The Indian army is preparing to honourably discharge 25,000 cows and bulls from service as it sets about shutting down the last of its century-old military farms across the country.
Set up by the British in the late 19th century to provide dairy and vegetables to troops, these farms occupy more than 8,000 hectares near India’s biggest cities and towns. But the value of this real estate has escalated as the farms themselves have become increasingly expensive to maintain.
In August, the defence ministry ordered all military farms to be shut within three months, observing that they cost US$46 million (Dh169m) a year to run. The 2,000 personnel who work on the farms will be transferred to other wings of the army.
The cows on these farms supply 30 million of the 210 million litres of milk consumed each year by the 1.3 million staff and soldiers in the Indian army. India produces roughly 140 billion litres of milk a year — more than any other country.
When the British began to set up their military “cantonments” — towns where soldiers were encamped for long periods — they found milk and other food products to be in short supply. The cantonments were not near city markets, which made it difficult to source milk, cheese, butter and vegetables. The army’s pack animals and horses also needed fodder.
To solve this, the first military farm was established in Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh, in 1889. Dozens more were set up across undivided India during the remainder of the British Raj. As India urbanised, the cantonments were gradually folded into their nearest cities: Kanpur, Bengaluru, Lucknow, Jammu, Meerut and others.
The military farms pioneered modern dairy practices in India. They were the first to artificially inseminate their cattle, in 1925, and the country’s dairy policy, under the British, was decided largely by the person in charge of these farms.
In 1987, in an effort to breed high-yielding cows, the military farm in Meerut crossed the Dutch Friesian breed with India’s indigenous Sahiwal to produce the crossed Frieswal cow. The Frieswal became a part of the world’s largest crossbred cattle programme, with farms producing more than 14,000 Frieswal cows through the 1990s.
On average, an Indian cow yields 2,000 litres of milk in 300 days; the Frieswal yields 3,600 litres in the same period.
Once these farms are closed, the cows and bulls are expected to be auctioned to commercial dairy enterprises or to the state-run Indian Council of Agricultural Research.
In a country that routinely mistreats its cattle despite claiming to venerate them, the military farms did a thorough job of tending to its cows and bulls, said Naresh Kadyan, the India representative for the International Organisation for Animal Protection.
The 25,000 animals on the military farms are only a drop in the bucket of India’s cattle population of nearly 300 million. But Mr Kadyan said he appreciated the scientific thinking behind the care of Frieswals and other cows on these farms.
In contrast, he said, the “cow sanctuaries” that prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party proposes to open constitute “political talk”.
“They plan to open some of these shelters in jails, where prisoners will care for them,” he said. “What will prisoners know about how cows should be cared for? What kind of grazing land will these cows have in jails? None of this is convincing in any way.”
Plans to shut down military farms have been on the defence ministry’s agenda since 2013, but they lay dormant until this year. The closure of the farms has now been folded into a larger effort to downsize and restructure.
The army plans, for example, to shutter many army postal offices — a communications network operated independently of civilian post — and mule supply units. Nearly 60,000 personnel will be transferred between units and locations, and ordnance and signalling units will be “optimised”, Arun Jaitley, then India’s defence minister, said in August.
The full batch of 65 reforms, recommended by a committee that was set up to study the functioning of the army, is scheduled to be implemented by the end of 2019. The reforms could save the army a total of 250 billion rupees (Dh14bn) over a five-year period, according to the committee’s report.
But many of these reforms are only cosmetic, according to T P Srivastava, a retired air force officer.
"I would have been delighted as a soldier to read [just] three recommendations dealing with defence procurement, improving standards of [research and development], and erasing the flab of ordnance factories" in their expenditure, Mr Srivastava wrote in the Indian Defence Review journal last month.
“In my view, the committee discussed ‘daily chores’ and ‘housekeeping’ rather than issues of far-reaching consequences.”