On December 25, to mark former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s birthday with ‘gau sewa’, Uma Kant, the director of BNV Inter College here, promised free fodder for Rath city’s stray cattle. He posted the offer on Facebook, and expected farmers from the block to deposit around 300 animals.
By next morning, they were staring at 7,000 bovines and their adamant owners — from all over Hamirpur and neighbouring districts such as Jalaon and Jhansi — after Kant’s Facebook post travelled far, and fast. Another 15,000 cattle making their way to the college grounds were forced back by a panic-stricken police and administration officials.
Four days later, in Sarila block, 40 km from Rath, the villagers of Chhibauli and neighbouring Magraul came to blows. Police and residents say stray cattle that could not be accommodated at BNV College and were turned away wandered over to Sarila.
In Jalaon, on December 31, a group of villagers brought stray cattle to a function at Orai and gheraoed three MLAs present there as guests. This was after the matter of stray cattle brought up in the Assembly last year didn’t see results on the ground.
A water-scarce region, Bundelkhand has been battling drought, debt and poverty for over a decade. In the past three years, “anna pashu (stray cattle)” has been added to the list, now building up to a serious crisis. The cattle have started endangering the Rabi crop.
“This is turning into a law and order crisis, and will grow. Villages are fighting over stray cattle. A farmer’s life has become a nightmare, they are spending nights shivering to guard their fields… The situation is so serious that it can’t be described in words,” Sarila police Circle Officer Rajneesh Kumar Upadhyay said. Hari Charan Fauji, a social worker in Rath who recently sat on a hunger strike over the stray cattle menace, said, “The day villagers stop supplying fodder to Uma Kant, and he lets them loose, there will be clashes and deaths across the district.”
Rath MLA Maneesha Anuragi of the BJP admitted that the problem is “very serious and plaguing all of Bundelkhand”. She claimed to have intimated Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath about it, following which land was earmarked for a cattle sanctuary nearby.
Agreeing with Anuragi on the “problem”, Additional Deputy Magistrate, Hamirpur, Kunj Bihari Agarwal blamed imbalance in cattle population caused by the crackdown on sale for slaughter. Added to this is the fear of cow vigilantes, villagers said. Pegging the number of stray cattle in Hamirpur at 40,000, Agarwal said, “There are no buyers for cattle. We are planning to earmark three shelters in each of Hamirpur’s seven blocks.”
This was at the heart of Magraul-Chhibauli clash. Chhibauli village head Charan Pal Singh said, “The police and district administration had asked Magraul pradhan Lakhan Singh to tether 60 stray cows to his barnyard and feed them. But we found over a dozen cattle grazing near our fields. When we asked Lakhan to show us the cattle in his barnyard, we found only 32. That is how the fight began.”
The clash left a dozen injured; 10 people were arrested. Admitting the problem of stray cattle, Hamirpur SP Dinesh Kumar and MLA Anuragi deny that the crackdown on slaughter is to blame. Kumar said, “Letting cattle loose is years old practice in Bundelkhand. Farmers sow a crop, use cattle for milk and to toil on farms, and then let them loose to graze. They take them back at the next sowing cycle.”
The SP said that a law against cow slaughter has been in place in UP since the 1950s. “So there is no correlation between increase in stray population and crackdown against slaughter.” However, he admitted, “there are no buyers of cattle”. Anuragi said farmers are letting cattle loose because of poverty induced by droughts. Villagers and community leaders countered, saying that laws have always been in place but there is a difference now. Earlier, cattle markets were a crucial part of the rural economy, and buyers and sellers, both Hindu and Muslim, came from across the region. “We do not know what they (buyers) did with the cattle; it never concerned us. But since the Narendra Modi government has come to power, no one is buying cattle. Gau raksha is fine, but should our children die of hunger to save cows,” Madan Mohan Singh, a schoolteacher and farmer who also doubles as a village priest in Sarila, asked.