COWED DOWN

In drought-hit Marathwada, farmers are stuck with thirsty cattle – and official apathy

Neither the Maharashtra government that imposed a ban on cattle slaughter nor private institutions seem to have sustainable solutions.

It has been four years since many parts of Marathwada in central Maharashtra have had adequate rain. The drought has already resulted in widespread distress and even deaths. In Latur district, a young boy racing to get water from a tanker was crushed under its wheels. Two women died because of the water shortage in Latur city – the younger one of heat while waiting in an endless line for water and her mother of a heart attack when she heard the news. To prevent riots, the city has imposed laws against crowds gathering near water pumps.

At a time when people are scrambling for water, how are cattle faring?

Not very well. Water has already run out in Latur, Beed and Osmanabad. The only fodder on hand is withered sugarcane that could not be processed by factories. Sugarcane generates undue body heat in cattle, but that is all that is available.

For those who rear cattle for a livelihood, the situation has been made worse by the state’s ban on cattle slaughter. The ban was imposed in March 2015, when the President approved an amendment to the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act of 1976 that had been pending for 20 years. Though many farmers are unable to take care of their cattle, they are prohibited from selling them.

“The law might be correct for a high number of people who worship the cow, but for farmers, it is wrong,” said Laxman Vighne, a veterinarian visiting a fodder camp near Beed. “Farmers can’t take care of their old cattle and they do not give them food. In this way, they die.”

As Scroll.in reported in a previous story, cattle slaughter is still being conducted in parts of the state, even if under the radar. However, not all cattle owners might be willing to navigate this murky world of illegal cattle slaughter. Some are reluctant to sell their animals. Vaidyanath Jadhav, 60, a farmer in Ashti village, explained: “When cattle have worked so hard for us for so long, can we simply sell them? Would you sell your parents just because they are old?”

For those who are unable to find water and food for their animals, there are two options: cattle shelters run by private organisations, or cattle camps set up by the state government.

Plugging the gaps

The cattle camp is an old institution in Marathwada. Such camps, where distressed cattle are provided food, water and shelter, are set up routinely by the government in drought-hit regions. This year, even as the summer is only just beginning, they have sprung up across Beed, Latur and Osmanabad, the most severely affected districts of Marathwada. There are 237 such camps in Marathwada, run mostly by private organisations but with funds funnelled in through the district administration. It costs Rs 70 to care for a grown animal and Rs 35 for a young one. Each farmer can register up to five animals at a camp.

The structure of the camps varies mainly by size – long rows of canopies cordoned off into sections for each set of cattle. One member of the family usually sleeps at the camp to ensure that their cattle aren't stolen. They bring their own beds and sheets. If they are lucky, they sometimes get food.

There has been a change this year from 2010-'11, the last time so many cattle camps were opened in the state. Instead of having large camps capable of holding animals from several villages, this year many more villages have their own camps.

Rajendra Jarange, who is the manager of a camp in Beed district, said his brother took a personal loan from a bank to set up the camp.

Why are people taking loans to set up camps? Individuals who want to set up cattle camps have to file deposits of Rs 5 lakh with the district collector, Jarange explained.

The real reason for the clamour to set up camps lies in the possibilities of profit-making. The camps are ill-concealed money-making rackets, as a report in Marathi newspaper Sakaal showed. The report, which looked at camps in Ashti in Beed district, said that several camps registered more animals in their records than the actual numbers they feed. This allows them to claim funds for non-existent animals.

Others, such as a camp run by the Ashwaling Sevabhavi Sanstha in Palvan, Beed, sidestep the government cap of five cattle per person by registering them under different family members’ names, said Dinkar Maske, the camp’s caretaker.

“If a farmer has more cows, how can we reject them?” Maske said. “So we register them under different family members.”

The Latur district administration has taken an unusual step to plug some of these gaps. Here, private fodder camps had opened as early as September, because there was no rain. At that point, managers of these camps had to register cattle on mobile apps given to them by the government to reduce leakages in the system. Each cow is given a unique number – Maharashtra is, after all, a state that tried to push biometric identities for cattle – and listed by their size and breed. Managers also have to upload the owners’ Aadhaar details and photos of the cow’s head and full body.

Yet without the camps, more farmers would have been forced to go to the market instead. And at a time when nobody is buying, this could be disastrous.

Official absence

At the time of the ban, the government promised that it would take adequate measures to care for cattle in their old age under a scheme it called Gokul Gram. What it promoted instead was a Rashtriya Gokul Gram scheme to encourage indigenous cattle.

In a document accessed by Scroll.in, the concept for the scheme clearly states that the state will make no provision to buy cattle. Instead, it outlines guidelines to promote indigenous cattle breeds in the state and their milk production.

These cattle villages will come up in cow breeding districts and near large cities. They will house 1,000 heads of cattle, of which 60% will be productive and 40% stray, unproductive ones. By selling the milk, urine, dung, biogas and other cattle byproducts of the productive ones, these villages are meant to sustain the upkeep of the rest at no cost to the government.

The scheme is a central one, which means state officials are bound by its outline. For instance, it would take 500 acres of land to sustain 1,000 animals, according to estimates from the Animal Husbandry Commissionerate. There is no land of this size available in Maharashtra, said Dr Dhananjay Parkale, deputy commissioner of animal husbandry. A far more convenient and decentralised version of the scheme would allow for keeping 100 cattle and 50 acres.

Any private organisation can set up these villages, provided they have been registered with the charity commissioner for at least three years and have filed their income tax returns.

However, the state is still silent on what cattle owners ought to do with their very old cattle – apart from feed, starve or abandon them depending on their means. There are around 1.64 crore cows – including bulls, bullocks and calves – and 65 lakh buffalos in Maharashtra. There is, however, no infrastructure to take care of them yet.

“How can the state buy all the old cattle?” asked Parkale. “There are crores in the state. We do not have that kind of money”

What the government has promised, Parkale said, is Rs one crore to each district to aid charitable trusts already doing this work.

Animal lovers to the rescue?

However, the existing model of private organisations taking care of cattle in Maharashtra has not been very successful.

Charitable organisations, mostly Jain and Hindu groups, run cow shelters. The 500 or so shelters are scattered sparsely across the state, according to an estimate of the Animal Husbandry Commissionerate.

Shriram Goushala in Nagamthan, Aurangabad, is one of a handful of cattle shelters run by the Vishwa Shri Ram Sena, a group with Hindutva affiliations. Most of the cattle they keep are animals that have been rescued from slaughter. In addition, villagers who cannot care for their cows also leave them here. Many of these were in dismal condition when they arrived, but with regular food, water and medicine, they have recovered their health.

“The government wants to send us cows that they rescue but they do not even pay for transporting the cow,” said Vishwajeet Singh a worker in the organisation. “The goushala is 90 km from the city, so what can we do?”

Singh, like other members of the organisation, evidently cares deeply for the animals he protects. So vigilant are they of animal rights that they do not milk their cows, as is normal practice.

“A cow only gives milk when she has a calf,” said Singh. “So if we take that milk, it means that the calf goes without that food. How can that be right?”

Nagamthan, on the banks of the Godavari, is one of thousands of villages in Maharashtra to have earned the right to erect a Tanta Mukti Gram arch at its entrance as part of the state’s dispute-free village programme that comes with a prize money of Rs 5 lakh.

Despite this, with drought casting a long shadow on the region, a water dispute now looms over the village. The Maharashtra State Electricity Board has given a pump with higher horsepower to the cattle shelter. When they run their pump, the rest of the pumps in the village all trip, villagers say. Because of this, they do not allow the goushala to operate their pump, obliging them instead to rely on other water sources.

Singh and his companions have been petitioning the government since October to replace the pump and ensure that they have a regular supply of water. Despite regular and repeated assurances, this has not yet happened. The shelter is now home to 11 bulls and one cow. There were more, but in January, the organisation sent most of their cattle to another camp near Trimbakeshwar, where more water is available.

This is the concluding story in a two-part series on how Maharashtra's farmers have been hurt by the state's beef ban. Read the first part here.

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