Stray Cattle: The Mother of All Problems
In March last year, the Prime Minister declared he’d found the perfect solution to the menace of stray cattle
There are more cow shelters in Uttar Pradesh than orphanages, night shelters or juvenile homes. Not willing to risk a confrontation with the vigilante mobs running amok after the ban on cow slaughter, farmers have been simply letting loose milch cattle that have stopped yielding. Stray cattle have been raiding standing crop and have even attacked people.
Videos of stray cattle, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, shared on social media, continue to provide comic relief. The videos captured by CCTV cameras installed by shopkeepers or householders show unwary people butted, sometimes violently, by the wandering cattle. Women standing by the roadside, cyclists and motorcyclists navigating narrow lanes, senior citizens walking down the road or children playing on the street—are all potential victims.
There are videos of irate farmers driving stray animals into local school compounds or block offices. Reports in Hindi and Gujarati newspapers occasionally mention the death of farmers in winter months. They die out in the cold while keeping a vigil to protect crops from stray animals. Some survive with grave injuries, which then take a toll on their finances.
But there is no official data on how many have been killed or injured by stray cattle nor on the extent of damage to standing crop or the manhours lost. How much has the government spent on compensation? Who got it and who didn’t? How many villagers have been booked for killing stray animals, accidentally or out of rage? We do not know. Officials fend off requests for information with questions of their own: “Why do you want me to land into trouble?”
Earlier this month, an audio clip was circulated widely. It’s a phone conversation between a farmer, Badri Nishad (from village Sejia, Tarabganj in Gonda district), and a sub-divisional magistrate (SDM). An edited and translated transcript follows:
May I speak to SDM sahib?
Yes, this is the SDM.
Sir, I escaped last night, but if you can’t protect me or my crops,
I’ll have no choice but to commit suicide.
Wait, what is the problem?
Sir, last night a horde of animals
raided my field and I could do nothing. I barely escaped with my life. I want to lodge an FIR, sir (starts sobbing)…against Yogi, against Akhilesh, against the MLA and the MP...
There is no need to get agitated. I’ll look into it. Your FIR will also be lodged, if you insist.
Sir (Nishad continues sobbing), I want to file FIRs against Yogi, Akhilesh, Mayawati… they only provide lip sympathy. How will debates and speeches help? I’d have been killed last night. Stray animals were chasing me and trying to kill me on my own field…
Animals don’t recognise owners (bemused). Sir, I know that. But if I had killed the animals, you would have booked me…
Look, listen to me. Do not be upset. We will do whatever you like. Just do not take an impulsive decision. Sir, what can you do beyond filing an FIR and getting my post-mortem done? The case will be closed...
Do not get so agitated...
I know nothing will come of it. I don’t know what I’ll do. This land and my crops were all I had. Now I have nothing...
Which village are you from?
Sir, we earned a little from fishing.
We submitted many representations against the beautification of the pond, but nobody paid any heed. The fish are all gone...I have bank loans to repay. This land was my only hope...
Did the SDM do anything? Did Badri Nishad carry out his threat? We do not know. Do we care?
Chances are Badri Nishad does not read newspapers or watch TV news. It’s improbable he even knows of the promise Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a year ago. If he does or remembered, he made no mention of it in his conversation with the SDM.
Addressing an election rally in Unnao on 20 February 2022, PM Modi, aware of the menace of stray cattle, announced that he had come up with the perfect solution to the problem. Because of the Model Code of Conduct in force, he was not at liberty to disclose the details but the solution was unbelievably attractive, he said.
“After 10 March, arrangements will be made to provide relief to you…mark my words, this is Narendra Modi giving you the assurance with your blessings. We will ensure that animals that stop yielding milk will still help you earn from the cow dung…a day will come when people will welcome stray animals with open arms…” (https:// www.bjp.org/media-speeches/video-gallery/67404)
A year later, Uttar Pradesh is yet to start buying cow dung from villagers. The menace of stray cattle remains and reports of deaths of farmers continue to surface. Not just farmers but even dairies, large and small, do not seem to be earning from cow dung in Uttar Pradesh. On the contrary, in September last year, 12 small dairies were fined for dumping cow dung in drains. In Gorakhpur, Purvanchal Dairy was, in fact, fined Rs 5 lakh for a similar offence.
Additional Director (Godhan Vikas) Rajesh Kumar blames the farmers. “If they stop letting loose the animals, the problem will be solved,” he says. By his calculation, there are 1.1 million stray cattle in the 58,000 villages of Uttar Pradesh. “Their numbers won’t be more than 18-20 animals per village. Why can’t villagers arrange fodder—all it takes is 70-80 baskets of grass a day,” he says.
Gorakhpur-based Congress activist Premlata Chaturvedi says, “It’s true that the Yogi government has spent over Rs 1,100 crore since 2017 to shelter stray animals, but much of the spend has been siphoned off by middlemen and brokers.”
There are as many as 6,187 cow shelters (Gau Ashray Kendra) in the state hosting 838,000 animals. According to the government, the number of stray animals is 1.2 million, but independent estimates claim numbers closer to 2 million. On 9 February 2023, the minister for animal husbandry and dairy development, Dharampal Singh, announced that the government would give 5,000 cows ‘free’ and 30 acres of land on a 40-year lease to interested entrepreneurs. The government will also, he said, buy cow dung at Rs 2 per kg.
There is no good reason to believe these promises, given that schemes introduced earlier have not quite taken off. Under one such scheme, farmers get Rs 30 per animal per day ‘for a maximum of four strays’. But only 131,000 animals in the state are accounted for under this scheme.
The reason, explains Moti Lal from Basti, is that the minimum cost of feeding an animal is Rs 70-80 a day. Straw, wheat bran, husk and fodder prices, he points out, have gone through the roof. Wheat bran that sold for Rs 5-6 a kg in 2017 now costs Rs 13 per kilogram. A sack of fodder available for Rs 500 then now costs Rs 1,300. “How do we feed an animal for just Rs 30 a day,” he asks.
Getting payments from the government is also an ordeal, says Chandra Kumar. He should know because it took him 20 months, endless visits to the office, eight applications and grievances filed on the CM’s portal before he received the payment.
Under the ‘Gopalak’ scheme, villagers willing to maintain at least five stray cattle are also offered loans up to Rs 9 lakh from banks on the recommendation/ guarantee of the state government. But Sujit Srivastava from Dumariaganj complains that despite fulfilling all the requirements, he did not get the promised loan. “It’s all on paper,” he adds bitterly.