The normal lifespan of a cow/bull is about 15 years. But for a farmer, his cow is unproductive once it is eight or nine years old and would have calved five-six times. By then, its milk yield would have dropped to levels where maintenance becomes uneconomical. There is also an opportunity cost here — in terms of scarce resources being diverted away from more productive cows or even young calves and heifers that are future milkers.
The equation is even starker with male cattle. In the age of tractors, electric/diesel tube-wells and artificial insemination, they are required neither for draught power nor breeding. Many farmers don’t even keep male calves once they’re weaned off their mothers and are no longer needed for stimulating milk flow.
The Livestock Census for 2012 put India’s cattle population at 190.90 million, 122.98 million of them female. Taking an average productive life of eight or nine years for female cattle, it means 13-15 million cows rendered surplus annually. That figure for males — whose productive life may not average more than three-four years — could be higher, at 17-22 million. It, then, adds up to over 30 million cattle going out of the system every year.
That this has, indeed, been taking place is proven by a single fact: Between 1992 and 2012, the overall cattle numbers have fallen from 204.58 million to 190.90 million. It is the male population that has really shrunk (from 101.60 million to 67.92 million), whereas the number of females has gone up from 102.99 million to 122.98 million. And even within females, it is not the indigenous cows — the true gau mata — but crossbred/exotic animals that have posted a jump, from 10.56 million to 33.76 million.
Simply put, for the farmer, the gau today is purely a milch animal, valued only so long as it gives milk. Maintaining an unproductive animal at Rs 75-100 per day is something he cannot afford and will seek to dispose of at any price.
That, until recently, wasn’t much of an issue, as there was a market for spent cattle in the form of slaughterhouses. This chain has been broken, especially under the BJP governments in North India that have strictly implemented the slaughter ban on govansh. With no takers for unproductive animals, farmers have let them loose.
Rabi crops in UP are mainly wheat, rapeseed-mustard, potato, chana, masur and matar. At this time, most of these crops are in their vegetative growth stage, which makes them attractive to wandering cattle. The vulnerability is more now than during the kharif monsoon season, when fodder availability is more because of the rains.
The solution being proposed by the administration in Uttar Pradesh is to build shelters for abandoned cattle. It is planning 104 such shelters, in addition to the existing 514. Assuming each of these has a capacity for 1,000 animals, they can house six-seven lakh at most. As against this, the state’s total cattle population in 2012 was 19.55 million, of which at least two million were surplus. Now, if even half of these aren’t allowed to die, about a million animals would be added annually and will have to be kept in gaushalas till they are 14-15 years old.
Clearly, that is unsustainable.
That apart, there are recurring costs. Even for six lakh animals, feeding costs alone, at Rs 100/animal/day, will come to Rs 2,190 crore a year. For one million and more added every year, funding will require more than just the proposed 0.5 per cent cess on alcohol and toll taxes.