It is the worst kept secret in rural Rajasthan. Everyone is in on the secret, but it is mostly spoken about in hushed tones.
Each village has a story of how it gets rid of its sooni cattle. In parts of Rajasthan, sooni is a term to describe cows and bulls that are not economically useful, and have no owners.
A Muslim farmer in Tonk, who didn’t want to be named, said two villages came to blows sometime back in his district. This was after one village had taken to leaving their ‘sooni’ cows and bulls in the neighbouring village at the dead of the night. The neighbouring village soon found out and its panchayat entrusted a person to keep a record of their stray cows. One thing led to another and there soon was a fight between the two villages. With Tonk’s cattle shelters full, villagers reached an unwritten understanding. They have now taken to leave their respective ‘sooni’ cattle on highways.
Farmers said younger ‘harijans’, as Jatavs are known in Rajasthan, refuse to follow the trade of their ancestors to skin dead animals, particularly after attacks by cow protection groups called gau rakshaks. The Banjara community, which once acted as intermediaries between villagers and cattle smugglers, no longer want to risk being part of the trade in ‘sooni’ cattle that used to eventually find its way to Bangladesh.
At the other end of Rajasthan in Udaipur, a Meena tribal village has taken to leave its ‘sooni’ cattle in a forest. “With the hope wild animals get a good meal,” said a farmer, who didn’t want to be named. However, many cows and bulls found their way back to the village. “We then took to feeding the cattle something to immobilise them before leaving them in the jungle,” he said. The region has suffered two years of successive drought. There is little potable water and even less for irrigation, making it difficult for villagers to keep money aside for fodder milch cows. The village was desperate to rid itself of its sooni cattle.
However, leaving cattle in the jungle presented its own set of problems. Earlier, a wake of vultures would scavenge a dead cow within hours. Over the last decade, vultures have become endangered in Rajasthan and other parts of India because of renal failure caused by a banned drug that farmers used to treat cattle. Now village dogs that feed on dead cattle have become feral and bite children.
Most big towns and cities in Rajasthan have ‘gaushalas’, or cattle shelters. These are mostly privately run, but get government grants. Farmers are well aware of stories of corruption in these cattle shelters. There have been reports of cattle dying in these shelters because of negligence or lack of food. Farmers tell outsiders stories of gaushala caretakers, some of whom being well-known anti-social elements in their earlier avatar, letting loose bulls and cows in their keep to forage in the nearby fields at night. Police mostly turn a blind eye when farmers complain. These stories are not easy to verify, but can neither be dismissed when bleary-eyed farmers say they lie awake the entire night to protect their crop from marauding bulls.
Stray cattle are omnipresent in Rajasthan’s villages and towns. There are frequent reports of stray cattle causing accidents, or bulls goring people. Fear of gau rakshaks, has increasingly dissuaded farmers in Rajasthan from keeping cows and bulls.
Amra Ram, a leader of All India Kisan Sabha, alleges it to be a conspiracy to destroy the indigenous dairy industry. “There is a design behind this to create a fear psychosis about keeping cattle. Take the case of Pehlu Khan (who was killed by cow vigilantes in Alwar in April 2017). He had purchased a cow and a calf for Rs 25,000 and had a receipt.
“Why would somebody spend that kind of money only to slaughter that cow when there are strays available everywhere?” Ram asked.
Ram, who is contesting the Rajasthan assembly elections as a Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate from Danta Ramgarh in Sikar district, alleges cow vigilantes were preparing the ground for India to become a dumping ground for dry milk powder of the European dairy industry, and the government was under pressure to sign a free trade agreement with the European Union.
Sri Krishna Gopal Gau Seva Samiti runs a cattle shelter on the outskirts of Nagaur city. It was set up in 2008. Sunil Bishnoi, a caretaker in his 30s, said the cattle shelter relies entirely on private donations. Bishnoi said the shelter has separate enclosures for cattle that are disabled, injured or even those “suffering from cancers”.
The shelter is home to 2,000 cows. It has 21 ambulances to ferry cattle and provides free medical help to cattle within a 300-km radius. The shelter gets cows from six neighbouring states, Bishnoi said. It is also one of the largest ‘nandi’ shelter in Rajasthan, a shelter for bulls. Most other shelters do not keep bulls as they are difficult to handle, and which has contributed to the stray cattle menace.
Bishnoi smiles and shrugs his shoulders when asked whether stray cattle are a menace for his relatives who are into farming. “I am doing my duty for mother cow,” he said. The Nagaur cow shelter does not market cow urine since most cattle in its sheds are diseased.
In its Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan election manifestos, the Congress party promised more funds for cattle shelters. However, it has recently woken up to stray cattle being a big problem for farmers of Rajasthan. On Tuesday, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala claimed 35,000 cows died in Rajasthan in cattle shelters in the last five years. He alleged corruption in the upkeep of cow shelters run by the state government.
BJP’s Rajasthan unit spokesperson Pankaj Meena said the party was committed to the protection of cows, and that is why created a separate ministry for the purpose.
Cow protection, at least in Rajasthan, is an emotive issue but only in urban areas. For most farmers, stray cattle hits directly at their fledgling domestic budgets and a danger to their standing crop.
The next government in Jaipur would need to come up with creative solutions to resolve the stray cattle menace.