After recently retiring from the Merchant Navy, UK Pundir plans to start a dairy farm on the 2.5 acres of land he owns on the outskirts of Dehradun. He concedes it will be more of pursuing a passion and less of chasing returns to supplement his pension. However, the engineer who understands the nuances of ship equipment is at a loss on which bovine to buy for his venture. Should he opt for the exotic international breeds of cows like Holstein and Jersey that are considered more efficient and productive than their desi counterparts? Or are there Indian breeds where the price-to-value equation works out better?
To find out, Pundir drives down 55 km from Dehradun to Kalsi, a sleepy village in Uttarakhand that houses a cow farm with over 500 Red Sindhis, one of 39 Indian elite cow breeds. For an hour and a half, Pundir walks around the 170-acre sprawling campus overlooking the hills. The farm was set up by a Muslim family in 1937, which possibly left for Pakistan during Partition. The property was briefly under Army occupation before it was handed over to the state government.
Pundir is impressed by the animals on the farm. He gets down to brass tacks: How much milk does a Red Sindhi give in a day?
Prem Kumar, the veterinary doctor in charge of the farm, offers him a cup of tea before explaining why litre-per-day dynamics could be grossly misleading.
“A Holstein [an exotic cow breed that costs about `70,000] may give up to 40 litres a day, but it can’t resist the hot and humid conditions of most Indian states,” says Kumar. Indian elite cows, whose price ranges from `20,000 to `60,000, are more heatand disease-resistant, and also have a higher number of lactations [formation of milk usually takes 300 days]. Also, the fat content of most Indian cows is higher than that of the foreign ones,” he adds, arguing that a desi cow of an elite breed, or even a goodquality cross-bred (for instance, Jersey cross-bred with a local breed) that Pundir could snap up for `30,000 per animal may make sounder economic sense.
The animal husbandry expert at Kalsi may not know it but he is actually echoing the principles that have laid the foundation of the NDA-government’s `500-crore Rashtriya Gokul Mission, an initiative largely focused on India’s 39 elite cow breeds. The programme will covergenetic improvement of 13 buffalo breeds as well.
“Indian cattle breeds are robust and resilient. Increases in temperature due to global warming will negatively impact milk production. And the decline in milk production and reproductive efficiency will be the highest in exotic and cross-bred cattle followed by buffaloes. So, under the Rashtriya Gokul Mission, we are emphasising on indigenous cattle breeds,” explains Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh, a five-time Lok Sabha member of Parliament representing Purvi Champaran in Bihar who had earlier served as the state BJP president. Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the two large Indian states that will go to the assembly polls this year and in 2017, respectively, constitute the Indian cow belt, a term used to describe the relatively underdeveloped heartland where cows, along with the river Ganges, are revered.
By crafting a focused mission on indigenous cows and fast-tracking a disbursal of Rs 105 crore since September 2014 (earlier governments used to spend about `20 crore a year for indigenous breeds), the ruling BJP-led government has demonstrated its seriousness in conserving and developing the cow, an animal that is sacred in Hindu religion.
To be sure, along with the Ram Mandir, Ram Setu, and the Ganga, the ‘cow and its progeny’ found pride of place in the BJP’s election manifesto of 2014 under the sub-head of ‘cultural heritage’. “In view of the contribution of cow and its progeny to agriculture, socio-economic and cultural life of our country, the department of animal husbandry will be suitably strengthened and empowered… Necessary legal framework will be created to protect and promote cow and its progeny. A National Cattle Development Board will be set up to implement a programme for the improvement of indigenous livestock breeds,” reads an excerpt from the manifesto.
The party has wasted little time in getting on with it. And ‘Mission Cow’ is being pursued against the backdrop of two of BJP-ruled states, Maharashtra and Haryana, having passed more stringent laws that makes possession of beef a criminal offence. Whilst most states barring exceptions like Kerala and Nagaland have banned cow slaughter, there is no Central law on this. But the clamour for such a legislation may have well begun.
In March, a Reuters news report quoted home minister Rajnath Singh saying India will use all its “might” to ban cow slaughter across the country — a country that is the world’s second largest beef exporter and fifth largest consumer.
“How can we accept the fact that cow slaughter is allowed in this country? We will use all our might to ban it. We will try to build a consensus,” Singh reportedly said. Further, Ashok Singhal, a senior leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), recently demanded a nation-wide ban on cow slaughter so as to make India a “Hindu nation by 2020”, according to a Press Trust of India report.
The VHP is a right-wing Hindu fundamentalist organisation that is aligned to the BJP on many ideological issues. The consensus that Singh talks about building won’t come easy — not when Muslims, Christians and sections of Hindus themselves view the meat as a cheap source of protein. Political analyst and former Aam Aadmi Party leader Yogendra Yadav says unlike ‘Love Jihad’ (a campaign backed by the VHP against Muslim men marrying Hindu women and in the process converting them to Islam) which was concocted to flare up communal passions, the BJP in protection of indigenous cow breeds has found a real issue. “But the BJP’s track record of converting its ideologies into actionable government plans has been exceedingly poor. Whether it is the promotion of indigenous language [Hindi for example], or indigenous medicines or knowledge, the party has failed to deliver. I won’t be surprised if this grand plan for indigenous cattle breeds turns out to be a gimmick,” says Yadav.
The agriculture minister, however, vehemently objects to any attempt to correlate mission cow with a Hindutva ideology (see “Please don’t Connect this Mission with any Political Agenda”).
Under the Rashtriya Gokul Mission, elite desi cow breeds such as Gir, Sahiwal, Rathi, Deoni, Red Sindhi, Vechur and Punganur will take centre stage. They, however, form just 35% of the 19 crore cow population of India, a majority of which are nondescript. One objective of the mission is genetic upgradation of nondescript cows via cross-breeding with elite Indian breeds.
The objectives may be noble, but they need the accompanying infrastructure backup. T Nanda Kumar, chairman of National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), the parent body of milk marketer Mother Dairy, argues that work on improving quality of semen, distribution and artificial insemination needs more attention. “If there is one thing that is to be done urgently, it is the establishment of a world-class genomic centre to take up breed improvement of high dairyvalue cattle breeds and buffaloes,” he says. Indian cows are in high demand across the globe for genetic research. But there has been a total ban on export of Indian cows, mainly because of the fear that researchers in foreign laboratories may prepare medicines out of cows and patent those abroad.
Agriculture minister Singh explains: “There has been a demand for indigenous breeds like Ongole, Kankrej and Gir mainly from Brazil. But our government is not contemplating to relax norms for export of bovine germplasm. After all, our farmers have the first right.” Medicinal values of cows are recognised, although not fully substantiated. It is believed that Panchgavya (a mixture of cow dung, urine, milk, curd and ghee), for example, has medicinal properties, and hence the government has decided to officially promote it under the Rashtriya Gokul Mission.
Similarly, yoga guru Baba Ramdev sells cow urine under the brand name Patanjali Godhan Ark, a 100 ml bottle of which costs Rs 50. And Punganur, a dwarf cow found in Andhra Pradesh, is much soughtafter (it costs over Rs 1 lakh) for its milk that is high in fat content as well as in medicinal values. “If the Royal Bengal Tiger or the Gir lion is the pride of India, why not cow breeds like Red Sindhi or Kankrej?
Cross-breeding over the years has led to an identity crisis of pure Indian elite breeds. We must adopt embryo transfer technology to increase the population of Indian elites,” says Ajay Pal Singh Aswal, a veterinary doctor who has been experimenting with this technology for the last 10 years. In the late ’70s, the late American anthropologist Marvin Harris wrote a path-breaking piece ‘India’s Sacred Cow,’ in which he attempted to explain to the Western world why the attitude of Indians towards the cow was indeed not strange or irrational.
“The sacredness of the cow is not just an ignorant belief that stands in the way of progress. Like all concepts of the sacred and the profane, this one affects the physical world; it defines the relationships that are important for the maintenance of Indian society.” The short point of Harris’ piece was that if the cow has been traditionally revered in India, it’s because the bovine has been extremely useful. Further increasing its utility, efficiency and numbers is perhaps also the most pragmatic form of worship of the Great Indian Cow.