Last week, traffic in Mumbai halted for at least 20 minutes at the Wadala exit off the Eastern Freeway on the road leading to Dadar in central Mumbai. Those at the end of the jam honked angrily but those in front waited patiently in their cars as nine cows in various stages of emaciation made their way slowly to the garbage dump across the road. Some were obviously too old, others looked as though they could barely walk to the dump. Traffic moved only after the last cow crossed over and buried its nose in the rubbish that lay uncollected during heavy rains.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of cows being in greater danger from plastics than from slaughter, he was very right. The cow has always been eating rubbish--though for many years we have not seen bulls keeping her company at these dumps. That is because the uneconomical bull was always sold to slaughter houses, whereas cows below the age of 14 were forbidden from being condemned to such a fate. Yet they were so uneconomical for the farmers after a particular period of time that they turned these animals loose for there would be fewer buyers for cows than bulls even before the Maharashtra government’s beef ban came into being in March 2015 and was adopted by many states across the country.
Modi talked in anguish about Dalits being punished for doing their traditional job--skinning dead cows--and many liberals have spoken out against the lynching of Muslims on the suspicion of eating beef, but everyone seems to have forgotten the farmers who rear these cows and have to bear the burden of laws that prove uneconomical to their interests.
Mumbai is not the only city where cows are increasingly seen at the garbage dumps. In Nagpur, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis’ constituency, Shankarbhau, a local vegetable vendor, used to work just four hours a day before the beef ban. He sourced his vegetables directly from local farms around and they were the freshest. They were sold out within two hours of his opening shop at eight in the morning. He used to repeat the process around five in the evening. By sundown he was done and anyone delayed by a few minutes had to look for vegetables at the local market nearby but could not be guaranteed the best quality. But now Shankarbhau hangs around a little longer in the morning and opens his shop a little earlier in the afternoon. He knows the cows will soon come calling so he keeps a stock of slightly stale vegetables for them as he is well aware of their fate and knows they will die of starvation--or choke on plastics--if he does not do his duty by them.
The story today, more than a year after the beef ban, is the same in other towns like Pune and Nashik because farmers, who are just recovering from the severest drought--for three consecutive years--have simply been at the end of their tether. They are also angry at the government for thoughtlessly bringing in the beef ban--it is affecting farmers across castes, religions, classes and creeds and no one seems to care.
According to Solapur’s Balu Shinde, no one thought of people like him when they brought forward the ban. All he needs in one sowing season is just a pair of bullocks, particularly during the monsoon--because the soil is too squishy for a tractor and the traditional means of ploughing works better. But once the sowing operations are done, he had the freedom to sell his healthy bullocks in the cattle market. But now there are no buyers. “Earlier one bullock would have sold for Rs 1 lakh, if not more. Now the price has come crashing down to Rs 20,000 or less.”
That angers Shinde even more because he knows it is the farmer who is bearing the brunt of the market economics. “The government is clueless if it thinks banning bull slaughter has worked. All that it has done is drive the trade underground. The middle man buys from us at rock bottom prices and sells at a premium because beef has now become a rare food.” He is now demanding maintenance costs for each animal he is compelled to keep on his farm against his interests.
The ban was originally aimed at Muslim minorities in the country but barring some incidents of violence they seem to have suffered the least in terms of economics. Those who can afford the more expensive meats like lamb and chicken have changed their food habits. The smaller butchers may have been driven to penury but the better off among them have turned their meat shops into ice cream parlours and the like. But it is the farmer, Hindu and vegetarian perhaps, who has had no resort to an alternative, has suffered the most.
The ongoing monsoon has made life a little better in terms of economics because farmers can now turn their cattle loose in the village meadows. But in the preceding months, Bhaurau Patil of Ahmednagar district had to harvest his sugarcane well before the season to be able to generate fodder for his animals – he had no use for them but he certainly did not want them dying on his farm. Apart from everything else, Patil was afraid that he would be accused of cow slaughter and he was willing to forego his rations next season than starve the animals to death. He is hopping mad (literally) and swallows in anger to say, “Does the government care only about these animals and is not worried about the farmer at all?”’
In fact, it would seem there is a major urban-rural divide in the BJP-led government with legislators belonging to rural areas now calling for a rethink on the ban. Some of them have understood the problems well and are worried about their vote banks. Bhimrao Dhonde, a BJP legislator from Beed, even was bold enough to say openly, “I think this is working against us. We must reconsider the ban.”
But voices like his are stifled with the stock reply that the government will open more gaushalas or cow shelters to take care of the abandoned cattle. However, that does not seem to be happening anytime soon. They have shelters where 250,000 heads of cattle have been housed for months, “until farmers take them back’’. The farmers are, not surprisingly, unwilling. Even Laxmi Narayan Chandak of the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) cattle shelter unit admits, “Nearly 750,000 head of cattle are loose and running astray across the state. They will either starve to death or be smuggled to slaughter houses. We have to save them.’’
But how? No one has a single clue.