Sunita Narain on cow-vigilantism, cattle trade and the collapse of the livestock economy of India
I would not advocate vegetarianism. When I reasoned this out in this column a few years ago, I received the usual insults. Environmentalists are expected to be vegetarian, or better vegan! But what many didn’t register was my emphasis: “I am saying this as an Indian environmentalist; not global or western environmentalist.”
My argument has been that Indian farmers practice an agro-silvo-pastoral system and that livestock is a crucial part of their economy. Taking away the meat would demonetise their assets. It would kill their income. I argued that it is the quantity of consumption and how we produce that matters the most to environment. Industrialised meat production is done at the cost of the environment—by clearing vast forests, feeding animals cereals, antibiotics and all the other junk that they should not be using. But Indian farmers still practice cow-buffalo-goat economy that is of small scale. In fact, this economy has been sustainable for the fact that it is in the hands of small farm owners. Animals are their insurance policy; their ways of managing bad times, made worse today because of climate change-induced variables and extreme weather.
We need to find ways to nurture this economy in which individual farmers benefit from the small-scale operation. This was the Anand experiment—made famous by the venerable man of India’s White Revolution, Verghese Kurien. I am not sure how many of us have seen the wonder of this movement, as young girls, women and men bring their milk to the local dairy, which gives them a receipt of the fat content and the money that is due to them. This local dairy farming is built on the concept of small, disaggregated animal owners, who are enjoined to the big dairy farm. This is the cooperative-producer model that is best suited for our people-heavy and employment-desperate country.
Ironic as it is, we celebrate the Uber and the Airbnb as disruptive models for growth. These models are what Kurien propagated—maximise the return from individual assets. Today, we call for a taxi, which is not owned by any taxi company; or book accommodation, which is not owned by any company. This is what Kurien did. He made dairy the big business of small producers. It was, and is, disruptive. We don’t recognise it because it is not in “our” world.
But it worked because there was a cow-buffalo economy in place, which included cost of feeding and maintaining the cattle for milk and then its sale for meat. Farmers do not have the means to keep unproductive cows. Let’s be brutally honest about this. Why am I writing this today? Because as my colleagues report from their travels, in the past few years, the strident and often violent call for cow protection has led to the total breakdown of this economy of the poor. Cattle are now abandoned. They have become a menace, marauding fields and destroying crops. Remember Indian farmers do not fence their fields; they cannot afford it and actually this is good for soil and water conservation. Now this is not going to work.
The only change I can see is that farmers will altogether give up keeping cows and will switch to buffalo economy. But this will also work only when the state cracks down on all cases of cow-related lynching mercilessly. Note that in most cases where the meat has been tested, post the lynching, it has been found to be that of a buffalo and not cow. This is because the state has often protected, not the poor cow, but her
so-called worshippers who have taken law into their hands. This must stop.
I would also argue that we shouldn’t adopt the protein-obsessive western diet. This is also part of health and environmental problems. A recent article in the UK daily The Guardian says that this protein obsession is leading to vast over-consumption. Citizens of the US and Canada get roughly 90 grams of protein per day, which is twice the recommended average (based on an adult weight of 62 kgs); Europeans eat an average of 85 grams of protein per day. Indian averages really don’t count because of the vast numbers of protein-deprived and malnourished people, but our urban consuming class is picking up this bad habit as well.
Being (non)-vegetarian is a personal choice. We must fight for this. Even as we fight for growing meat in a way that is environmentally sound.
This editorial is the third article in the series 'India's Cow Crisis’, chronicling the impacts of trade restiction and cow vigilantism
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