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November 2004
What Would Krishna Drink? Rethinking Milk in India
By Sangamithra Iyer


Photo by Sangamithra Iyer
Photo by Sangamithra Iyer

In my recent trip to India, I often had to explain veganism to my devout south Indian Hindu vegetarian family. When I refused ghee, Indian clarified butter, my relatives would ask whether I was worried about my figure. I would look down at my large plate of masala dosai, laugh, and say no. In my defense, my mother would jump in with one word, ahimsa, and my family would then nod in understanding.

The practice of abstaining from dairy products is rare in India even among the strictest of vegetarians, but the notion of ahimsa, the practice of nonviolence and minimal suffering, is very much understood. I would go on to describe the dairy industry in America, explaining how dairy cows undergo a cyclical process of forced impregnation and separation from their young, and how the calf is deprived of his mother and her sustenance. Later both mother and child would be slaughtered for human consumption, and I would show how the veal industry is intrinsically linked to dairy. I explained that I could not justify taking milk from a cow because I know that it also means taking her child. In short, dairy in America was full of suffering.

There is a preconceived notion, however, that dairy in India is different. It is a country where cows have been revered and respected and have played a vital part of the culture and the ecosystem. Cow’s milk is valued for its nutrition, cow manure provides fuel and fertilizer, cow urine is appreciated for medicinal and antiseptic properties, and the cow’s body is used by some after she passes away naturally. The cow in Indian culture is considered a mother figure nurturing life. Cow protection evolved from the principle of respecting our mother. And because the cow was responsible for sustaining India’s agriculture and economy, her life was of more value than her flesh.

I began to understand how most Indians never question dairy consumption since it was always part of their culture, and traditionally cows were well cared for and humans supposedly only took what was left after the calf finished. The Hindu god, Krishna, was himself a loving cow herder. If Krishna could justify drinking cow’s milk, why couldn’t I?

The World’s Largest Milk Producer
I soon discovered that the small-scale subsistence dairy “farming” that I envisioned in India has been largely replaced with a huge commercial industry. With an annual production of nearly 80 million tons, India superseded the United States as the world’s largest producer of milk in 2001. The annual rate of growth in milk production in India is between five and six percent, compared to the world’s at only one percent.

Dairy products have typically consisted of milk, yogurt and ghee, but new enterprises are emerging for products like cheese, casein, lactose and whey proteins. Several multinational food companies like Nestle, Baskin Robbins, and Blue Bunny have found India to be an appealing location for overseas manufacturing facilities and franchises.

The origin of modern dairy in India can be traced back to 1950 when the Aarey Milk Plant of Bombay launched the supply of pasteurized and bottled milk on a large scale for the first time. Milk production has skyrocketed since then, from 200,000 liters daily to over 20 million liters today.

This rapid growth is largely credited to Operation Flood, a project assisted by many multilateral agencies, including the European Union, the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and World Food Program. Launched in 1970, Operation Flood assisted dairy farmers to establish milk producer cooperatives, and created a National Milk Grid. The goals were to raise milk production by creating “a flood of milk,” increase rural incomes, and establish fair consumer prices. Intensive cattle breeding occurred using artificial insemination with superior indigenous bulls and exotic buffalo.

Today’s Indian dairy industry consists of nearly 500 dairy plants, 57 million cows and 39 million buffalo with an annual net value of about 23 billion U.S. dollars.

What about our Sacred Cows?
The symbiotic relationship between humans and cows does still exist in some parts of India—cow dung is still of value as fuel and fertilizer—but in most parts, the traditional role and treatment of cows is drastically changing.

According to PETA India, most dairy cows are often chained by the neck in narrow stalls, unable to move normally. Cows are kept pregnant and fed growth and other hormones to keep milk production high. Though illegal for humans, the labor-inducing drug oxytocin is easily available to farmers, who use it to increase cows’ milk production.

Just like our American dairy cow, the modern Indian dairy cow does not live her normal lifespan. Impregnated and milked continuously until she can produce no more, she will endure the repeated suffering of losing her young. Indian calves today, like calves here, are usually separated from their mothers shortly after they are born. Female calves may be put on milk substitutes until they too join the dairy machine. Male calves often starve to death or are trucked away to illegal slaughterhouses where they are often killed for the rennet in their stomach. A select few males are sentenced to solitary confinement in pens and kept for artificial insemination.

If not illegally slaughtered, “useless” cattle are abandoned to roam the streets, forage for garbage, and as a result often starve to death. In New Delhi, dairies are responsible for most of the 35,000 stray cattle who roam the streets. In an attempt to remove them from the city, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi is auctioning off these cows, but the source of the problem is the cruelty infested dairy industry.

Animal protection laws including the 1960 Prevention of Cruelty Act and the State Cow Preservation Act find most of the practices mentioned above illegal. According to Anuradha Sawhney, of PETA India, “Indian law is some of the finest in the world; however its lack of strict punishments and lack of enforcement is the problem.”

Government- and charity-run cow shelters, known as gaushalas, do exist to house and care for “unproductive” and “useless” cattle. However, most shelters do not have the resources to provide adequate care for the large number of discarded cattle.

And our Mother?
Most Indians are unaware of the suffering inflicted on cows in today’s dairy industry and don’t link dairy with the large number of sick, starving, stray cattle on the streets.

It is interesting to note that the Greek word gaia and Sanskrit word gau refer both to the earth and to cows. In Indian culture, the treatment of cows, the earth and ourselves have always been connected. Is large-scale milk production really the best way to respect Mother Cow and Mother Earth?

It begs the question, What would Krishna drink?



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