India election: How UP’s stray cows could derail Modi election hopes

Stray cattle attacking people and destroying crops has become common since state banned slaughter of the animals

Pushkar Horse and  Camel Fair, Pushkar , Rajasthan,  India, 20/11/2012. Men haggle over the price of a cow at the Pushkar Horse and  Camel Fair, Pushkar , Rajasthan,  India on the 20th November 2012

Pushkar Mela , one of Asia's (if not the world’s) largest camel fairs occurs annually during the Hindu month of Kartik (October-November) in the small desert town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, India. Semi-nomadic tribal people with hordes of cattle, camels and horses materialise out of the desert and descend upon the town setting up a vast camp on the outskirts. It runs concurrently with the festival of Kartik Poornima which honours the God Brahma. Its celebrated with particular fervor in Pushkar because it hosts one of the very few Brahma temples in India and culminates with thousands of devout Hindus taking a ritual bath in the sacred Pushkar Lake. Its this melange of pilgrims, musicians, magicians, acrobats, folk dancers, traders, comedians, ‘sadhus’ and tribals that creates a uniquely colourful spectacle transforming the usually sleepy town into an astonishing cultural phenomenon. 

PHOTOGRAPH BY AND COPYRIGHT OF SIMON DE TREY-WHITE

+ 91 98103 99809
+ 91 11 435 06980
+44 07966 405896
+44 1963 220 745
email: simon@simondetreywhite.com
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Mohan Singh, a farmer in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state, was walking home on a sunny afternoon last March when he was attacked by a stray bull. By the time his family and neighbours reached him, the 70-year-old was severely injured and gasping for breath.

“He remained in hospital for two months,” his son, Shamsher Singh, told The National. “Doctors said that if the injury was a few inches closer to his heart, he would have been dead.”

Cows stands along a road on Feb 25, 2022 in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India
With stray cattle emerging as a major poll issue in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said a new policy will be introduced to tackle it after election results, adding that income can be made from the dung of animals. Vijay Pandey for The National

Stray cattle attacking people and destroying crops has become common in Uttar Pradesh after the state's Bharatiya Janata Party government strictly enforced a ban on the slaughter of cows, which are considered sacred by Hindus, after taking power in 2017.

The problem has become so serious that Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to address it while campaigning for the BJP in continuing elections in the state, where his Hindu nationalist party is now seeking a second five-year term.

Yogi Adityanath, a hardline BJP leader who heads the state government, introduced a new law in 2020 against the transportation of cows for slaughter, preventing farmers from taking their cattle to other states where killing the animals is still legal.

Cows stands along a road on Feb 25, 2022 in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India
With stray cattle emerging as a major poll issue in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said a new policy will be introduced to tackle it after election results, adding that income can be made from the dung of animals. Vijay Pandey for The National

The cow laws have emboldened vigilantes to harass and even kill livestock traders, farmers and dairy owners seen transporting cattle in Uttar Pradesh, as well as other parts of India.

Owners of cattle that are ill or no longer productive now prefer to simply let them loose rather than continue paying for their upkeep.

“No one wants to trade in cows any more. It is akin to inviting trouble,” said Dharmendra Kumar Yadav, 22, a farmer in Faizabad.

“Until a few years ago, we didn’t see so many cows roaming around in herds.”

In the village of Sindharwa, about 160 kilometres from Faizabad, two men in their 60s were killed in separate incidents in March and November 2019.

“Traditionally, people could freely take cattle to states where cow slaughter was allowed. That is history now,” said Rizwan Siddique, the former village head.

The BJP government has spent 11.5 billion rupees ($152 million) since 2017 on setting up shelters to house abandoned cattle, but they can still be seen entering fields and destroying crops, or browsing at rubbish dumps. They also stray on to roads, causing accidents.

Farmers have tried to highlight the problem by leaving the animals at schools and hospitals. In September last year, they held a large rally in western Uttar Pradesh to demand an emergency helpline to report stray cattle.

Mr Yadav said his family members took turns to keep watch over their fields at night. “People with huge farms can sustain losses. But we don’t have large chunks of land. If we allow cattle to graze in our farms, what will be left for us?” he said.

“I have spent 25,000 rupees to fence my farm simply because people are too scared to sell their cattle.”

Amit Jindal, 45, who runs a cow shelter in Meerut city, roughly an hour’s drive from the national capital, New Delhi, acknowledged that there has been a surge in the stray cattle population in recent years.

“It is getting out of control despite the increased number of cow shelters,” Mr Jindal said.

“The government should incentivise the upkeep of cattle. Farmers should be paid a fixed amount every month to retain these animals.”

Quote
The government should incentivise the upkeep of cattle. Farmers should be paid a fixed amount every month to retain these animals
Amit Jindal, cow shelter operator

Shamsher Singh, whose father survived the attack by a bull last year, does not believe shelters are the answer.

“We have taken many such animals to the nearby cow shelter, but they are released after a few days,” he said.

Upendra Dwivedi, a member of a group that rescues injured cattle and runs cow shelters, said the problem lay in the execution of the government’s policy.

“Yogi government has done a lot for the welfare of the cow but there are systemic flaws because of which the benefits of these schemes are not reaching to the cow and its progeny,” he said.

"There should be checks and balances regarding the utilisation of funds allocated for cows. We cannot rule out corruption and irregularities."

The BJP says it is exploring options to discourage people from abandoning cattle. “We know the problem and are working to find solutions,” BJP spokesman Rakesh Tripathi told The National.

“We will increase the number of cow shelters and create awareness about various uses of cattle, beyond meat and milk.”

But Mr Yadav, who supports the ban on cow slaughter, says he is not convinced.

“We want a new government that is able to fix this issue."

Updated: March 01, 2022, 12:26 PM
EDITOR'S PICKS
NEWSLETTERS
MORE FROM THE NATIONAL