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October 1998
India's Sacred Cow: Her Plight and Future

By Michael W. Fox



Many of India's cows, revered by Hindus, live lives of suffering and misery due to their own and human overpopulation, overgrazing, and the changing nature of India's economy. Veterinarian Michael Fox argues that the time may have come to think the unthinkable.

India has the largest concentration of livestock in the world, one-third of the world's cattle on approximately three percent of the world's land. India is the world's second largest milk producer, with over half of its milk coming from buffalo. Seventy-six percent of Indian people are rural, living in some 600,000 villages. The economic and social values of cattle are so great that cattle have long been seen as religious symbols and are regarded as sacred. In India's villages today, one can see the close relationship between cattle and their owners, who have high regard for their animals as individuals, as vital family-providers, if not also actual family members. Hence the strong resistance to killing and eating such close animal allies. But this symbiotic alliance is breaking down as larger modern dairies are established and animals' individuality is lost, and as venture capitalists purchase bullocks and carts to be rented out, or lease animals to complete strangers who have no emotional or economic interest in them.

Sadly, India's sustainable pastoral communities have become almost a thing of the past. There is not enough land for all to share. The combined effects of population growth, rural poverty, and ecological illiteracy have had devastating environmental and socio-economic consequences. To these we must add "agricultural modernization" where good land is being used to raise feed for broiler chickens for the export markets in the Gulf States and even Australia. Abandoned cattle wander everywhere searching for food, along with other cattle whose urban families are landless. Many are hit by traffic or develop serious internal injuries from consuming plastic bags, wire, and other trash.

Too Many Cattle

India now has so many cattle, according to Professor Ram Kumar of the India Veterinary Council, that there is only sufficient food for 60 percent of the cattle population. This means that of an estimated 300 million calves, bulls, and bullocks, some 120 million of these animals, especially in arid regions (and elsewhere during the dry season and droughts when fodder is scarce), are either starving or chronically malnourished. Because the majority of Indians are Hindus, and thereby hold the cow sacred, many consider the killing of cattle even for humane reasons unthinkable.

Because of overstocking, overgrazing, and a seasonal and regional lack of fodder and water, many cattle suffer from chronic malnutrition. This in turn weakens their immune systems and makes them susceptible to parasitic infestations and other diseases. Large numbers of poorly nourished cattle create a potent medium for outbreaks of infectious diseases which necessitate costly vaccinations. These are too often ineffectual due to inadequate refrigeration. India has thousands of gowshalas (cattle shelters) and pinjrapoles (animal shelters) where as many as several hundred sick and injured cattle, spent milk cows, unwanted male calves, and broken bullocks formerly used for draft work are kept until they die. But not all regions of India have sufficient cow shelters, and not all of them are as well funded as others. Gowshalas are most prevalent in northern and western India; few exist in central regions like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and in the southern states of Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. Pinjrapoles are mostly concentrated in Gujarat and other regions linked to the movement of Gujarati Jains (called Marwaris) who set up businesses in other states. Even though Indians know that the buffalo is a better quality milk producer than most varieties of cows, buffaloes are rarely found in gowshalas because they are considered unclean and not worthy of the same respect as cows.

The prohibition against killing cattle--widespread in this majority Hindu culture because the cow is considered sacred--is motivated less by compassion than by the belief that to kill is to make oneself impure. So, rather than defile themselves by so doing, orthodox Jains and Hindus may inadvertently cause unnecessary and prolonged suffering to animals who should be euthanized. While this principle of ahimsa (or non-violence) has many virtues, its historical validity and context has changed as India has become more populated and multicultural. Indian hotels import beef from Australia, which a devout young Hindu waiter in Bangalore told me filled him with shame when he had to serve it. His sensibility is to be respected, but the suffering of India's sick and starving cattle needs to be acknowledged by all of India.

The suffering is great. Millions of old, spent cows, exhausted bullocks, and young male calves are driven on foot up to 300 miles, or are crammed into trucks for transit into Kerala, or in railroad cars to West Bengal, where slaughter is legal. This meat is indended for Muslims and for export to Arab countries. The cows' often bleeding, worn down hooves make hardly any sound as they pass by. Many sustain injuries being loaded and off-loaded during part of the journey or die in transit. Some collapse on the way, are beaten, and even have salt and hot chilies rubbed into their eyes and have their tails hammered, twisted, and broken to make them get up and keep walking. Some of those being transported get trampled and suffocate, or have an eye gouged out by another's horn. Water and fodder are rarely provided during their long journeys, and even at rest stops.

India does not want her cattle to suffer, and there is much guilt and denial. I was told that one top Indian environmental attorney said, "There is definitely no cow slaughter in India because it is prohibited." While this is obviously not true of slaughter in Kerala and West Bengal, illegal slaughter of cattle is widespread, even in the capital, Delhi, in backyards where there is no sanitation or meat inspection. Other livestock like chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, and buffalo also suffer hardship and many diseases, but there are no prohibitions against their slaughter for human consumption or for humane reasons. And it is extraordinarily hard to kill an injured or dying cow for humane reasons. When there is no effective SPCA or Blue Cross animal shelter, or any means to transport injured and sick cows to receive proper care, and when euthanasia cannot be easily undertaken, cattle become the victims of religious sentiment in collision with reality.

Some Solutions

The overall cattle population must be reduced. Because a vast and expanding human population relying on dairy products as a dietary staple needs so many dairy cows, much suffering results. Most Hindus and Jains, therefore, should consume no dairy products. Pending this admittedly major change in religious and cultural behavior, sick and unwanted cows should be allowed to be slaughtered throughout India to stop them starving to death, wandering emaciated through the streets and risking assault for "stealing" food from stallholders. Jains and Hindus must respect the Muslims, Christians and others who consume the meat of spent cows and abandoned male calves. Likewise, those who eat meat in India should take action against inhumane slaughter. For those cattle that remain, their health and productivity should be enhanced through genetic improvement and by better nutrition through the establishment of emergency fodder banks and sources of water to see them through the dry seasons. Alternative sources of income--such as raising milk-goats and producing more fodder--must be provided for farmers who are reliant upon cattle manure as a major product. India's use of good land to raise feed for broiler chickens, goats, sheep, and buffalo for export to meat-eating countries needs to be more closely examined.

The root of the problem is ideological, and the ideological conflicts between the reasonable and the less reasonable must be resolved. The expansion of the domestic animal and human populations in India will spell doom if they are not controlled. Certainly at one time, cattle and other domestic animals generally played a positive role in environmental conservation, recycling manure, urine and crop-leftovers and in enhancing biocultural diversity. But under the pressures of the global monoculture of industrialism, all vestiges of humane, organic and sustainable agricultural practices, wisdom and spirituality may be obliterated forever. In the end, there needs to be a healing of the divisions between the sacred and the secular, belief and practice, so that ahimsa does not mean nonactivity or nonintervention, but leads to active compassion toward all beings, human and nonhuman.

Michael W. Fox is a board member of Global Communications for Conservation Inc (GCC) and Consultant for GCC's India Project for Animals and Nature. This article has been excerpted with permission from a longer article, which can be obtained by contacting GCC at 150 East 58th St., 25th Floor, New York, NY 10155. Tel.: (212) 935-5568. Email: website:



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