The circular economy of cattle has ruptured, threatening livelihoods of India’s poorest. The value output of the livestock economy is Rs 9.18 lakh crore, managed mostly by small and marginal farmers
It is almost a year since Rahamdin Khan hasn’t got any good sleep. A resident of Khoabas, a bucolic village of 500 households at the foothills of Aravalli mountain range in Rajasthan’s Alwar district, Rahamdin witnessed a cruel turn in his fate some four years ago.
Except his traditional attire of white kurta and paijama, his life has undergone a change that he stutters to explain. A careful look around his home unmasks it. There are goats and buffalos but no more the cattle that once dictated the gross domestic product of his economy.
For centuries, villages like his in Rajasthan have eked out a fairly sustaining economy. In this part of the country, food crops are secondary economy.
In 2017, while he was on his way to a local cattle fare, a group of cow vigilantes thrashed Rahamdin and took away two milking cows along with calves. Bruised, battered and humiliated Rahamdin decided to abandon all his cattle. With that he withdrew from his primary livelihood.
“From the nurturers of a sound cattle economy, we are now looked at as enemies of the cow. Worse, we have been branded cow smugglers,” he says staring blankly at the floor.
The episode was followed by police raids. Many dairy farmers like Rahamdin were jailed after being charged with laws regulating cruelties against animals. “I was arrested twice between 2014 and 17,” he say sand hints that he had to cough up about Rs 40,000 to be free.
The lingering threat of violence made him quit cattle rearing in 2018. “A strange restlessness has gripped me since I discarded the 65 cattle I had,” he says.
“For us, it is a natural economy that singularly defined our prosperity. Can’t imagine prosperity without it,” says Rahamdin, who was once considered prosperous. Now he can be classified a farmer below the poverty line.
His consistent complain is he was left behind by “those” to fend off poverty and hunger. Residents know who “those” people are but never name them. “I don’t get sleep without cattle,” signs off Rahamdin.
Like him, the village’s other residents have started quitting cattle-rearing due to the rising threat of violence over cattle movement and stringent anti-cow trade laws that have been imposed in the state.
Cattle have simply vanished from the village’s landscape. At best, a few households keep some buffaloes or goats. It is like an economic plague taking its victims one at a time, eventually sweeping away everybody.
In Rajasthan, raids by cow vigilantes have been regular, often violent. The police registered 389 cases in 2017 alone under the Rajasthan Bovine Animal (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 1995. The state government amended this Act in 2015 to enable seizure of vehicle engaged in illegally carrying of cattle and arrest of smugglers. The numbers of cases was 474 in 2016 and 543 in 2015.
The state has witnessed lynchings by cow vigilantes over mere doubts of cow smuggling or slaughtering. In August 2018, the Supreme Court took note of a lynching in Alwar the previous month and directed the principal secretary of the state’s home department to furnish details of the action taken.
Not just Rajasthan; there has been a spike in cattle-related violence in recent years across northern India.
There have been 78 incidents of cow related violence in India since 2010, 50 of which were in northern states, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan reported. Interestingly, 97 per cent of the attacks were reported since 2014, according to the association of civil society groups across the country.
In these incidents, 29 persons were lynched. Most victims were those who have traditionally survived on the cattle/livestock-related economy. However, the Union government has denied in Parliament the existence of any such data as the states are supposed to do so.
As raids on cattle trade/movement become the new normal, villages are fast facing economic trouble and the cow is inching towards being a pariah breed. Khoabas village typifies this change.
Grazing lands there, limited to hilltops, have been fenced off for an Army project. Residents now take their cattle 10 kilometres away, along the national highway, in search of pasture. Most vigilante raids happen during such trips, making cattle-rearing virtually unsustainable as stall-feeding is prohibitively expensive due to ever-increasing fodder prices.
“I had to let go of 40 animals. I now have only two of them as a token,” says Khoabas resident Abadal Khan. Like Rahamdin he was once prosperous. He is now a daily wage labourer at a construction site in Alwar city. “Neither can I sell my cattle, nor can I keep them,” he says.
Like him, Baddan Khan has stopped rearing cattle, abandoned 50 cows, and is now a contractor for the public distribution scheme for foodgrain.
A debt trap
For Subba Khan of Sahuwas village, some 45 kilometres from Alwar city, the problem is of a different dimension. On October 3, 2017, the police allegedly colluded with cow vigilantes to seize 51 of his cattle grazing on the Aravalis and arrested his son Imran for “cow smuggling”. The Kishangarh Bas police station didn’t file any case, but left the cattle with the nearby Sri Krishna Gaushala—cow shelter.
“I pleaded with the caretaker of the gaushala to free the milking cows whose calves needed to be fed,” says Subba. “Neither the police nor the gaushala paid any heed. I bought five litres of milk to feed them, but in vain. After a week, 20 calves died of starvation,” he adds.
The shelter then demanded Rs 2 lakh from him for feeding the cattle, Subba alleges. It took a long trail through official corridors and a demand by some human rights activists and lawyers to finally get the cows released and an official certificate that he was not involved in smuggling.
“Eight cows died off within a week of that” says Subba. “I lost around Rs 3 lakh in the whole process. I have not overcome my loss,” says the farmer who once traded in around 300 litres of milk daily. Now the volume is a mere 30-40 litres.
Subba has shown exceptional courage in sticking to cattle-rearing. In his village, 25 households have withdrawn from the profession. Most of them have migrated to work on daily wages in Alwar, Jaipur or Delhi.
“I don’t know any other profession,” says Subba, whose elder brother is among those who has migrated.
Disruptions at the micro-level are gradually showing macro impacts. The volume of cattle traded has dropped up to 90 per cent at the various animal fairs in the state, official data shows.
At the popular Pushkar Mela, only 161 cattle were brought in 2017, of which a mere eight were sold, in 2017. In 2012, more than 4,000 cattle were brought and half of them were traded. At fairs across the state, only 500 cattle were sold in 2018 among 2,000 that were brought—a steep fall from 37,000 traded of 54,000 in 2012-13.
The cattle economy is a perfect example of the circular economy of the country’s poorest. Cows are called productive till they milk—from the age of three to 10. But they live up to 25-30 years, when they are economically unproductive.
Most owners then sell their cows. It can be assumed that the buyers slaughter them. The income from this is then ploughed back into buying new cattle, thus self-sustaining an economy that supports the poorest the most.
According to Kirit Parikh, a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission, the number of cows in the unproductive age is 1-3 per cent of total cows. Among male cows, those aged above 10 form just 2 per cent of the total male cow population. Male cattle are also sold by farmers.
A cow in its life time passes through at least four to five farming households, helping in improving the breed of cattle.
This explains how farmers strike a balance between productive and non-productive cattle. The livestock sector is bigger than the crop sector, though both are clubbed together as the agriculture sector.
“Livestock is the best insurance against agrarian distress as the sector is the source of sustained income and generates income more frequently than the crop sector,” said the government-appointed Committee On Doubling Farmers’ Income. In fact this committee pointed out that for the last 35 years, the livestock sub-sector under agriculture never reported negative growth.
Now, there is a puncture in this circular economy.
Many milk collectors from villages in Alwar and nearby districts vouch for a dip in milk production. Sahabuddin, a milk collector of Ghajaud village, now just earns half of what he used to in the last two years.
“I employed five persons to collect around 800 liters of milk every day from five villages three years ago. Now, the volume is a quarter of that,” says Sahabuddin. Hesitantly, he offers the reason: “People now have fewer cows.” Now, it’s only him, collecting milk, a profession practiced by 5-10 in every village just three years ago, villagers say.
Need to pay heed
It could be a scary warning for India’s dairy industry, pegged at Rs 5.5 lakh crore in 2015, engaging 73 million small and marginal dairy farmers.
“The government should understand fast and step back from regressive laws that hamper dairy growth,” says RS Khanna, chairman of Kwality Limited, a Delhi-based dairy company.
According to the government’s own documents, livestock drives agricultural growth: the share of livestock has gradually risen and that of crops declined among the gross value added to agriculture.
The Economic Survey of India 2018 report shows that share of crops declined to 60 per cent in 2015-16 from 65 per cent in 2011-12. In the same period, the share of livestock increased from 22 per cent to 26 per cent.
A Central Statistics Office report pegs livestock value output at Rs 917,910 crore at current prices in 2016-17. Two-thirds of that value—Rs 614,387 crore—is of milk, only a tad below the value of foodgrain (cereals and pulses) of Rs 652,787 crore. In fact, in 2014-15, the output value of milk surpassed the value of foodgrain.
The livestock economy is at a crossroads. Its nature 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 data reveals that the number of livestock in rural areas has reduced by 18 per cent – from 169 million to 135 million (1971-2012).
With the concept of intensive farming, with help from machines, draught cattle became unproductive and useless, and the focus shifted to high-yielding cow breeds. During 2007-2012, the number of milch breeds increased by over 28 per cent.
But now there is a growing threat to this sector as well.
This is the second article in the series 'India's Cow Crisis’, chronicling the impacts of trade restiction and cow vigilantism)
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