Sitapur (Uttar Pradesh): “The bull that attacked my father would have fetched Rs 15,000 in the market,” said farmer Ramu, recounting how an enraged stray bull chased and injured his father at their village Kinhoti in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh (UP).
“My father had to get nine sutures on his thigh,” said Ramu, who goes by one name. “Not only are we unable to sell these animals but we are also losing precious money on medical treatment and facing losses due to damage they are causing to the crops.”
A rise in stray cattle is a prominent issue in rural UP as it prepares to elect a new state legislature in February 2022. After an unofficial clampdown on cattle trade since 2017, the government of chief minister Yogi Adityanath has frequently proclaimed the cow a holy animal and spent Rs 764 crore crore over four years (2017-20) to build gaushalas (cow sheds ) and temporary shelters to accommodate the animals, show budget documents (here and here). An allocation of Rs 390 crore was made in the 2021-22 state budget.
The state government raised these funds through a cow cess on liquor, expressway toll collections and agricultural commodities’ markets. Additional fees of Rs 0.50 -Rs 2 were added to a bottle of beer and Indian Made Foreign Liquor while Rs 5-10 was added to their consumption in a bar. The government also added 1-2% ‘mandi’ cess and 0.5 % cess on toll tax collected by the government agencies.
Farmers that Article 14 spoke to in six districts complained that many of these gaushalas did not operate properly: they inflated the number of cows housed, pushed the cattle out at night, and did not arrange enough fodder. They have protested the flood of stray cattle eating and trampling crops by tying the animals in schools and local hospitals to draw attention to the damage the animals are causing to crops. A farmers' mahapanchayat in September 2020 demanded an emergency helpline to report stray cattle.
In the central district of Hardoi, farmers of five villages in Bharawan block started a march on 1 January 2022, herding hundreds of cattle towards the state capital Lucknow, 61 km to the south east of Bharawan, threatening to tie these animals at the residence of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The march alerted the administration, which started transporting the cattle to cowsheds and set up new temporary shelters.
Cow Protection Decimates The Cattle-Rearing Industry
The trade in cattle came to a standstill in 2017 when the newly-elected Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government avowed strict action against cow slaughter resulting in rise in vigilantism from rightwing Hindu groups who hounded anyone found transporting cows.
“Cow vigilante groups and police routinely harassed us for transporting cows, claiming that we were taking them for slaughter,” said Ram Snehi Arkvanshi of Chamka village in Hardoi district. “This harassment forced farmers to stop trading in cows or bulls.”
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The Uttar Pradesh Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act, 2020 prohibits transportation of “the cow or its progeny” for slaughter. The punishment for those convicted was raised in the year 2020 to imprisonment for one to seven years and a fine of Rs 100,000–300,000.
The drop in the cattle trade has had an impact on those who rear them. The number of domesticated cattle declined 2.75% between 2012 and 2019 in UP, even though it increased by 1.3% nationally, according to 2019 livestock census data, the latest available. In contrast, stray cattle numbers rose 117% in rural UP, from 495,000 in 2012 to 1.07 million in 2019.
“An adult cow bears a calf every year. Since we can’t sell them now, we have to set the male calves and old cows free. But then we have to guard our crops all day, all night from the increasing number of stray cattle,” said Arkvanshi. “Even fencing around the farm is unable to stop animals. Once a bull pushes through the fence, the field is accessible to all. We are sleeping on machaans (temporary lofts) in the fields even in extreme weather to save our crops.”
Rising Crop Loss, Missing Cowsheds
Socialist Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ union that organised the march from Hardoi to Lucknow, estimated that every year farmers lose Rs 40,000 per acre on average due to stray cattle.
“Farmers report a reduction of 18-20 quintal of wheat and paddy grains per acre,” said social activist Sandeep Pandey who has been participating in the protest in Hardoi district. “Considering that income from farming is already on decline, this is a huge loss.”
Farmers are trying to adapt by shifting towards non-cereal crops like sugarcane which are more resilient to grazing.
“It may not give as much return as wheat and paddy but sugarcane only needs protection in initial days,” said Rakesh Kumar of Kesra village in Sitapur district.
“Once it grows thick, animals only eat the leaves and the cane survives,”
The change in crop pattern has intensified the fodder shortage, hiking its cost to Rs 1,000 per quintal currently from Rs 300 in 2017.
“Earlier, an acre of wheat crop would give 20-30 quintal dry fodder, enough for at least one animal for the whole year. Last year, I had to buy fodder worth Rs 27,000 for the one buffalo I keep because we are not growing wheat now,” said Surbala of Satnapur village in the central district of Sitapur. “While fodder prices have risen, milk prices have remained stagnant making it difficult to keep animals.”
Another menace is the rise in bull attacks.
“A bull killed two people in our neighbouring village, a child lost his life at my in-laws, a man was so badly injured that he could not even sit properly for three months,” said Ramu, the farmer quoted earlier.
Male calves were previously castrated, so that they grew up to be oxen, used to plough fields or for transportation of goods. Since tractors and other motorised vehicles have taken over and with the animal trade at a dead end, animal rearers release the calves without castration.
“These calves grow up to be bulls which are more aggressive, can’t be tamed for draught purposes and hence remain stray. Attacks are also reported from gaushalas where adult bulls are injuring other animals even resulting in deaths,” said Pandey. “In one instance, gaushala workers dug a trench where an aggressive bull was kept so that it did not harm others.”
The Government Spends Crores On Cow Shelters
The UP government spent Rs 203 crore sheltering and feeding stray cattle in 2019-20 while the estimate for 2021-22 was Rs 300 crore, according to budget documents. The government provides a daily allowance of Rs 30 per animal to gaushalas and temporary shelters, of which there are 5,500 in UP.
“We are running a special programme to deal with stray cattle from January 1-20 under which around 90,000 animals have already been sent to 5,500 gaushalas in the state,” said Jai Prakash, additional director at the state animal husbandry department. “In total, around 850,000 cattle are currently housed in these facilities.”
A similar special drive in 2019 failed, leading to protests across UP. Farmers locked up cattle in schools and veterinary hospitals, which led police to register criminal cases against them.
“We told the officials, it’s your mistake that you didn’t meet the deadline to deal with stray cattle so first police should arrest you,” said Mohanlal of Mathna village in Sitapur district. While the cases against farmers were withdrawn, the problem persisted. Farmers complain that many of the gaushalas, especially those run by private organisations, don’t operate properly.
“They get government funding and private donations but force the animal out at night without food,” said Munnalal Shukla of Socialist Kisan Sabha, a farmers’ union which organised the march in Hardoi recently.
“This is also the reason why many residents of villages where gaushalas are located protest against more cows being brought in from other places,” said Shukla. “They fear that all these animals will be ultimately released, increasing the stray cattle population in their villages.”
Anil Gupta, Lucknow district head of Vishwa Hindu Maha Sangh, a rightwing Hindu group that campaigns against cow slaughter, confirmed that animals are often released.
“We routinely get information about certain private gaushalas letting the cows out despite getting government allowance for their upkeep,” said Gupta. “We keep asking the administration to act against such organisations.”
CCTVs, Walls To Ensure Cows Stay In Shelters
Official communication showed that the state government is also aware of animal movement and release and advised monitoring.
In an October 2021 letter to all district magistrates and divisional commissioners, chief secretary Rajendra Kumar Tiwari stressed that they should ensure that boundary walls of cowsheds were not broken and consider installing CCTV cameras to monitor the premises.
Officially, officials refute accusations of misconduct by gaushalas.
“I don’t think it’s possible that gaushala managers let the animals out because how will they catch them if there is a surprise inspection?” asked Jai Prakash. “We are now attaching radio frequency identification tags to cows which will have information about their ownership. This will help track if the stray cattle came out of a gaushala or was released by a farmer.”
Farmers said these solutions remained largely on paper.
“There is hardly any action taken against dysfunctional gaushalas because these are owned by influential people like village pradhans” said Ashok Bharti of Behda village in Hardoi district. “These gaushalas also charge Rs 200-500 if someone wants to accommodate their animal there.”
Shortage Of Fodder, Grasslands Fuels Crisis
Farmers have found that tying stray cattle at government premises or herding them on a long march are the most effective ways of drawing attention to the stray cattle problem.
The protest in Hardoi district had the administration on its toes. “We moved around 200 cows to various gaushalas in the area on the first day of the protest and are constructing temporary sheds which can house around 50 cows each,” Rajiv Gupta, block development officer at Bharawan block of the district told Article 14.
“But farmers should also be concerned about the cattle,” said Anil Gupta. “If they don’t keep their unproductive animals, this problem will continue to persist. The high cost of fodder is an issue but that’s no reason to push the animals out.”
Cow vigilantes blamed farmers. “Who let these cattle out in the first place?” asked Anil Gupta. “Service of cows is one of the primary duties espoused in Hinduism and here farmers are letting them out to wander. Instead they should use their dung and urine in farming.”
Farmers said they had little choice.
“We also feel remorse at ousting the animals we raise, but there is no other way. Some of us do keep the unproductive cattle at home but there is a limit on how many animals we can feed,” said Mohanlal. “This is the reason many people have either reduced their flocks or left animal rearing altogether, moving to cities for daily wage work. Farming was already a loss-making job, and now animal rearing has also been forced to fail.”
Community pastures and grasslands, which traditionally sustained a village’s animal population, have shrunk considerably in Uttar Pradesh.
The area under permanent pastures and grasslands reduced 7.3%, from 70,025 hectares in 2000-01 to 64,883 hectares in 2016-17, according to data from the state’s statistical abstracts 2014 and 2020. Forest area open to grazing shrank 36 %, from 7,524 hectares in 1999-2000 to 4,785 hectares in 2018-19.
“A major reason for reduction in pastures is encroachment by influential people of villages, who also have the backing of political parties because they get them votes,” said Shukla. “This is the reason why there is no action against them, but animal rearers and farmers are bearing the loss.”
One of the solutions that the government proposed is promotion of the cattle trade.
“How many cows and bulls can a gaushala hold, and how many gaushalas will you build and fund?” asked Pandey. “Government should allow the trade of cattle, and if there is some slaughtering happening, they should use the law to punish those who do it. You can’t kill the whole sector just because the system is not efficient against criminals.”
(Manu Moudgil is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh.)