A ban on slaughter doesn’t automatically lead to a flourishing cow population, an HT analysis of government data has found, with states like Madhya Pradesh — where cow killing is outlawed — reporting a more than 40% decline in their numbers in rural areas over a decade.
Between 2003 and 2013, at least nine states registered a significant decline in the ownership of cows by the rural households, according to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO).
The cow population in rural households of Kerala, Tripura, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Punjab and Manipur has dipped by a whopping 10.6 million in 10 years.
Cow slaughter and beef have emerged as hot button issues in the past few months with 55-year-old Mohammad Ikhlaq being killed by an angry mob in Uttar Pradesh over rumours that he butchered a calf, while another Muslim man was lynched in Himachal Pradesh amid suspicions that he was smuggling cows.
According to the data, in Kerala, Tripura and West Bengal, which registered a decline of 75%, 31% and 27% in rural cow populations respectively, cow slaughter is allowed.
But in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Punjab, which saw a drop of 43%, 27%, 18%, 7%, and 2% respectively in rural cow numbers, slaughter is banned. Most of these states were ruled by BJP or its allies during most part of the past decade.
Also, in most of the north-eastern states the number of cows owned by rural households has increased despite no prohibition on slaughter and high beef consumption.
Several states like Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, which allowed slaughter of male cattle (bullocks) during the last decade, have also registered an increase in cow numbers in rural areas, the NSSO data show.
Experts say the growth or decline of cow population in a state is an outcome of several economic and environmental factors and cannot be simply equated with slaughter laws or beef consumption.
“The fact that cattle populations ownership have increased in rural areas in several states that allow slaughter (male or female) is evidence enough that slaughter does not compromise or destroy cattle populations but in fact is a positive impact. Slaughter of cattle is mostly of the male. It’s only the old, diseased, unproductive females that may end up being slaughtered,” said Sagari Ramdas, a veterinarian with the Food Sovereignty Alliance, who works on preservation of indigenous breeds of cattle.
“Growth of cattle depends on several factors such as the availability of grazing lands, including the forest cover, feed and fodder, water, labour and healthcare. It also depends on the purpose of rearing the animals which could be rearing cows for milk, rearing male cattle for field work or selling them for slaughter,” said Ramdas.
Declining utility of male cattle due to mechanisation of agriculture, coupled with the ban on their slaughter may be pushing farmers to rear less cows, she added.