The government allotted Rs. 500 crore for the cow in the union budget. Makes sense, considering how emotive this issue is among farmers, a captive vote-bank for the BJP
By Shantanu Guha Ray in Vrindavan
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he ruling NDA government’s Rs. 500 crore cow modernization program—announced with fanfare in the last budget by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley—could help the world’s biggest milk producer reach magical production figures.
Scores of cow homes, or gau shalas, are mushrooming across the country’s northern and central parts where both lay workers and bovine experts are spending quality time to push the domestic Indian breed that is distinctly different from the European variety.
But now, the motives are changing, slowly, yet steadily. The workers claim they are char-ged up, encouraged by the new program, appropriately called “Rashtriya Gokul Miss-ion” (RGM), which has allotted a whopping Rs. 500 crore in the union budget to raise “strictly desi” cows.
The Rs. 500-crore cash reserve sounded like manna from heaven for those owning cow homes. For them, it was once economics plus social work, but now they know for sure that the PM’s reported nationalistic streak is drawn out of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto that promised Indian voters that if the party was voted to power, it would conserve the local breeds.
For the BJP and its Hindutva agenda, the cow was a central issue. Worse, claimed the party, the indigenous Indian cow could soon cease to exist because of multiple crossbreeding, thereby triggering a catastrophic effect, which could force India to import milk. When Jaitley made his budget speech, the agriculture ministry had even drummed up studies to show how “truly Indian cows” were producing large quantities of quality milk. According to the ministry’s papers, an Indian cow of the pure Gir variety of Gujarat broke its own 2010 record of delivering 10,230 kiloliters of milk a year, with a daily yield of 56.17 kiloliters, which comes to an annual output of over 20,000 kiloliters. If it had happened in India, the party would have been overjoyed. But sadly for the party, the Indian cow happened to be in Brazil, a country not exactly known for its milk, but for beaches and soccer.
Visitors to Vrindavan tending to cows at a gau shala
So the Indian cow must be conserved and bred, as per the ministry’s agenda. In Vrindavan—home to Lord Krishna—hundreds of temple bells ring a pious signal to scores of workers every morning to start their daily rituals at cowsheds mushrooming on the outskirts of the holy town.
Gau seva (cow service), incidentally, has been happening for almost a year or two. This service involves a donation between
Rs. 500-3,500 for maintenance of a cow. Pri-vate shelters seek these donations from people, so does ISKCON.
At times, it is also considered a tourist activity, wherein foreigners carrying religious bead necklaces in carry-bags wrapped aro-und the right palm (ISKCON devotees and die-hard Vaishnavites follow this practice) get lessons on cow milk and other cow products from holy workers, who offer fodder, clean the cattle and collect milk, dung and urine for medicinal and other uses.
Vrindavan has some 45 cow shelters now, nearly double the 21 in 2012, signifying a growing interest in the animal and its benefits. “The Indian cow is a sacred animal loved by Lord Krishna. Caring for a cow is religious, with serious economic benefits,” explains Mukunda Dutta Prabhu, the head priest at ISKCON temple, a prominent landmark of the town.
Cattle at the gau shala owned by Shriman Mandir Sewa Sansthan in Barsana near Vrindavan
The frail Prabhu, a Swiss national by birth, informs that his sect, which has thousands of members across India and the world, runs a huge gau shala close to the temple. “We do it for purely religious purposes, but domestic cow breeding has caught on in India because of the government push,” says Prabhu. He should know. The cow is considered both important and religious in India and is worshipped by Hindus.
Critics say the Indian government (read agriculture ministry) has, for long, hardly tried to get to the bottom of the case and track why the yield of these cows was low. Experts say it has been happening for long. Farmers— obviously encouraged by the government—started indiscriminately crossbreeding Indian cows with imported bulls and semen way back in the 1960s.
As a result, there has been a systemic destruction of the indigenous Indian cow, including precious breeds developed over a millennium. At the same time, the new, exotic crossbreeds—capable of very high milk yields—have not adapted to Indian conditions, causing immense trouble for Indian farmers. Many were not equipped to bear the high costs of rearing exotic crossbreeds. Their business turned unviable, and many sent their cattle to slaughter houses.
But now that there is a BJP-led NDA government at the center, cow and milk cannot be a simple issue left to the farmers. For the ruling government, it is a national issue that gives the coalition an advantage among the farmers before any crucial state elections. The cow and milk debate have happily star-ted across India.
“Even if you keep the Hindutva agenda aside, there is nothing wrong in pushing the domestic breed, especially if you know it will yield more milk,” says Arun Pradhan, 56, a cow shelter owner in Vrindavan.
He says milk, after all, is a huge driving force for India’s agro-economy, a product considered even bigger than wheat, paddy or sugar. India’s current milk business has over 1.2 lakh cooperatives—run by an estima-ted 1.3 crore people—who distri-bute milk across India after procuring it from small and landless farmers.“So why grumble if there is a need for research on properties of milk from indigenous breeds and the ruling government is allocating funds for the same?” argues Pradhan.
In Anand, India’s milk town in Gujarat, the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) wants to usher in India’s second milk revolution and is pushing to increase production to meet growing demand and solve the country’s nutritional challenges.
NDDB chairman T Nanda Kumar says the demand for dairy products in India is increasing much more than milk. For the record, milk production in India in 2013-14 was estimated at 140 million tons (MT) against 132.4 MT in 2012-13. Kumar says NDDB, under the “National Dairy Plan”, wants to achieve a 200 MT figure by 2021-22. The first phase—helped with a budget
of `2,242 crore from World Bank—was started in 2012.
And now, RGM will be a booster to NDDB’s plans. The project has the total backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the powerful think-tank of thegovernment, and the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Both feel that domestically bred cows are better suited for the Indian climate, even heat resistant.
Indian farmers, especially those owning commercial dairy farms, mainly rely on Jersey-Holstein cross breeds for better yields. But the NDA coalition wants to change their mindsets with its so-called nationalistic program. The move, expectedly, has evoked strong reactions.
The Congress, now in opposition, is seething because it was UPA-II that started thecow-breeding program. It blames the BJP for hijacking it with a multi-crore dole. It is a political gimmick, asserts Manish Tewari of the Congress. “It was the Congress that recognized the need for breeding domestic cows for their high quality milk,” he says.
Tewari has support from the CPM, which says the move is pro-Hindu and anti-Muslim. Two Indian states, West Bengal and Kerala, officially permit cow slaughter for its sizeable Muslim population. “The NDA program has serious, pro-Hindu ramifications,” says CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury.
(Top) Siddhgiri Math, Kolhapur; (above) A gau shala in Rajur, Maharashtra
But the government does not care.According to the party, the scheme actu-ally aims to encourage owners to maintain the cows after they have passed their milk-producing stage, so that they can be utilized either for meat or for other medicinal purposes. The basic idea is to get more milk with some sub-benefits. This is a win-win situation for both Hindus and Muslims.
On paper, the plan does look attractive.
UID FOR COWS
Soon, each cow will have a unique identity number and all records stored in a national database. Farmers maintaining the best cow centers as “Gopal Sanghs” could qualify even for a “Gopal Ratna” award. The winners could even be encouraged to start a public-private partnership. The Ministry of Agriculture is also pushing for a genetic upgrade project called the National Project for Cattle and Buffalo Breeding.
India has a little over 200 million cattle, of which, a whopping 83 percent is indigenous. Tagging them could be a Herculean task, but the government appears confident. Farmers, after all, form a big vote-bank in an agrarian society like India.
In his first interaction with reporters in Delhi in April, Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh said that under the project, Rs. 150 crore would be spent this year. This is part of the current Five Year Plan (2012-17) under the National Program for Breeding and Dairy Development.
The minister said the problem lies mainly with intrinsically-low genetic potential and animal nutrition, issues often highlighted by the Food and Agriculture Organization. He, however, did not elaborate.
As per the government’s own records, only five or six out of the recognized 37 cattle breeds are in trouble. These include the Krishna Valley and Hallikar breed in Karnataka, Vechur breed in Kerala, Pulikulam breed in Tamil Nadu, Gir breed in Gujarat, Ongole breed in Andhra Pradesh and Nimari breed in Madhya Pradesh. Does that warrant an immediate attention, a Rs. 500-crore dole? No one in the party has an answer. But figures are still stacked up in India’s favor, giving the BJP immense benefit.
As of now, India produces one-fifth of the total output of the US and New Zealand. Some studies, though unve-rified, show domestic cow milk is thicker, rich in smell, sweeter and considered good for children’s growth. But the quantity is low—almost one-third—as compared to thinner milk produced by Jersey and Holstein cows.
Worse, no one gives a damn in the market about this and the prices for both are almost the same, Rs. 18-21 per liter.
Milk from the Indian domestic breed also has several advantages over the milk of European varieties, a crucial differentiator being the A2 variety of beta casein protein, found in abundance in the milk of zebu cows (an Indian variety characterized by a fatty hump). Milk from European breeds has the A1 variant, which is often related to allergies.
Dr AK Chakravarty, scientist, National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, says there is high demand for milk from indigenous cows rather than from high-yielding exotic varieties. In fact, nearly 63 percent of animal protein in Indian diet comes from dairy pro-ducts, reveals Chakravarty.
Worldwide, countries have always retai-ned Jerseys for domestic breeding and consumption. But it has not worked in India, he says, because farmers mostly turn to Holstein cows for commercial benefit.
There are other reasons to worry. As per the country’s 19th Livestock Census, the population of exotic or crossbred milch cattle increased from 14.4 million to 19.42 million, an increase of 34.78 percent. And the population of indigenous cattle decreased by 8.94 per cent. But the overall population of 512.05 million livestock itself declined, says the Census, by 3.33 per cent, mainly because farmers—troubled by the shortage in rainfall —are selling their cattle in distress, reducing their dependence on livestock rearing.
The BJP now wants to ensure that this is reversed.