The National Green Tribunal has issued a notice to the Centre on a plea seeking to save “critically endangered indigenous species of livestock” and take “necessary steps” to prevent slaughtering of such milch cattle. Nobody can dispute the need for protecting native animal and plant species from extinction. The problem is in the proposed approach — in the use of force and the ignoring of interests of actual cultivators, rearers and practitioners, without whom no conservation strategy can work. Desi cows today supply just about a fifth of India’s milk production; the rest comes from buffaloes and crossbred cattle. The “villains” here aren’t those engaged in slaughter, but farmers themselves. Indigenous cattle breeds such as Gir, Red Sindhi and Sahiwal typically give not more than 2,000 litres of milk annually, compared to 4,000 litres-plus for crossbreds. Their age of first calving is also upwards of four years, as against two or less for the latter. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that farmers opt for either crossbreds or buffaloes, which yield higher-fat milk and are easier to dispose of after they cease to be productive.
There is no doubting that desi cattle are more disease-resistant and better adapted to the tropical climatic conditions than exotic Holstein Friesian, Jersey or Brown Swiss dairy breeds. The main purpose of crossbreeding has been to marry the inherent hardiness of the former with the higher genetic milk yields of the latter, with the resultant milch animals incorporating 50 per cent or more “western” blood levels. The petition has rightly called for the regulation of crossbreeding to ensure no disease-exposure risk to indigenous cattle species. One can, likewise, agree that there should be more research on improving milk yields of indigenous cattle even without resort to crossbreeding. The fact that the scope for such genetic upgradation exists has been proven in buffaloes, where there are no exotic animals and milk yields have still gradually risen through the use of genetic material from proven bulls of superior indigenous breeds like Murrah and Nili-Ravi.
But no scientific national breeding improvement programme can succeed without selective culling of unproductive animals. This has been possible in buffaloes, thanks to no religious taboos in their slaughter, enabling farmers to reserve scarce fodder and feed resources for high-milking animals or the young calves they will produce in future. Not allowing slaughter of unproductive cattle in the name of conserving indigenous livestock breeds — which is what the petition has sought — will only expedite their extinction, as farmers will simply switch over to buffaloes. Such pseudo-environmentalism, while compatible with Hindu far-right ideology, is dangerous both for the future of dairying and the country’s social fabric.