NEW DELHI // Carrying a large aluminium bowl, Susheela Kumari bustles around the back of two dozen cows in a shelter in northern India, ready for a lifted tail or squat that could signal an impending tinkle from one of her charges.
Distilled urine from female cattle currently fetches at least as much as milk in India, and Susheela’s boss doesn’t want to waste a drop. As it is, she and two other attendants who work around the clock in a cow shed in Bulandshahar, 80 kilometres east of New Delhi, collect barely half the 15 to 20 litres of fluid the animals pass daily.
“The most difficult task is to collect cow urine because how do you know when an animal will actually do it?,” she says.
Urine from India’s indigenous Bos indicus cows, which are considered sacred by Hindus, is a hot commodity. That’s thanks in large part to prime minister Narendra Modi, who’s introduced programmes over the past two years to protect the milk-producing animals and support industries derived from their waste. His government has spent 5.8 billion rupees (Dh317.2 million) on cow shelters, intensified enforcement of beef-eating bans and tightened measures to stop the illicit sale of cattle to neighbouring Bangladesh.
“Around 30 remedies can be prepared at home with cow urine,” says Sunil Mansinghka, chief coordinator at Go-Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra, a cow-focused research organisation in Nagpur that’s supported by two Hindu groups. “It’s our foremost ambition to reach the elixir to countrymen.”
In the cow shelter in Bulandshahar, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, Susheela is careful not to spill any of the golden liquid she collects in her bowl.
“The most difficult task is to collect cow urine because how do you know when an animal will actually do it?” says Vikash Chandra Gupta, who partnered with the cow shelter in Bulandshahar last year in order to start his cow urine business. “The attendants take clues from the animals’ movements and try to identify patterns in urination.”
The pungent-smelling liquid is poured into a crude distiller to remove impurities. The distillate can be reduced further to a powder form or sold as a liquid concentrate to various makers of traditional medicines and herbal remedies.
Subramanian Swamy, a member of Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and who serves in India’s Upper House, isn’t satisfied with existing cow protection efforts. The Harvard-educated Hindu economist is calling for the removal of more than a dozen export subsidies on buffalo meat, of which India is the world’s largest exporter. A loophole in the policy encourages cows to be slaughtered and their meat passed off as buffalo, he says.
One enthusiastic cow urine buyer is yoga guru Baba Ramdev, whose budding consumer goods empire is challenging local units of Colgate-Palmolive Co, Unilever and Nestle SA. The saffron-robe clad yoga teacher and anti-corruption campaigner pays 150,000 rupees a day for a steady stream of the raw material that his company Patanjali Ayurveda Ltd uses to make into soaps and disinfectants to elixirs.
Patanjali’s bestseller is the urine-based floor cleaner Gaunyle, according to managing director Acharya Balkrishna. “We prepare 20 tons of Gaunyle a day and still can’t meet demand.”
Proponents of ayurveda, a holistic healing system developed thousands of years ago in India, say the urine, or “gomutra,” of an Indian cow contains special therapeutic properties and health benefits.
In June, scientists at Junagadh Agricultural University, in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat, concluded that traces of gold were found in the urine of cows from the local Gir breed. They reached this conclusion after analysing 400 specimens.
But in cow-worshipping India, the increased protection and reverence given to the humpbacked, droopy-eared creatures has become a source of interfaith conflict, given its conservative Hindu agenda. Two Muslim men were forced to eat dung by a cow protection group as punishment for allegedly transporting beef in the northern state of Haryana in June – one of the latest cases of beef vigilantism that turned deadly over the last year.
It’s also possible that cow urine harbours potentially dangerous pathogens.
India-trained veterinarian Navneet Dhand, who is an associate professor in veterinary biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Sydney, points to three diseases prevalent in India that could potentially be transmitted to people in the raw urine of infected cows: leptospirosis, which can cause meningitis and liver failure; arthritis-causing brucellosis; and Q-fever, which can cause pneumonia and chronic inflammation of the heart.
But that’s not dissuading Jain’s Cow Urine Therapy Health Clinic, which buys 25,000 litres of cow urine a month. Virendar Kumar Jain, who founded the 15-doctor practice in the central Indian city of Indore, says his centre has administered urine-derived medicines to 1.2 million patients over the past two decades for everything from cancer to endocrine disorders, such as diabetes.