The central government is perhaps beginning to acknowledge that prohibiting the slaughter of gauvansh — the cow and its progeny — entails significant economic costs. In an interview to this newspaper, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir, said that the biggest “adangaa” (hurdle) to the protection and preservation of cattle is “inko paaley kaun” (who will take care of them). [The Indian Express, April 21, 2017; http://bit.ly/2p9Tlrg%5D
In other words, while the gau can well be saved from the cattle smuggler and slaughterhouse owner, how does one ensure the farmer will continue to rear the animals that are no longer of economic utility to him?
A typical cow weighing about 300 kg requires 6-7 kg of paddy or wheat straw, 5 kg of green grass (jowar, berseem, sugarcane tops, etc) and 1-1.25 kg of concentrate mixtures (mainly mustard, groundnut or cottonseed cake) just for its daily body maintenance. If the animal is producing milk, it has to be fed another 400-500 g of concentrates for every 1 litre. Taking per kg costs at Rs 1.25-1.50 for green fodder, Rs 5-6 for straw and Rs 19-20 for concentrates, a farmer would spend upwards of Rs 60 daily just to keep the cow alive.
That being the case, the farmer has a clear order of precedence when it comes to fodder and feed allocation. The animals in milk will receive top priority. Below them are the ones that are pregnant, about to calve and would start lactating in the next few months. This is followed by the young heifers and calves that may yield milk in a year or two. The cows that are past their prime after 5-6 lactations, and those with infertility or udder damage issues, will be the last in line. Even below them, at the bottom of the hierarchy, are the male animals. These have been progressively rendered redundant — with tractors, diesel engines and electric motors replacing work bullocks, and artificial insemination doing the job of breeding bulls.
For the farmer, the last two categories — whether or not urban animal rights activists and so-called gau rakshaks like it — largely represent “unproductive cattle”. Maintaining them involves both direct as well as indirect opportunity costs, in terms of diversion of precious fodder, feed, water and labour resources away from productive animals.
Is there any way of estimating the number of unproductive cattle, from the farmer’s standpoint?
As per the 2012 Livestock Census, India had a cattle population of 190.90 million, comprising 122.98 female and 67.92 male animals. A new-born female calf, on average, takes 3 years for its first lactation and may produce enough milk for the next 5 years.
Bullocks can theoretically plough the fields until they are 11-12 years old, but the very fact of a reduction in male cattle numbers — from 101.60 million to 67.92 million between 1992 and 2012 — is proof of their fast diminishing utility to farmers. Simply put, an average animal today, female or male, ceases to be “productive” to the farmer beyond 8-9 years, even if it can probably live for 14-15 years.
For a 190-odd million cattle population, this translates into 22-23 million animals going out of the system every year. That this is, indeed, taking place — whether through natural death or forced slaughter — is confirmed by the country’s total cattle population not rising in the last three decades; it has actually fallen marginally from 204.58 million in 1992 to 190.90 million in 2012.
That selective culling of redundant animals is happening would, of course, be more obvious in buffaloes, where there aren’t any laws banning slaughter. Data from the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries show 9.74 million buffaloes were officially slaughtered during 2013-14. Together with unofficial slaughtering — which may not really amount to much — that works out to roughly a tenth of the total buffalo population of 108.70 million.
On the other hand, the number of cattle slaughtered officially in states that allow it, at 3.20 million, formed a mere 1.7% of the overall population. But there could be many more that were unofficially slaughtered. It may not be unreasonable to assume that out of the 22-23 million cattle heads going out of the system annually, at least half, or 10-11 million, are being slaughtered — officially or otherwise.
Now, if a nationwide ban on the slaughter of gauvansh were to be strictly enforced, somebody will have to take care of the 10 million or so cattle that would ordinarily end up at the abattoir every year. That somebody will certainly not be the farmer. In his case — unlike for those who farm neither crops nor animals — there is a clear dividing line between economic rationality and religious sentiment. Rather than bearing the Rs 60 daily cost of feeding an unproductive cow, he will simply let it loose. Even if it is no longer possible to sell redundant animals to livestock traders/butchers at, say, Rs 10,000 per animal, he will at least save on the daily recurring maintenance expense.
How does one deal with the resultant prospect of unwanted cattle crowding our towns and cities, disrupting traffic and spreading disease along with their dung and urine? The solution that the government is proposing, according to Ahir, is to set up “cow sanctuaries” in every state, on the lines of the Project Tiger reserves. However, we are talking here not of a few thousand tigers, but of 10 million-plus animals, whose annual feeding costs alone, at Rs 60/head/day, will top Rs 22,000 crore. And since the 10 million-plus will keep adding each year, till they die in their natural course after 14-15 years, these costs would only mount.
While gau raksha may have its immediate political and religious-sentimental appeal, the economic cost of interfering with established systems for disposal of surplus/unproductive cattle — which can have a potentially destabilising impact on India’s dairy industry — cannot be ignored for too long. Ahir’s statements are encouraging, to the extent they indicate a willingness to engage with practical farming realities.
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