Lumpy Skin Disease: Stray cows, slaughter and LSD
The Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) epidemic bears a direct correlation with the explosion in the number of stray cattle in India. Its spread is highest in states that have banned cow slaughter
The dramatic spread of Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) through western and northern India—with reports of high cattle mortality from the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh—is proportionate to the other endemic condition in these states, namely the stray cattle.
While the primary mode of transmission of the Lumpy Skin Disease (LSD) virus is mechanical via vectors such as mosquitoes, flies, ticks and lice, it also spreads indirectly from sick animals through their milk or nasal and lachrymal secretions, saliva and blood. Sick animals that share the same watering and feeding spaces, and are housed in unhygienic conditions where vectors breed, can be infected both ways.
One of the key reasons for the rapid spread of LSD is the unseasonal heavy rains in July, which triggered an explosion in the population of these vectors. But the insupportable number of stray cattle in these states is another big reason for the massive outbreak, scientists point out.
The presence of stray cattle and their free movement makes for easy transmission of the disease from the infected to healthy animals. In trying to prevent the spread of LSD on their own farms, farmers have also abandoned their sick animals on the street, adding to the number of stray cattle, aggravating the spread of the virus.
Cattle most susceptible to LSD are those with lowered immunity, which are first and foremost the large population of deserted and undernourished stray bovines and those housed in overcrowded gaushalas marked by unhygienic living conditions and chronic shortage of fodder, water and veterinary care.
Stray cattle mostly comprise the non-productive animals turned out onto the streets by owners, either because they have stopped producing milk or they can no longer work or the animal is too sick. There are no buyers for these animals because of the strict slaughter-ban laws in these states, which preclude any form of trade in unproductive animals.
Slaughter laws were enacted in the 1950s (Rajasthan 1950; Maharashtra 1954; Gujarat, UP, Punjab and Haryana 1955). Over the years they have been made more stringent. Sweeping amendments to these laws by the current political dispensation since 2014 have sought to standardise and create uniform anti-slaughter laws across the country, aimed at criminalisation of slaughter and beef consumption.
These amendments have enhanced punishments, made the offence non-bailable, placed the onus of proof on the accused to prove their innocence and banned all inter-state transportation and trade of animals intended for slaughter. BJP ruled states have also pro-actively encouraged and protected cow vigilantism unleashed specifically against Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis, for whom beef is not only an important source of nutrition but cattle trade and cattle slaughter are key livelihoods.
This has resulted in a massive increase in stray cattle population in these states ranging from 9 per cent in Haryana to 35 per cent in Rajasthan, according to India’s 20th Livestock Census of 2019, which tells the story of growing population of cattle on the roads and in the gau-shalas. News reports validate this with descriptions of angry farmers attacking hungry cattle (which once belonged to them) grazing on crops. Farmers in Madhya Pradesh recently thrashed cattle and drowned them in a swollen river. Ironically, these ‘stray’ cattle were to be protected and worshipped and not sold for slaughter.
ld have been controlled by a combination of early diagnosis, mass vaccination, strict cattle movement restrictions and culling infected animals. These options stand compromised in the LSD hotspots of India, largely due to the ideologically driven ‘no slaughter of cattle’ stance be a regular feature of our times. Nothing is to be achieved by bemoaning the fact of climatic change, and the vectors and new diseases that it brings. Stranger and more virulent and rapidly transmitting diseases may emerge. Therefore, to be forearmed and prepared, and to build resilience against the same—in this case the Lumpy Skin Disease—it is imperative that the governments remove the ban on slaughter.
Farmers need to acknowledge the centrality of slaughter to sustain resilient and healthy cattle population, their cycle of production and reproduction and linked livelihoods of dairying and farming.
Farmers need to pro-actively advocate for cattle slaughter and its downstream markets, where they can sell their non-productive animals and replace them with younger animals. They must put pressure on state governments to repeal the slaughter bans and invest in setting up state-of-the-art public abattoirs, where cattle can be slaughtered without pain.
A majority of livestock-owning farmers will probably not do this because of their commitment to the hypocrisy of Brahminism and caste; they have therefore unquestioningly accepted the narrative that cow slaughter is a sin and beef consumption a ‘polluting’ act.
Regrettably, the Directive Principles of State Policy—which enjoin the State to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and prohibit the slaughter of cows and other milch and draught cattle—ignore the centrality of culling in balancing the cycle of animal production and preservation of the species. It erroneously assumes slaughter as the reason for driving down cattle population, and hence recommends its prohibition.
Animal husbandry is a state subject, where individual states have exclusive powers to make laws regarding slaughter of cattle. The ban upholds the narrow ideological beliefs of Brahminism while allowing ‘illegal’ trade and transportation of animals and smuggling cattle out of the state.
BJP-ruled states have removed every loophole in the law which would allow slaughter and instead built para-statal vigilante machinery to prevent it. There are also reports of these vigilante groups themselves being engaged in the surreptitious trade of non-productive animals supposedly freed from their journey to slaughterhouses.
Nature has now called out this bluff. It’s time for political parties concerned about farmers and their livelihood to drop their double-standards around slaughter of the cow. It’s time for farmers to move beyond the structures of Brahminism. In the long run, it is clear that unless states repeal the ban on slaughter, there is no solution to ‘stray cattle’and rapidly spreading diseases such as LSD.
(Sagari R. Ramdas is a veterinary scientist and associated with the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India. Views are personal)