Nestled along a rocky hillock in Tikamgarh, this small village of about a thousand residents follows a fixed ritual at twilight. Before retiring for the day, the men of Dumbar herd cows wandering in the village’s lanes into a makeshift enclosure, praying they won’t venture out at night. The cows don’t belong to them. The villagers don’t know who owns them either. The animals started appearing a few months ago, climbing over the hillock and destroying their fields.
“The owners abandon them in the dark and they amble towards the village during the day,” rues Lakhan Pal, who tills five acres along with three brothers, and owns three cows of his own. Lamenting the damage caused to his fields where he grows black gram, he says, “Gai ki koi value nahin hai (The cow has no value).”
Dumbar is better off than neighbouring Chandooli and Pratappura, part of the same panchayat, which have no enclosures to hold the stray cows. “We simply chase them from one field to another,” says sarpanch Udham Yadav. The abandoned cows have become a source of friction in the villages, the 40-year-old adds. Recently, a farmer belonging to the dominant Brahmin caste in Dumbar village killed a cow after it entered his field.
Mohan Tiwari, who is in his 20s, has been arrested under the anti-cow slaughter Act, besides Section 429 of the IPC (causing mischief by killing or maiming a cattle). Villagers say Tiwari went twice for a dip in the Ganga and held a puja, to “wash away his sins”. His father Bhumani Maharaj pleads to be left alone. Shankar Ahirwar, a Dalit whose cow was killed by Tiwari, says he had let it loose “because everyone does so during the day”. He also wonders, “I don’t know what would have happened had I killed a cow belonging to a Brahmin.” Though Ahirwar’s nine-acre fields sown with black gram are neatly fenced, cows keep making their way in.
The growing problem of abandoned cows in the state was discussed in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly on July 21, with MLAs seeking immediate intervention. MLAs of the ruling BJP led the debate, regretting that cows were now being abandoned for good unlike earlier when owners would let loose their cattle post-harvest and later get them back in a practice often called “era pratha”. During the debate, BJP MLA from Susner, Murlidhar Patidar, suggested that BPL families be asked to rear a cow each as they benefit from government schemes.
Slamming gau bhakts, BJP MLA from Chandla R D Prajapati said, “They keep shouting ‘cow is our mother’. When I ask them have you ever reared one… (they say) ‘not cow, but buffalo is our mother’!” Prajapati also told the House there were 20,000 stray cattle in his constituency. “Let there be no development in my constituency, but please manage (the problem of) stray cows,” he said. Bharatiya Kisan Sangh leader Shivkant Dixit says 35 to 40 of Madhya Pradesh’s 51 districts are affected by the problem of stray cows. One solution, he adds, is ensuring demand for cow milk, as well as its urine and dung.
The state’s ‘Kanji’ houses, where impounded cattle are kept till reclaimed by owners, have also collapsed under the weight of unwanted animals. Madhya Pradesh has had a cow slaughter prohibition law (Madhya Pradesh Gauvansh Pratishedh Adhiniyam) since 2004, when the BJP was voted into power. An amendment cleared in 2012 by the President puts the onus on the accused in a cow slaughter case, while raising the punishment for killing a cow from three years to seven.
Cow vigilante groups like the Bajrang Sena admit an increase in the number of cows on the streets, and take pride in it being a result of “our campaign”. They say few dare buy or transport cattle for slaughter now. On a rainy day, a Bajrang Sena activist, Shivam Asati, stands at Baldeogarh Police Station near Dumbar, next to a dumper that has killed a buffalo. “I know it’s the buffalo’s fault, but now that it is dead, the driver has to pay a price,” says Asati. He demands Rs 40,000.
Tribal activist Anurag Modi says the anti-cow slaughter Act, coupled with cow vigilantism, has destroyed the rural economy. “Tribals used to buy young animals from weekly markets and sell them. They have stopped doing so due to fear of gau rakshaks and police, who are hand in glove with them.” So far though, says the president of the Pithampur Industries’ Association, Gautam Kothari, the campaign has not impacted the leather industry.
Khargapur Congress MLA Chanda Surendra Singh Gaur calls the problem “very acute”. “Every day I negotiate 10-odd cows squatting near my house. The government pats itself on the back in the name of gau mata but does little to improve its lot.” “Every night over a hundred cows squat on roads near our village,” adds Chandrabhan Yadav, a young farmer of Pratappura. Bikers have to be cautious, he says, especially due to fear of cow vigilantes in case of any accident.
In a village 20 km from Dumbar, Bhura Bhanjan sits next to his field, lush green after the rains, with a stone in his hand. The good monsoon should have left him happy, says the 40-year-old. Instead, he spends his days guarding his field against stray cows. No matter how many he chases into the nearby forest, he says, there is a new herd the next day.
The other reason cows are entering fields is shortage of fodder, both due to extensive use of harvesters and encroachment on traditional grazing land. BJP MLA from Tikamgarh K K Shrivastava blames the previous Congress government, which last ruled 14 years ago. “Earlier 10 per cent of the total land used to be reserved as gauchar land. By the time the Congress lost power, the grazing land had come down to just 2 per cent,” he says.
Contrary to the stand of Sangh Parivar organisations, Shrivastava believes cross-breeding with foreign varieties could be one way to keep the desi breeds alive, as that would increase their milk yield and keep them productive. There is anyway little use for male calves and bulls because tractors are now used to plough fields.
In the Assembly debate, the MLAs said creating more gaushalas could be a solution. Dumbar has two within a 30-km distance. In Kharagpur, around 1 pm on a Thursday, there is just one cow in a facility meant to accommodate hundreds. Rajnish Thakur, who runs the gaushala, admits that he has let the others out to graze, and that the cows would return at night.
Thakur claims farmers force him to accept their cows even when he runs out of space. He says he doesn’t depend on the slow-moving government grant of Rs 1 lakh a year, and spends nearly Rs 2.5 lakh on fodder etc. The other gaushala, in Papora village, 5 km from Tikamgarh, is run by the Jain community. “We get old, injured and sick cows because no one wants them,” says Jalam Prasad Ahirwar, who believes the vigilantism of gau rakshaks is directly responsible for the rise in the number of cows at his gaushala.
The grant of the Madhya Pradesh Gausamvardhan Board (cow protection board) was increased to Rs 25 crore per year recently, from Rs 20 crore. But the board wants nearly Rs 100 crore, so as to enable it to spend Rs 10 per cow per day from the present Rs 2.90. The board has also suggested that the government build a gauthan (a place for cows to rest in) in clusters of four to five gram panchayats each, and to bring works related to gaushalas under the ambit of the MNREGS.
Swami Akhileshwaranand Giri, who heads the Gausamvardhan Board, talks proudly about “the country’s first cow sanctuary” for strays, being built for the past five years, at Salaria in Agar district. The BJP government has meanwhile promised another one, in Rewa.
The Managing Director of the MP Livestock and Poultry Development Corporation, Dr H B S Bhadoria, is also counting on ‘UID (unique identity)’. Under the Rs 13-crore project — jointly funded by the Centre and state — each of the 90 lakh milch animals in the state are getting a polyurethane tag with a 12-digit UID number punched into their ears.