They rise together. The sun, the cows and Ganesh Agrawal. At 6 am, in one corner of Vidya Devi Gaushala, spread over an acre and home to 294 cows, an aarti rings through the quiet morning sky. And then, Agrawal, 40, the man who takes care of the cows, begins his day. By 6.30 am, the gaushala at Tendukona village in Chhattisgarh’s Mahasamund district begins to thrum with activity. All the cows in it — some just a few days old, others feeding mothers, and some old and infirm — are brought out of their sheds into a large open courtyard cordoned off by walls eight feet high.
“Running a gaushala is like operating a factory. Everything is time-bound and there are processes to follow. Do you see those fodder trenches along the walls,” asks Agrawal. “They are stocked with perakutty (a mixture of grain and dry fodder) in case the cows want to feed at night — between 6:30 pm and 6:30 am, is when they stay in their sheds.”
The Vidya Devi Gaushala Trust was first registered with the Chhattisgarh Gau Seva Aayog, a commission set up by the state government in 2005 for the welfare of cows, on June 25, 2015. Agrawal is the trustee and the man who operates the gaushala, land for which was donated by his uncle Hardwari Lal Agrawal, one of the richest farmers in the village.
As the cows sun themselves in the courtyard, the workers begin cleaning the sheds that are separated into four sections, designed in a way that the cows don’t crowd each other. The institution has nine permanent staff, four of whom stay in the gaushala through the night.
By 9 am, the cows make their way out, led by three cowherds for their daily walk through a forest nearby. Agrawal says, “You can feed the cows perakutty all day, but green leaves and grass are what they need for energy. They walk 5-6 km. It is the most important thing for their health.”
But over the past 10 days, not every cow in the gaushala has been healthy. On the morning of August 20, Agrawal says he received a phone call. “It was from the Gau Seva Aayog. We had all been reading of the horrors our gaumata had to face in the three gaushalas in Durg and Bemetara, where hundreds died. They said they were sending over 67 cows from these gaushalas for rehabilitation,” he says.
On August 18, Harish Verma, BJP vice-president in the nagar panchayat of Jamul, in Durg district, was arrested after at least 100 cow carcasses were found in three gaushalas he ran. The cows that survived have since been rehabilitated in gaushalas across the state.
“It is a 200-km distance from Durg and I told the Aayog official who called that the cows would not be able to make the journey. But they insisted,” he says.
The next day, two trucks arrived with the cows, all squashed against each other. A worker at his gaushala says, “They were all so close to death, many of us started crying. Nine were dead in the truck itself; the others were at death’s door.”
With the state the cows were in, it was certain that more would die, and an outbreak of infection was very likely. But Agrawal says there was little doubt in his mind about what he had to do. “Would you leave your mother to die?”
Within days, one young calf had breathed his last, but the 57 others have begun recuperating at the gaushala. In one shed that has been cordoned off, at least 10 of them sit, too weak to move. Some have to be propped up by white bags full of fodder, unable to support their own weight even to sit.
The ones that can walk are let out into the courtyard — “to strengthen their bones” — while the 294 registered cows are out grazing for six hours. Inside their shed, beside most of the sick cows, are green vegetables — lauki, cucumber, and spinach. In one fodder trench are drips and syringes for glucose infusions.
Dr Shibha Ram Sahu of the Animal Husbandry Department of Mahasamund says, “For the past 10 days, we have been feeding them green vegetables and glucose through intravenous drips. In the gaushalas they came from, it seems they had nothing to eat or drink and had no space either. But here, they are all showing gradual improvement.”
Sahu, one of the veterinary doctors attached to the Mahasamund district Animal Husbandry Department, now comes to the gaushala every day to look at the ailing cows. Though he argues he would visit the gaushala at least once a day even when the injured cows weren’t around, there are evident signs of structural problems in the operations of these institutions.
At least two workers said the doctors rarely come to check on the cows. And then, all around the village of Tendukona, in a 2-km radius from the gaushala, there are frequent suggestions of financial misappropriation.
In the three years since the Vidya Devi Gaushala was registered, the Trust has received Rs 5.95 lakh in 2015-16, Rs 20 lakh in 16-17 and Rs 11.82 lakh thus far this year from the Aayog. Agrawal argues his accounts are clean. “Every three months, I send an audit to the Aayog and only then do they clear payments. There are inspections by officials as well,” he says. Asked about the last inspection, Agrawal only says, “It happens once a year.”
Yet his voice grows louder when he talks about the money required to take care of close to 300 cows. “The Aayog gives up to Rs 20 per cow per day. That isn’t even enough to take care of the fodder. Besides, we need money for upkeep, for water, for calcium to clean the tank, medicines and everything. So I put gullaks (piggy banks) in some of the shops in Tendukona and Bagbahara and people donate there. Some days, I roam around in an e-rickshaw to collect money. When you do this, people will inevitably say you misuse the money, but my conscience is clear,” he says.
Around 2.30 in the afternoon, half an hour before the cows return, Agrawal and his uncle Hardwari eat a small lunch of samosas and chai. And speak of politics. Agrawal, who claims to be “apolitical”, says, “It is not the BJP’s fault or the Aayog’s. Without the BJP, these cow shelters wouldn’t even exist. The real problem is that the young generation thinks they are above working with cows. Farmers simply leave the cows at our gates because the youngsters don’t want to get their hands dirty. But do you know, if your hand has a rash, and you rub your hands in dung, instantly the infection goes away?”