less than half the market price. With a lump in his throat, he says: "I could not bear to see the animals starve. God knows what I'll do with my fields now. But at least I got a buyer. Most people here are simply abandoning their animals. Soon they will be forced to abandon their homes. Earlier, the government used to be willing to help rural folk during a drought. Not now. The government has reached telephone and electricity to every village here. We even have cable television. But no water, no fodder. People have sold off their jewellery in this area to buy fodder for cattle. When there is nothing left, they go and leave the animals in the pinjrapol."

Yet it is not all so dismal, even in this drought. Several voluntary agencies have been doing outstanding work by taking in abandoned animals, restoring their health, and giving them to poor people who can earn a better living. Take Salimbhai Ayyubbhai Bhadrasia, whom we found driving a bullock cart on the road of Surendranagar town of Gujarat. He used to pull a manual cart earlier. On lucky days, he would earn Rs 30-40. The Vadvan Mahajan Panjrapole of Surendranagar gave him a good cart and an able Kankrej bull for Rs 13,000, which he can pay back in interest-free, easy instalments of fodder. "We thought he will anyway get a burdensome loan of Rs 80,000 from government agencies to buy a polluting autorickshaw. Why not provide an ox and a cart on loan? They are cheaper and pollution-free," says Atulbhai Shah of the organisation.

"The bull can cart one tonne of load in the heat for 20 km. I earn at least Rs 100 per day now. The input is not more than Rs 20 on fodder. And he is a good companion," says Bhadrasia. In five minutes, two other bullock carts pass by on the road, which have been loaned out by the organisation to poor porters. Down To Earth confronted Bhadrasia with the views of a lot of experts who say India's livestock is largely unproductive and is a drain on natural resources, eating away the forests.

"Who are these experts? I am sure they travel in cars. Don't they realise that the food they eat reaches them through bullock carts? These animals eat grass, which the experts cannot eat, and turn it into draught power, traction, organic manure from dung/urine and milk. Don't these experts drink milk? If they think these animals are unproductive, then they must think that I, too, am useless. Kill these animals and you kill me," he baulks, running to catch up with the bullock that is pulling the cart along the side of the road on its own with more traffic sense than a driver in any Indian city.

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