India’s livestock economy is among the biggest in the world. Restrictions being sought to be imposed on cattle trade and slaughter, and the terror unleashed by the cow vigilantes, would deal a serious blow to the agrarian economy that is already reeling under a crisis precipitated by two years of drought, falling farm harvest prices and the demand deflation caused by demonetisation. While Supreme Court’s recent order staying the implementation of the recently-imposed restrictions on cattle sales is a welcome relief, the killer gau-rakshak gangs continue to roam the streets unrestrained.

Trends in population of livestock

As of the last livestock census, conducted in 2012, there were about 21.6 crore milch cattle and 8.4 crore male cattle in India. I am using the term cattle to include both cows and buffaloes. Between 1992 and 2012, number of male cattle heads declined by 3.5 crores while number of milch cattle increased by about 4.6 crores. The increase in the number of milch animals was on account of an increase of 2.6 crores in the population of buffaloes and an increase of 2.3 crores in the population of crossbred cows. Number of cows of indigenous breeds, which have a relatively low milk yield, declined by 32 lakhs over these two decades.

With the rising population of buffaloes and crossbred cows, India has seen a very substantial growth in milk production over the last two decades. With over 15.5 crore tonnes of milk production, India is today the largest producer of milk in the world.

Where do the bullocks go?

In 2012, in comparison with about 21 crore milch cattle heads in India, there were only about 8.4 crore male cattle heads. If cows and buffaloes produce male and female calves with equal probability, how do we have far fewer bullocks than the milch animals?

The answer to this question is rather straight forward. Use of bullocks in farming has fallen drastically with increasing deployment of machines in agriculture. Farmers increasingly prefer machines over bullocks for many reasons. First, the cost of hiring machines as and when needed is lower than the cost of maintaining bullocks for the whole year and the cost of labour that needs to be deployed for farming with bullocks. Secondly, machines perform a given task much faster than the bullocks. Finally, for the rural poor who migrate to cities in search of wage employment for part of the year, it is much easier to hire tractors for ploughing than maintain bullocks for the whole year.

Since bullocks have become unwanted in many areas, when a male calf is born, it is sold for slaughtering in abattoirs, abandoned in urban settlements, or simply killed in the cattle-shed. In our surveys in North Indian villages, we have found that the male calves often had mysterious deaths. Given the stigma around the sale of cows and bullocks to a butcher, many farm households find it easier to put the animal to sleep or, worse still, to starve a young calf or expose it to biting cold on a winter night.

There is no milk without the calves

Economics of cattle rearing is not just about milk. Unlike other means of production, animals also reproduce, grow and age. No milk is produced without the birth of a calf. These calves also have to be fed. Since any farm household has a limited supply of hay, and thus a limited capacity to maintain animals, the calves and the aged animals have to be periodically disposed of.

Farmers also sell cattle to deal with the income shortfall in years of drought. Cattle population shrinks during drought years as the supply of hay declines and the fodder prices rise sharply. Selling cattle for slaughter not only solves the problem of shortage of fodder but also provides some income in times of distress.

It must be noted that farm households cannot just abandon unwanted cattle. While abandoned cattle are a common sight in towns and cities, in rural areas, abandoned cattle can cause havoc to standing crops and can be a great menace. Thus, in rural areas, unwanted cattle have to be gotten rid of.

Implications of a ban on cow slaughter

Modern abattoirs are essential for the bovine economy. Given the present population of milch cows in India, about 3.4 crore male cow calves are born every year in India. To maintain the current level of milk production, and by implication, the current size of milch animal stock of India, we have to deal with the birth of 3.4 crore male cow calves every year.

If no male cow calves are allowed to be slaughtered, with an average age of even 10 years, we will have about 34 crore male bullocks, five times the current living population of male bullocks. This is a conservative estimate as a cow or a bullock, if properly taken care of, can easily live up to 15-20 years.

In addition, ban on cow slaughter would mean that there would be about 6 crore unproductive old female cows to maintain. Even if we net out the current stock of male animals (6.7 crores) and unproductive female animals (5.5 crores), we are talking of maintaining an additional stock of about 27 crore unproductive cattle. Where would we keep them and what would be the cost of maintaining these cattle?

Construction of cattle shelters for these additional cows and bullocks would require 5 lakh acres of land and an investment of about Rs. 10,00,000 crores towards construction. The annual cost of fodder and veterinary care for these additional cattle would be about Rs. 5,40,000 crores. This is about 1.5 times India’s total defence budget and about 35 times what the Centre and all State governments together spend on animal husbandry and dairying.

Maintaining these animals would require at least 70,000 crore tonnes of fodder. India simply does not have enough land to produce so much additional fodder. Even if each animal drinks one bucket of water a day, you would need more water just for drinking by these animals than all the water humans drink in India.

Restrictions on cattle trade and slaughter would make cattle rearing uneconomical. Since any farm households has a limited capacity to maintain cattle, such restrictions would result in unproductive animals being simply killed in the cattle sheds. Unproductive cattle would be poisoned, starved or left to die of disease. Is that what the gau-rakshaks want?

Such restrictions would severely hit the incomes of farm households, in particular, of the rural poor. Cost of rearing an animal is higher for landless and poor peasant households than for large landowning households. Households that do not own land maintain cattle by leasing in land, and using hay produced on leased-in land to rear cattle. In coastal Andhra Pradesh, dalit households often take land on lease for rents as high as 75 per cent of the grain production, only with the hope that the hay produced on the land would allow them to rear cattle. Rearing cattle is a major source of employment for rural women everywhere in India. In Haryana, poor dalit women take female calves on lease, harvest sugarcane and wheat to get hay to feed these calves, so that they would get some income when these calves grow up and are sold. Restrictions on cattle trade and slaughter would hit the rural poor women the most.

India has one third of stunted children in the world. Low protein intake is the most important reason for high prevalence of stunting in India. These children need to eat more of animal products. The milk availability in India is about 337 grams per capita per day. Any decline in availability of milk would have disastrous consequences for levels of nutrition.

If milk production declines, India would have to start importing milk. Is opening the Indian market for the large milk producers like the European Union the real economic intent of meddling with this most dynamic segment of the agrarian economy?

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