A bovine population bomb

A bovine population bomb

The ban on cattle slaughter has come, honouring the sentiments of millions of Indians. The ban seals the only measure that checked the bovine population and has triggered an explosive growth in the number of animals. The increase in the population of economically unviable cattle is a sure threat to the dairy economy but also detrimental to forestry, grasslands and also our urban facilities. What we urgently need alongside is an ecologically sound response, but that is precisely what no one in the government is looking at just now.

Some seven crore Indian farming families have an average of two cows each. An Indian cow, viable economically to its owner, yields on an average six litres of milk per day, for about 300 days a year. If she yields less, her owner normally sells her off to buy a cow which is more productive. This normally happens to old cows after six lactations (in the course of 10 years). But no-one other than the meat trader is willing to buy these older cows. In this sense, beef is largely a by-product of India's vast dairy industry.

The 19th Livestock Census said India now has 190.9 million cattle (cows and bulls), down from the 18th census, which reported 199.1 million cattle. The growth rate over 2007-12 has been a negative 4.1%, according to the 2016-17 annual report of the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries. Annually, cattle procreate some 80 million calves, of which about 55 million (27.5 crore male and female each) mature for mating. About a tenth of the male calves are inducted into farming, replacing older ones that are put on sale, as are the remaining 90% of the young ones. Here again, meat traders are the only possible buyers.

 The growth of the dairy economy demands an addition of 1.5 million cows every year. Over 25 to 27.5 million heifers are added to the cattle population each year, giving farmers a generous option to choose the better ones and discard over 20 million low-yielding cows. Out of the 190 million Indian cattle, annually about 50 million males and females come to market in this manner. They fetch about Rs 5,000 per animal, or a sum of Rs 25,000 crore annually, which farmers utilised as seed money to buy good yielding young cows. Losing this avenue and scale of income is staggering, especially as it falls on marginal farmers.

Dairy is an economic activity, and to sustain economic value it requires induced growth. The population of cattle was controlled by a diligent arrangement of economic culling called butchery. Now that we have removed this control mechanism, the cattle population explosion has already begun.

With the cattle reproducing over 80 million calves annually, even when the mortality rate among the new-born is 30%, the cattle population growth rate is going to be close to 27% a year. At that rate, cattle population will double in less than five years.

In the absence of beef in the market, the meat-eating community turns to mutton. It is likely that the demand for goat meat will increase by 20-30% and will boost the present 200.27 million sheep/goat population. It can swell by about 60 million in a couple of years.

The Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, Jhansi, notes that India suffers a 35.6% shortage of green fodder. With the cattle population explosion, the shortage of fodder is likely to double in two years.

It is estimated that a herd of 25 cattle requires one acre of cultivated land or one hectare grazing land. An addition of 50 million cattle annually means an additional requirement of about 20 lakh hectares of fodder land, which we don't have. India is thus likely to jeopardise, because of the ban on cow slaughter, well over 50,000 square kilometres of forest cover in the next five to seven years. This is alarming as it amounts to 6.25% of the total 7.942 lakh sq km forest and tree cover in India, according to the India State Forest Report, 2015.

Looming exodus

Acute shortage of fodder coupled with thankless toiling over uneconomic cows is likely to force farmers to un-rein these cattle, which in turn is likely to unleash an army of 80 million abandoned cattle. With the forest repelling their entry, their eventual exodus into India's 4,000 cities and towns, which is not unexpected, would make the cities choke for many reasons. Daily death of over 1 lakh cattle and over 3 lakh tonnes of dung on the streets would be another issue for local administrations, causing immense health concerns, moral compunction besides.

India's dairy value (4.7% of GDP) is more than the GDP value of rice and wheat put together. This suggests the indispensability of the commercial dairy process in our economy, which relies on aggressive procreation. In such a condition, a sound mechanism is imperative to keep dairy population under control. As of now, we have removed the fuse of the population bomb, without a corresponding plan to face it in any manner.

As the sale of cattle is a prerogative of dairy farmers and not traders, butchers or milk consumers, it is essential we review the notification in consultation with the farmers rationally and take a fresh decision before it turns into an ecological catastrophe.

The secret of Bharat's long, uninterrupted civilisation is that it has always adopted dialectic (complementary) ways of living amidst apparent incongruity within its fold of ethno-lingual communities. A viable solution to the present problem is quite feasible if we appreciate the precept of nature under which life is ever co-determined by the pairs of (binary) opposites, even when they appear to be poles apart. What this means is that what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of our traditions is not cast in stone.

(The writer is Dean, Gandhi Research Foundation, Jalgaon)

(The Billion Press)

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