Shocking findings about the running of gaushalas in India calls for a strong public opinion translating itself into public action. Laws alone won’t help

Investigations by the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) into the functioning of 179 gaushalas across 13 States and two Union Territories have yielded disturbing statistics. Eighty-six per cent of these use the cattle for breeding. Seventy-six per cent keep these tethered most of the time. Seventy-four per cent are forced to use milk from the cows to generate income for their sustenance, and 64 per cent separate calves from their mothers.

The investigations have revealed that dairies are being run in the guise of cow protection, malpractices in the running of gaushalas and the employment of untrained staff. Things have to change drastically. Staff have to be trained. Alternative products, utilising cow dung and urine, have to be developed and marketed to make the gaushalas financially viable. The FIAPO has chosen as its immediate target the development of the capacities of 100 gaushalas that will help to make them financially strong while being different from the exploitative dairies disguised as shelters.

It will require funds for that. Even if these are forthcoming in adequate amounts through donations, its activities can never be a substitute for governmental actions at the Central and State levels in providing physical infrastructure, training for personnel, and financial grants. These alone, however, will not end the prevailing malpractices in the absence of punitive action against organisations that are culpable. Here, punishments have to be hiked and loopholes in the rules and laws exploited for fraud and malpractices, plugged.

Further, making gaushalas function properly is important but only as a part of the totality of efforts to ensure a fair deal to cattle. The first task here is taking firm action to prevent owners from abandoning cows that have stopped giving milk. The evil, which is not new, has grown exponentially after the banning of cow slaughter by most States, the clamping of restrictions on cattle trade and transportation, and attacks on people suspected of carrying beef or cattle for slaughter. Many of the animals that were sold to butchers are now driven out. I am against the killing of cows, as I am against the killing of all living beings. Abandonment is tantamount to murder, as cattle that are driven away die slowly amidst terrible suffering. Used to being kept in protective enclosures, safe from the elements, and fed regularly, they suddenly find themselves in the open. Those that somehow find their way back to their old homes are often beaten mercilessly with lathis and pushed out.

Exposed to rain and cold — which is bitter in many parts of India, particularly in the hills — the wind and heat, they fall ill and die painfully. Food is difficult to come by. In rural areas, farmers chase them out of villages and the outlying agricultural fields, fearing that they will eat up crops. In cities and towns, they are driven away from parks by gardeners and security guards fearing that they will eat up the grass and plants. There being little grass elsewhere, hunger drives them to eating plastic bags lying all over. The result is poisoning and slow and painful death. In areas close to jungles, they become food for tigers and leopards, particularly of the latter, which now have to fend for food in inhabited areas which have encroached on their habitats.

Even when a cow gives milk, owners consume or sell the bulk of it; the calf survives on the margins of starvation. Male calves fare worse. They are, with rare exceptions, driven out almost immediately after birth and left to die. People have little use for bulls, once much in demand for pulling ploughs and/or carts, following increasing mechanisation of agriculture, and the growing spread of automotive transportation.

Stopping people from mal-treating and abandoning cows, bulls and calves will be difficult. It is hard to feed cows that have stopped yielding milk. Fodder is expensive; it is difficult to find space in sheds for bovines where precedence is given to milch cows. But the trouble is that even those who can afford to maintain them, do not, and cavalierly disown their moral responsibility to look after cows they had once exploited to the hilt. Making examples of some of them will help in discouraging such conduct. Punishment under the law, however, will by itself not be enough. There has to be a strong public opinion translating itself into public action.

Meanwhile, besides individual efforts, there is a need for institutional funding and arrangements for looking after cattle that have gone dry. The FIAPO has written both to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare, to direct State Animal Husbandry Departments to create a separate fund each for retiring animals and fix the amounts the dairy farms will have to contribute to it.

Finally, the Central and State Governments cannot ignore the fact that they have obligations towards not just cattle but all non-human living beings ranging from plants, birds, and those who live in the water, to animals ranging from wildlife to domestic and autonomously-living ones like stray dogs. Specifically, the implementation of the canine birth control programme needs to be accelerated urgently.

(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)