About three to four decades ago, you could spot them grazing around in the farm, or chewing on hay in the cowshed. Indigenous cows were found in various parts of the country. If it was the Tharparkar, the Rathi and the Kankrej breeds in Rajasthan, it was the Gir in Gujarat, and the Gavrani and the Killari in Maharashtra.
Today, they are being rapidly replaced by hybrid cows - those bred through artificial insemination from some foreign breed. The standardisation of breeds is wiping out the natural and distinct qualities of various breeds that were native to the country's different regions.
The Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, which has been putting in a lot of effort and funds in rural development - about Rs 4.6 crore last year - spent Rs 30 lakh on reviving indigenous cows. It raised a similar amount from the community for the cause.
The foundation's projects are concentrated in Wardha, Maharashtra and Sikar, Rajasthan - roughly 300 villages in each of these areas. Here, poor families are being given indigenous cows for dairy farming. The project, however, is spreading simultaneously to those places where Bajaj Hindustan Ltd (BHL), its industry outfit, opens its sugar units. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh where BHL has 19 sugar factories, the indigenous cow is trailing the enterprises.
The reason, explains Hari Bhai who heads the foundation's desi cow project, is that sugarcane yields have seen a dramatic increase using cow dung from the indigenous variety of cows in Wardha. And indigenous cows are necessary for natural farming, which depends on cow dung and cow urine. Farmers have been earning up to Rs 7 lakh per acre and a yield of 80 tonnes in Wardha with natural farming. In contrast, the yield in farms in Uttar Pradesh is only 30 tonnes per acre. So, we are taking this concept to places where we are opening factories, so that sugarcane farmers get a good yield with minimum inputs, he says.
The concept was first popularised by Subhash Palekar as "zero-budget farming". He has been going from place to place, teaching farmers the art of natural farming using cow dung from indigenous cows. Hari Bhai acknowledges Palekar's influence in the project, adding the latter is often consulted for the project.
The Gir cows, which were once gifted to Brazil, have today become a huge chunk of the cow population in that country - as many as five million. Meanwhile, the total cow population in India, including indigenous and hybrid, is 190 million, of which 160 million are indigenous. India is seeing a steady decline in the number of indigenous cows. Between 1997 and 2002, there was a 10 per cent decline - leaving 185 million cattle. In 2007, they were further reduced to 160 million. The decreasing numbers are at the cost of genetic diversity and should concern as much as the fact that cows as a species are being fast overtaken by buffaloes, which were half the population of cattle on the last count.
This column had erroneously referred to the Kamalnayan Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation as Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, which has been corrected.