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The kicking buffalo and other rustic tales

Millions of lives are connected to Punjab’s farms and livestock. But the curious case of an animal hospital and a disheartened vet in southern Punjab tells the larger story of its rural heartland, where every election season the promises flow in, but little else. Paramita Ghosh reports.

india Updated: Apr 03, 2009 15:41 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times

It has been a challenging afternoon at the vet’s. The patient is obstinate.

Dr Ranvir Prasad (26) is prodding the genitals of a buffalo with a rusted 10-year-old castrator, and the animal has already kicked him once from under the rickety, box-like enclosure where farm animals are tied during examinations.

“The Punjab government expects its White Revolution to be managed by doctors with rusted instruments,” says Prasad, with a grimace, using the phrase often used to describe the dairy boom.

“Punjab produces 51.33 million tonnes of milk every year… 10 per cent of the country’s total production,” says Prasad, who works in Deon village in Bhatinda district, 300 kilometres west of the state capital of Chandigarh. “And yet this is all we get — outdated tools and medicines past their expiry date.”

The two-room veterinary hospital is a snapshot of a larger rot setting in across the state’s countryside, perceived in the rest of the country as the kingdom of the farmer and milk.

In some ways, it is. Agriculture and livestock are the heart of Punjab’s economy — 60 per cent of the state’s population of 2.44 crore are either farmers, dairy farmers or livestock breeders.

“But the government’s policies are anti-people and anti-animal,” says the vet, dusting off his hands.

Irrigation and farmer subsidies are still a priority area in India’s granary, 40 years after the Green Revolution and White Revolution made agriculture and dairy farming profitable again.

But medical care for the animals behind the turnaround remains rudimentary at best — although millions of lives are connected to livestock.

There are 90 million heads of livestock in Punjab, serviced by just 1,500 veterinary hospitals and 2,500 dispensaries — that’s one facility per 22,500 animals.

Over 50 per cent of the 680 veterinary positions in the state are vacant. And most of the animal hospitals in the state are ill-equipped.

“Look around you,” says Prasad, gesturing at the 800-square-foot facility. “Is this a hospital?” There is no X-ray machine. In three years, Prasad says he has received supplies twice — both were small batches of antibiotics.

He is the only government vet for Deon’s 1,500 cows, 1,000 buffaloes and myriad herds of goats and sheep.

The result: Infertility, low milk yield and death.

There is an average of two cattle deaths daily in Deon — many of them caused by quacks who have rushed in to fill the gap left by the government.

The only college of veterinary science sees about 120 graduate every year. Over 50 per cent flee the state, most seeking employment abroad.

In Bhatinda city, Prasad’s batchmates are on one of their periodic protests.

“My clinic is in the heart of Bhatinda city, but I last got supplies eight months ago,” says Dr Charanjit Sarangal (31). “Every election season sees more promises, but never any action.”

In 2006, says Sarangal, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal, then in the Opposition, met state vets during a fast unto death and promised all would be well when they returned to power.

“The Akali Dal returned to power in 2007, but that promise has not been kept,” says Sarangal. “Utility bills for the hospitals are not paid. So many doctors have given up and now have side-businesses to supplement their income.”

Back at Deon, Prasad lists his monthly expenses: “Out of Rs 26,000 per month, I give Rs 5,000 to the pharmacist, Rs 2,260 to the Class IV staff and spend about Rs 1,000 on water and electricity bills. The government has not paid these dues in years.”

What he’s left with is barely two-thirds of his salary.

So he’s become a part-time insurance agent.

First Published: Apr 03, 2009 00:06 IST