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Above: The Kamal Nath-led Congress government has promised to build 23,000 cowsheds/Photo: @INCMP/twitter   

The people of Madhya Pradesh will have to shell out more for a wide range of products and services as the Congress government seeks to mop up money to build and run cowsheds

By Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal

It is not known if the Congress’s pledge to build cow shelters across the state helped the party dislodge the BJP in Madhya Pradesh in the recent assembly elections but Chief Minister Kamal Nath probably thinks it did. With the Lok Sabha polls due soon, he has decided to play the gau card once again by deciding to implement the pledge. There is a hitch, though: denizens of the state may have to pay more tax as the government might require a whopping Rs 27,000 crore to feed the estimated 60 lakh stray or unproductive bovines, at the rate of Rs 20 per animal, in cowsheds.

The Congress had promised to open a cowshed in each of the 23,000 panchayats in its manifesto for the recent assembly elections. Given the sentimental value attached to cows, the Kamal Nath government cannot afford to dither on the promise, especially when the Congress has to face the poll-battered BJP again in the Lok Sabha polls soon. The empty state exchequer and gargantuan debt of Rs 1.85 lakh crore on the state could, however, pose grave financial challenges to the government.

At present, 614 cowsheds are being operated across the state, and all are privately managed. There hasn’t been a single government-run cow shelter set up so far. Besides, the number of private gaushalas has increased from 604 to 614 over 2012-18, but the population of cattle (in cowsheds) has drastically fallen from 1.5 lakh to 25,000, according to the Madhya Pradesh Animal Husbandry Department’s official records.

And to make matters worse, the government is already saddled with a plethora of unfulfilled poll promises needing several thousands of crores of rupees. Loan waiver of farmers alone will require Rs 55,000 crore. Giving out dole to unemployed youths is another daunting promise likely to have huge financial implications.

Imposing more tax on people to fulfil the promises, therefore, looks inevitable. The quantum of the likely tax burden will be clear only when the Congress government presents its first budget in the budget session that is set to commence from February 17.

For mobilising resources to meet expenses on cow shelters, the government is said to be weighing the option of imposing a specific cess. The options could include imposition of cess on expensive cars, toll tax or stamp duty, according to sources in the government. The chief minister might emulate the example of the BJP-ruled states of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana where such cesses are applicable.

To start with, the government has already announced a Rs 450-crore project to open 1,000 cowsheds or gaushalas. The animal husbandry department will immediately need around Rs 150 crore to open and run 1,000 cowsheds with 100 cows per shed. But the department has a budget of only Rs 50 crore at present. While reviewing Project Gaushala at the secretariat on January 29, Kamal Nath ordered that the cow shelters be opened at the earliest.

The rural development department will be the nodal authority for the project which will be run with the cooperation of the gram panchayats, self-help groups and institutions empanelled with the State Board for Conservation of Bovine Animals.

The chief minister said that besides sheltering homeless animals, the project will also provide relief to people in urban and rural areas from stray cattle and ensure employment for the local population. He also wants to explore the possibility of operating cow shelters on an ‘own-operate-manage’ basis. The project envisages implementation by block- and district-level committees headed by collectors and sub-divisional officers (revenue), respectively.

The cow shelters will have sheds, tube wells, pasture development and biogas plants, among other amenities. Funds will be arranged through convergence of cash available with panchayats and MGNREGA besides other schemes. The district committees will earmark the sites.

Animal Husbandry Minister Lakhan Singh Yadav, who has prepared the project, says, to begin with, one cowshed will be opened in a cluster of eight to 10 panchayats. The government will provide Rs 20 subsidy for fodder allowance per cow. The previous government provided Rs 4.50 per cow. The step has been taken to encourage NGOs and individuals to set up cowsheds.

The chief minister has constituted a committee comprising officials from the health, forest, revenue, panchayat and animal husbandry departments to explore possibilities of generating additional resources to meet the expenditure on overall welfare of cows including building sheds for them.

“I do not want to see gau matas (cows) on the roads. Instead, I want to see them in cowsheds (shelters),” the chief minister said, during a review meeting of officials in Chhindwara last month.

The joint committee has its task cut out. Opening 1,000 cowsheds may be a first positive step in the direction of ensuring shelters for stray cows but the government needs to do a lot more to fulfil the promise of building sheds in all 23,000 panchayats.

According to the 2012 animal census, there were 1.96 crore cows in Madhya Pradesh. Of them, 4.37 lakh were stray cattle, of which 1.5 lakh (mainly stray cattle) were kept in 604 cowsheds run by NGOs with government support. The rest were unclaimed and abandoned.

To keep stray or unproductive cattle/oxen in the cowsheds, the government needs to establish about 6,000 gaushalas across the state, an initiative which could cost around Rs 27,000 crore.

On the basis of cattle/oxen growth rate recorded in the 2007-12 census, it is estimated that there were 1.75 crore bovines in MP in 2018, of which 60.87 lakh were either stray or unproductive. In fact, the number could be much higher if the ban on cow slaughter is factored in.

The number of stray bovines has shot up since 2014, when the BJP government rose to power at the centre and cow vigilantism-related lynching and bullying incidents increased alarmingly.

At present, there are 614 cowsheds, where more than 25,000 bovines are housed. The Animal Husbandry Department plans to increase the capacity to 60,000.

In the next six months, if one lakh cows are given shelter in private cowsheds, the government will have to spend Rs 20 lakh on cows on a daily basis, Rs 6 crore a month and Rs 72 crore every year. But even then, the stray cattle menace in the state is unlikely to be addressed satisfactorily.

According to sources, strict adherence to the ban on cow slaughter by the former BJP government, which ruled the state since 2003, had caused a dramatic increase in the cow population.

Cows roaming on the state’s roads are a common sight and have on several occasions been the cause of traffic snarls as well as accidents. Standing crop worth several hundred crores of rupees has been damaged owing to the bovine menace in rural Madhya Pradesh. Villagers let go of cows when they stop producing milk. Till the ban on cow slaughter had not come into force, standard practice in the state used to be to hand over aged and unproductive cows to either persons of the shoe-maker caste to make hides or to abattoirs for slaughter. That practice has been done away with for fear of attracting provisions of the stringent ban on cow slaughter. Besides, the constant fear of being attacked by ever-growing cow vigilante gangs, owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar, has forced farmers to let their unproductive cattle stray on the roads, instead of handing them over to others.

While the number of stray cows abandoned by rural folk has grown year after year since 2003, the previous Shivraj Singh Chouhan government did precious little to provide safe shelters for free-roaming cattle. With all its sanctimonious pledges to protect the holy cow, the BJP government did not open a single cowshed. All the sheds are privately managed where government subsidy for each cow did not go beyond Rs 4.50 per day per cow. Managers of private sheds treated the cows housed in the sheds shabbily. Their main objective was to show an inflated number of cows in the sheds they ran to extract as high a subsidy as possible from the Chouhan government. Since most of the cowshed managers belonged to the then ruling party, the government chose to turn a blind eye to their machinations.

Even the much-hyped cow sanctuary in the Agar-Malwa district of western Madhya Pradesh proved to be a miserably unsuccessful experiment for want of adequate funds from the government. Just before the recent assembly elections, the Chouhan government had toyed with the idea of handing over the sanctuary’s management to private hands. The idea was mooted in response to reports of deaths of several cows in the sanctuary, barely months after it was inaugurated in 2017. Its foundation was laid in 2012 in the presence of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat and it was billed as India’s first cow sanctuary.

Even a day before the review meeting which approved the project for cowsheds, 18 cows in the sanctuary were reported dead. There are about 4,700 cows present in the sanctuary, most of them weak, ill and old.

Following the cows’ deaths, BJP state president Rakesh Singh targeted the ruling party, saying the deaths have exposed the Congress’s claim of being a protector of cows and opening gaushalas across the state. “It cannot stop deaths in a sanctuary; how will it take larger welfare steps?” questioned Singh.

However, officials at the sanctuary refuted the allegations, and claimed that the cows died of cold while three dozen cows were found in a serious condition in the sanctuary. VS Kausarwar, the sanctuary in-charge, said, “Most of the cows sent to the sanctuary are old and neglected ones. Their stomachs are generally full of polythene. Therefore, deaths are common in this sanctuary.”

The slugfest between the Congress and the BJP on the issue of cow protection is likely to only escalate as the Lok Sabha election draws closer.

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