The Animal Welfare Board of India has objected to a proposal by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to hold a seminar on the improvement of gaushalas or cow shelters in the country. The seminar that the ministry proposes to hold on May 16 is to discuss three main topics – how to increase milk production of Indian bred cows, how to provide nutritious fodder so as to obtain optimum milk production and how to make non-productive cows financially sustainable. From the brief that the ministry has sent the board, the seminar seems to skirt the hot topic of the current crisis of cattle in this year’s drought.

The gaushala seminar was first proposed by the animal welfare board itself to discuss the limited point of how to modernise the shelters to make them at least partially self sustainable. The ministry stepped in and expanded the scope of the meeting to include the subject of increasing the milk productivity of indigenous Indian breeds and how to also provide them good quality fodder.

A Rs 20 lakh meeting

The board had initially planned to spend around Rs 4 lakhs to invite only 10 or 15 of the biggest gaushalas in each state that could then pass on information to smaller organisations. The ministry has now asked the board to release Rs 20 lakhs to invite all 2,000 government-recognised gaushalas to the event.

“We have no budget for that. We are a small body,” said the animal welfare board’s chairman RM Kharb. “We may be able to spend about Rs 10-12 lakhs to help animals in natural calamity, which is nothing if you think about it. Animals need much more for their feeding, for their medical care and more.”

It is smack in the middle of a natural calamity – one of the worst droughts in recent years for many parts of India – that this seminar is being held. In bone dry Bundelkhand, farmers struggling to feed themselves have been abandoning their cattle in the hope that the animals will survive by foraging for food.

Cattle in crisis

“In any village you go to, you hear that at least 100 cows have died in the last two months,” said Abhishek Mishra who runs a non-profit in Mahoba district in Bundelkhand.

Reports of cattle deaths have also been coming from Uttar Pradesh. In Rajasthan, people scared of selling cattle due to the presence of cow protectionist vigilante groups are abandoning the animals they cannot care for any more. The state government has sanctioned Rs 1 crore to arrange water and feed for cattle in its drought-affected districts.

More than 65,000 heads of cattle in Telangana are at risk from heat, thirst and starvation. “Everyone is running around to get food and water. We have to call farmers bringing paddy two or three times a day to make sure we get fodder,” said Mahesh Agarwal, president of the Telangana Gaushala Federation that is a body of 120 gaushalas, some recognised by the animal welfare board and about 60 registered in the state. The federation has been pleading for the state government’s assistance in procuring water and fodder for cattle.

Animal welfare board protests

The animal welfare board’s chairman RM Kharb has written to the ministry asking that the seminar be postponed to later in the year. “Almost the entire country is facing severe drought like conditions and most of the Gaushalas with whom I had an informal interaction expressed strong reservations to attend the Seminar at this time of the year due to unexpected sudden developments of drought like conditions when they are engaged in meeting the acute shortage of water and fodder for animals. They all requested that the National Seminar should be postponed preferably to October / November 2016 when the weather will be more congenial,” Kharb said in his letter.

Kharb also points out that increasing milk productivity and improving fodder quality are concerns of the Department of Animal Husbandry and Ministry of Agriculture and if the ambit of the seminar must include these topics, then these two bodies must help to organise the event. The animal welfare board is only willing to look after the areas related to the care of unproductive cattle in gaushalas.

The board is uncertain of having a useful seminar at such short notice and on the same day as the Tamil Nadu elections, which might exclude board members and NGOs in the state from attending.

Officials at the environment ministry told Scroll that the details of the seminar were still being finalised.

'Train gaushalas at the grassroots'

Asked about what he thought about this proposed gaushala seminar, Mishra in Bundelkhand said that the present crisis highlights why people should be given information on increasing productivity at gaushalas and making them sustainable. But he didn’t see the point of having such training in Delhi. “If they spent this money [that they are spending on the seminar] on giving training here at the grassroots level, then there would be some benefit,” he said.

“There is no time for a seminar like this and there is no need also,” said Agarwal of the Telangana Gaushala Federation.