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November 2004
A Beef with India
By Mark Hawthorne


When Shelters Become Cash Cows

Perhaps no country on Earth has the special relationship with cows that India does, a relationship that is often misinterpreted in the West as cow worship. Most Hindus revere the cow as the symbol for all life. So it’s no surprise that India, with a cow population estimated at between 200 and 400 million, is home to more than 3,000 cow sanctuaries—called gaushalas—devoted to bovines in need. While these sound like compassionate endeavors, critics say the gaushalas need improvement.

Jonny Krause of the Jim Brown Animal Welfare Foundation (JBF), a Scotland-based nonprofit operating a mobile cattle clinic in Delhi, regularly visits one substandard gaushala. “We are trying to encourage them to take more responsibility for the welfare of those animals and so improve their lives,” he says. JBF became involved last year when Delhi’s Supreme Court ordered that the capital’s population of 36,000 stray cows, considered dangerous, were to be relocated and either auctioned off or sent to shelters. “We went along to see where they are being deposited,” says Krause. “It was quite a shock to see that the place they are being deposited is short of water, food and medicines. With a capacity of 900 cattle, the death rate was around 10 animals per day. The only reason that the shelter population remained stable is because more animals are brought from the streets to replace those that have died.”

Donors help keep the gaushalas running, but the government contributes a sum for each cow and thus may exacerbate the problem. “This gives a strong incentive to keep taking more animals regardless of whether the proper facilities are in place to give them good care,” says Krause, who adds that, despite these glaring problems, he has also seen at least one well-run gaushala, and there are likely many more.

PETA agrees the gaushalas fall short. “They are plagued with serious problems,” says Ingrid Newkirk. “They are no solution, I’m afraid, just a pipe dream. We would like a code of conduct for them. I have been in many of them, and it is usual—usual—to see cows left to starve, and downed cows not offered water while they take days to die in the sun. Most are used as free dairies.” This assertion is borne out by the state government of Madhya Pradesh, which in January announced a plan to generate revenue from their gaushalas by installing milk-processing equipment. “Gradually the gaushalas will become centers of major economic activity generating additional incomes by marketing milk and milk products,” said then-Chief Minister Uma Bharti.

For more information, see—M.H.

It is home to a quarter of the world’s cow population, but India, where the sanctity of the cow would seem beyond reproach, is actually a major producer and consumer of beef and leather. With a population that is an estimated 82 percent Hindu, India butchered 14.5 million cattle in 2003, making it the world’s fourth most active cattle killer, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. (By comparison, China, the world’s leading cattle killer, slaughtered 45 million last year, while the U.S., number two, slaughtered 36 million.) The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that concern about mad cow disease is shifting the beef market from the West to India, where cattle are fed a vegetarian diet. Consequently, Indian exports of beef (from cows and buffalo) have more than doubled in the last five years.

But, you ask, aren’t cows revered and protected in India? Well, yes and no. Hinduism does regard the cow as sacred, and Indians throughout the country rely upon cow dung and milk for daily survival. Cow slaughter is illegal in all but two of India’s 28 states and seven federally administered territories, and the cow is also protected under the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (PCA). Killing cows is even prohibited in the national Constitution. Yet some assert that beef is a mainstay of many diets in India and keeps the poor from starving. Meanwhile, Western demand for cheap leather has fueled the practice of cow smuggling: unscrupulous skin-traders use bribes to sneak the animals into states where cow killing is legal. The smuggled cows are marched for days to slaughter, and those who collapse en route have their eyes smeared with chili peppers and tobacco to keep them moving. Other cattle are crammed onto overcrowded trucks.

India’s National Commission on Cattle, part of the government’s ministry of agriculture, traveled throughout the country and reported on the conditions of cows in 2002. The commission suggested a number of reasons why such abuse continues, including the lucrative meat and leather trades and an apparent loophole in India’s Constitution, which explicitly prohibits the slaughter of “cows”—literally, adult female cattle—leading many states to conveniently exclude bulls and calves from protection. On the state level, the commission blames bureaucratic apathy for not enforcing state laws banning cow slaughter.

PCA Not Helping
With an office in India, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is calling for enforcement of the PCA, which it argues has led to virtually no improvements in the treatment of animals. The nation’s slaughterhouses remain unhygienic and pollute the environment, and the government has failed to enforce the PCA’s rules governing transport and slaughter—claims made by PETA India based on evidence that includes photographs and videotapes depicting the abuse of cattle, buffalo, goats and sheep used for leather and meat, as well as unsanitary and dangerous conditions in meat-processing facilities. Animals who survive the journey to the slaughterhouse are dragged inside and often cut open with dull knives in full view of one another on floors covered in feces, entrails and urine. Some animals are skinned and dismembered while still conscious.

Perhaps even more vocal in its advocacy of cows in India has been People for Animals (PFA), the non governmental organization founded by Maneka Gandhi, who also served as India’s first Minister of Animal Welfare (1998 to 2001). Among its many other campaigns, PFA is working to ban animal sacrifices, and has already established a gaushala (cow shelter) in Delhi housing more than 10,000 sick and stray cattle—the largest cow sanctuary in India. Gandhi even helped convince automaker Daimler-Chrysler India to offer non-leather seats in some of its Mercedes-Benz cars. She blames corruption for allowing unlawful meat and leather trades to exist, and in 2000 told The Independent, a British newspaper, how the practice operates in West Bengal: “An illegal organization called the Howrah Cattle Association fakes permits saying the cattle are meant for agricultural purposes, for ploughing fields or for milk. The stationmaster at the point of embarkation gets 8,000 rupees [about $178] per train-load for certifying that the cows are healthy and are going for milk.” Gandhi explained that the cows then go by road to slaughterhouses. “You can make out the route taken by the trucks by the trail of blood they leave behind,” she said.

Activists in India have claimed some major victories, but not without a violent backlash. In a country where the per capita income is the equivalent of $450 per year, the Indian meat trade is highly profitable, and workers in this industry have little patience for animal advocates, many of whom have been physically attacked—murdered even—for their activism.

Putting Greed Above Creed
Complicating the struggle for legislation to outlaw cow slaughter nationwide is the complexity of India’s religious traditions. The majority of this democratic country is Hindu, and Hindu nationalist groups—who advocate a Hindu society, culture and nation—ardently support cow protection. India’s population of 1.06 billion, however, also includes, according to India’s last national census (1991), 95.2 million Muslims, 1.3 million Sikhs, 2.6 million Christians and others for whom killing cows many not be anathema. Such opponents argue that enforcing a ban on cow slaughter would contradict India’s secular vision and be tantamount to forcing Hindu values on non-Hindus.

But Jonny Krause, who runs a mobile cow clinic in India, doesn’t see a genuine reverence for the cow among Hindus. “There is a strong attitude that any kind of favor granted to the cows is only carried out with the hope that the gods will then, in turn, look favorably upon the person,” he says. When Krause cautioned one Hindu that shelter workers may steal his donation, for example, he replied: “It is my duty to give something to that holy gaushala. Then if the management steals my gift, it is on their conscience only; I have completed my duty properly.”

Also surprising is Hinduism’s own practice of killing horses, goats, sheep, birds and other animals in certain religious ceremonies. Although animal sacrifice is illegal under the PCA, many local authorities, like those in West Bengal, refuse to enforce the law, citing an exemption for sacrifices conducted “in a manner required by religion.” Maneka Gandhi has pledged to halt animal sacrifices throughout India. “Hindus alone hold more than 50,000 sacrificial events per year, and at each of them hundreds of animals are killed,” she says. “If we can stop this, we can fairly criticize and restrain the Muslim slaughter of animals at Bakr-Id—a holiday that has been known to use cows as sacrifices.”

PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk, who grew up in India, believes that Western influence is greatly responsible for the meat and leather trades. “Two things are paramount,” she says. “Getting young Indians to realize that eating animals isn’t Western and hip, and having Westerners realize the horrors they are inflicting on gentle village cattle, who are like our dogs and cats here, when they buy leather anything—including shoes.”

Another Gandhi had this to say: “One can measure the greatness of a nation and its moral progress by the way it treats its animals,” said Mohandas Gandhi. “Cow protection to me is not mere protection of the cow. It means protection of all that lives and is helpless and weak in the world. The cow means the entire subhuman world.”

Mark Hawthorne is a California-based writer and animal advocate. For more information on cows in India, see



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