Nearly six months after the Haryana government imposed a total ban on cow slaughter, a donation racket seems to have sprung up across the state to milk the traditional veneration of cows.

That's evident from the "gau ki gullaks”, or cow cash boxes, that have suddenly become visible in dhabas and shops along the state's highways.

“It started off with the motive to strengthen the financial condition of gaushalas [cow shelters] which have come under huge pressure after the government passed the anti-cow slaughter act,” said Yadvinder Singh, the manager of Shri Krishna Gaushala at Kanina in Mahendragarh district of Haryana.

But then, members of Gau Raksha Dals, or cow protection groups, realised there was the opportunity for "something else”, he said – refusing to go into detail.

Though one seems certain about the genesis of these piggy banks, everybody agrees that the resurgent religiosity, coupled with political confidence, has a special place in the new informal economy.

In March 2015, five months after the Bharatiya Janata party was elected to power in the state, the assembly passed the Gauvansh Sanrakshan and Gausamvardhan Act, which put a total ban on cow slaughter and the consumption of beef. President Pranab Mukherjee gave the bill his approval in November.

Getting in on the game

Unable to sell their old cattle, many farmers have tried to have them stabled in charitable cow shelters. With little government support forthcoming, these institutions have been forced to spend more energy on raising funds, as this Scroll story reported.

Some people who had nothing to do with cow protection were quick to see an opportunity. But as a consequence, legitimate shelters have suffered. “Since the collection of donations for gaushalas has fallen in the hands of local goons enjoying support from the ruling party, we have insulated ourselves from this racket by maintaining proper record of every single rupee that is dropped in our gullaks,” said the manager of Kanina Gaushala.

He added: “We have made it mandatory that at least three members of the managing committee must remain present when gullaks are opened and the amount accruing from each of them is properly entered into the gaushala’s register.”

As a precaution, he has also stopped outsourcing the management of donations through these cash boxes. “We have placed 50 gullaks in Kanina market," he said. "Till about a month ago, these gullaks were managed by a local shopkeeper in the market. But now we ourselves keep a track on each of the gullaks.”

In other places, though, there's less control. Boxes are placed prominently in roadside dhabas, especially on highways, and are regularly emptied by people claiming to belong to one or the other gaushala or members of Gau Raksha Dals. Many claim to have links to the ruling party.

Strong arm tactics

“You feel so intimidated when they come and put a gullak in your shop that you can’t say no to them,” said Narendra Bhardwaj, who runs Royal Murthal Dhaba at Murthal on Delhi-Chandigarh highway. “No one can ask them whether the money is actually going for the purpose it is donated for or it is simply ending up in pockets of some individuals.”

Though most dhabas display one gullak each, Royal Murthal Dhaba has three boxes near its cash-counter, each ostensibly from a different gaushala. “Till recently, there used to be seven such gullaks here," said Bhardwaj. But about a fortnight ago, the gullak operators "had a heated discussion among themselves, and thereafter they removed four boxes", he said.

Bhagvir Ahlawat, a former sarpanch of Dighal village in Jhajjar district of Haryana, put the phenomenon in context. “The same people who earlier collected donations in the name of a Ram temple at Ayodhya are doing this now in the name of gaushalas,” he said. “Whenever such occasions of earning easy money arise, ideologically-driven street gangs get incorporated in informal syndicates.”

People in the area say that the competition to collect donations has started creating tensions on the ground. There have been reports of violence, not only over turf but also as passersby are intimidated into making donations.

“A bunch of guys with saffron head-bands would come every now and then and demand donations for gaushalas,” said Rajiv Kumar, a resident of Sonipat and an advocate. “If you take out a Rs 50 note, they demand Rs 100, and if you volunteer to offer Rs 500, they force you to pay Rs 1,000. You can’t complain anywhere because it is their government and the police will always take their side.”