Ram Mehar untethered the cow and its male calf from the cart and handed over a Rs 1,000 bill to Mange Ram Tyagi, the pradhan of the cow shelter. As Tyagi stood by and watched, Ram Mehar, with some help from his son, herded the cow and its nervous brown calf towards the open grounds. For Rs 500 each, the cattle were permanently admitted to the cow shelter.

A dalit from the chamaar  community, Ram Mehar owns no land. He rears the relatively low-cost indigenous breed of cows, or desi cows, to support his family by selling milk. Recently, the ageing cow’s milk yield fell so low that it became financially unfeasible to feed it much longer. He rented a cart and set out from his home in Jaishipur village in Haryana with the cow and its calf for the Ganaur mandi gaushala in Sonipat, seven kilometres away.

He didn’t have any choice. While the resale of unwanted cattle was difficult earlier, it is nearly impossible now. In March, the new Bhartiya Janata Party government in Haryana passed a law making cow slaughter and the sale of beef non-bailable offences, punishable with rigorous imprisonment of five years to 10 years, with the burden of proof of innocence on the accused. In villages in Sonipat district along Haryana’s eastern border with Uttar Pradesh, cattle vigilantes keep guard to prevent transport of cattle into the neighbouring state.

As a result of this menacing new order, many farmers and herders take the easy way out: they abandon their ageing cattle. The result of this is visible across Haryana, as thousands of unwanted cattle roam the villages, sometimes destroying crops. Only a few of these end up in cow shelters like the ones in Ganaur.

Though Rs 1,000 was a steep price for Ram Mehar to pay, he didn’t want to desert the cattle. “If I abandon the cow, it will lead to an even bigger problem,” he said. “Villagers will break the cow’s limbs if it enters their fields.”

There are four gaushalas in Ganaur. The one at Ganaur mandi, called Shri Gaushala, where Ram Mehar took his cattle, is the largest in the village and among the biggest in the Sonipat district. As per government records it shelthers 2,430 animals, though in truth it has nearly double this number – 4,450 cows, calves, bulls, oxen from 96 villages nearby.

Mature cows are usually brought in here when they stop producing milk and live four to five more years. On the other hand, male animals, whose average lifespan is around 15 years, are often carted in while still young. Farmers get rid of them soon after birth since tractors and artificial insemination technology have reduced the utility of the male cattle on the farm. “Every day, we get three to five new male animals, and two to three cows,” said Mange Ram Tyagi, the gaushala pradhan.

This steady influx has made it difficult for Shri Gaushala to meet the rising costs. It currently runs on a monthly budget of over Rs 18 lakh, or Rs 2.16 crore annually, most of which comes from donations. The cattle’s mustard bran feed alone costs Rs 9 lakh a month. Besides, there are other big fixed expenses – Rs 3 lakh on fuel for seven tractors to transport fodder, and Rs 5 lakh for salaries of 70 staff who remove the dung and feed the cattle. Every new cattle means an additional expense of Rs 400 a day.

A month back, under financial strain, its management committee more than doubled the rate for taking in cattle, from Rs 200 to Rs 500.

Politicians give promises, not money

The new BJP government in Haryana has made it its mission to protect the cow. In March, while passing the Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, ministers hailed the law as a realisation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream to shelter cows. Earlier in October, the state Health Minister Anil Vij started an online poll, raising the query – should the cow replace the tiger as the national animal? Days later, on October 16, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar engaged in more politicking over cow protection, saying Muslims could continue to live in India, but they would have to give up eating beef.

But for all the rhetoric over gau raksha, Haryana’s politicians are loath to pay for it. A fixed annual grant of Rs 5 lakh to every gaushala, the state government’s only contribution, has remained unchanged since 2012.

Haryana politicians regularly make announcements about donating funds to gaushalas from the constituency funds at the disposal of MPs and MLAs, and then proceed to ask gaushala staff to organise large events to publicise the endowments. In February, BJP MP from Sonipat Ramesh Kaushik pledged Rs 5 lakh to Shri Gaushala in Ganaur but the staff say they have seen no money so far. “We gathered a crowd for several thousands for the MP to make the donation announcement, but no funds have arrived,” said Tyagi, the gaushala pradhan.

Five kilometres from Ganaur, the staff at the Sri Krishna Pranami Gaushala, a cow shelter in Gadi Kesri, are similarly waiting for a Rs 5 lakh donation announced in August 2014 by the outgoing chief minister, Congress’s Bhupinder Singh Hooda, before the assembly elections. The gaushala looks after around 2,300 cattle and has a debt of Rs 20 lakh, said its accountant Dev Anand Tyagi.

 Lions Club donates rotis to Sri Krishna Pranami Gaushala, which spends Rs 5 lakh a month on fodder .

At Shri Gaushala, elderly staff recounted that the cow shelter was set up before Independence in 1937 with an allowance of Rs 200 and a pair of bullocks by Isaac, a Muslim district administrator in the British government who was later killed in the 1947 communal riots. “Hindus were upset that Muslims were running a hattha, a slaughterhouse, here,” recounted Shri Gaushala’s 85-year old accountant Mangi Ram. “Isaac set up this gaushala, personally donating to it, to maintain peace among both communities.”

Traditionally, cow shelters were maintained with funds raised through performances of saang, a folk dance-theatre form, in the post-harvest season from January till March. But as the cultural practice peters out along with the audiences, gaushala committees are being forced to go door to door seeking donations.

In villages, buffalo is king

Ram Mehar, the landless dalit farmer who gave his cows to the gaushala, said he reared only low-yield desi cows because that's all he could afford. Buffaloes, which give more milk on average, are priced too high for him at Rs 1 lakh to Rs 1.5 lakh – nearly ten times the cost of desi cattle of Rs 12,000-Rs 13,000. But anyone who can afford a buffalo in Ram Mehar’s village of Jaishipur, as also villages in the vicinity, has switched to the sturdier, more productive beast.

The numbers reflect this trend. As per the Livestock Census of 2012, buffaloes make up 77.6% of Haryana’s bovine population, the highest among all states. In contrast, the population of cows, including desi and crossbred breeds of Holstein Friesian and Jersey cattle, now stands at less than one-third of the state’s buffalo population.

Buffalos make up 77% of Haryana's livestock population

Like Ram Mehar, Murti Banjara in Datoli village in Sonipat district is a landless farmer who could not afford Rs 1 lakh to buy a mature buffalo. So, after working on others’ farms for a few years, she and her husband purchased two female buffalo calves last year with their savings of Rs 16,000. The feed and fodder now costs the family Rs 5,000 a month. But Murti thinks it will all be worth it.

“In a few months, they will give birth to calves and start producing milk, 10 to 15 litres a day for four to five months,” Murti Banjara said. “Then after a few months, they will have their second calving, then next.”

When asked why they had not purchased a mature cow with the same savings, Murti’s husband Pritam Banjara shook his head vigorously. “Nahi nahi, poora paisa mitti mein mil jata,” he said. No, it would have been a waste of money.

Seven to eight calvings are common for buffaloes, explained Pritam Banjara. “And once the buffalo stops calving we can sell them to a butcher for a good amount,” he said. “If we had bought cows, we would not be able to sell them after they stopped producing milk.” Murti Banjara, standing beside the two calves, nodded in agreement. “You cannot resell ageing cows, you either keep feeding them for nothing or abandon them.” Also, male buffaloes did better than bullocks even as beasts of burden, lugging upto 25 quintals easily, while bullocks carried only 5-10 quintals, she said.

Murti Banjara in Datoli with her buffalo calves

Till some years back, the Banjaras, a nomadic trading community to which Murti and Pritam belong, routinely travelled from Datoli till as far as Bihar and Bengal, herding bullocks and bulls and selling them to farmers for ploughing in far-away eastern states. As more farmers substituted bullocks with tractors, the Banjara community discontinued the practice. This, coupled with the loss of common grazing lands to new construction and farms, has now left herds of unwanted cows and bullocks foraging in garbage dumps.

At the village square in Datoli, an elderly farmer, Raju Giri, estimated that nearly all of the about 1,500 households there, except the poorest, reared buffaloes now. While he spoke, a few metres away, in an opening littered with trash, a herd of gaunt white cows and a few bullocks stood ruminating and resting.

Rakesh Giri, a young farmer, explained that the stray herd of about 50 stayed there almost permanently as a section of the poor farmers kept abandoning their old cows. “Sometimes, they enter our fields, ruining the jowar millet, cumin, vegetable crops overnight.” When the nuisance becomes intolerable, farmers in Datoli herd the cattle towards Shahpur, the next village. On a few occasions they have pooled funds to get the cows admitted to the gaushalas nearby, Giri said.

In Ganaur, the gaushala committee’s members say the strict, new anti-slaughter law will fail to improve the dwindling number of cattle. Farmers will continue to abandon cows soon after they stop giving milk. The pradhan at Shri Gaushala said one solution could be a government scheme which gives farmers cash incentives to keep a minimum number of cows.

Dev Anand Tyagi, the accountant at the Shri Krishna Parnami Gaushala in Gadi Kesri, summed up farmers’ attitude to cows, one primarily based on economics. “Jitne doodh deve, utne toh mata hai, phir toh dhaadhi. The cow is Mother till it gives milk, after that it is useless.”