On Monday, the so-far peaceful protests against jallikattu on Chennai’s Marina Beach turned violent as the police sought to clear agitators from what had become ground zero of the movement against the Supreme Court ban on the bull-taming sport. Though an ordinance cleared on Saturday allowed the sport to take place this Pongal, the controversy and debate surrounding the issue refuses to abate.

Those who are opposing the ban on the sport argue that this is part of Tamil Nadu’s tradition and that it is the only incentive to rear indigenous bulls, instead of the high-milk yielding hybrid varieties.

It is sad that things have come to such a pass that many feel jallikattu is the last hope for indigenous cattle breed in the state.

Then and now

There was a time when animals, particularly cattle, were at the heart of every agricultural unit. They were the source of all the manure for the fields and dairy products, all of which contributed immensely to sustainability. Even after their death, they gave their leather and horns for saddles, sandals and horn manure. They were worshiped because they were so useful and were integral to agrarian life.

However, today the tractor has replaced the cattle in every farm and urea has replaced manure. Instead, animals are reared for meat at factory farms, where they stand in an assembly line from morning to night, waiting for a slow and agonising release from an unremarkable life.

No one knows the names of India’s fast-vanishing indigenous cattle breeds anymore and hardly anyone cares. Traditional cowshed management practices are dead and forgotten, Ayurvedic medicine systems to care for cattle have given way to horrid vaccines and antibiotics hitherto unheard of, pumped in by the pharmaceutical industry.

No one grows the crops that once gave both food and fodder: bajra, jowar, kangini, kodo, sama and mandua. These are now packaged as multigrains and sold in urban organic stores for the upper class. No one cares that we do monocropping, or grow the same crop on a plot of land every year, which increases productivity but depletes the soil, instead of multi-cropping. No one cares that we grow more cash crops than food crops or worry about yield instead of soil and milch instead of mulch.

No one cares that agriculture is dying as a vocation. Farmers are starving (a terrible oxymoron), indigenous seeds are vanishing and traditional practices are all but extinct. Multi-cropping, inter-cropping, companion planting and crop rotation are Greek and Latin to modern farmers, who are all children of the green revolution, with its focus on mono-cropping. Farmers’ children do not want to continue in agriculture and feel ashamed to say that they work with soil. They are all in cities, many in menial jobs earning a paltry sum while their lands lie waiting or are being grabbed bit by bit by developers and land sharks.

While our lands lie unused and our farmers starve, the government is taking on lease land in Brazil and Mozambique to grow food. More and more subsidies and loans are being offered to buy chemicals to grow food and destroy precious top soil. The companies that make chemicals and fertilisers also make the medicines for cancer.

Beautiful cows with sad eyes languish in dark, damp dairies giving birth again and again until they are exhausted and are then towed away to be eaten. They cannot nurture their calves or feed them. They watch their babies starve to death and have their male calves snatched away from them for slaughter. The tiny calves who could become the sturdy beautiful bulls we all are fighting over today are thrown into trucks with their legs broken, heading to an early death all so that our babies can be nourished with milk and we may make more sweets, shakes and ice creams than we will ever need. What a tragedy.

When cow slaughter is banned, buffaloes, which are also indigenous cattle, bear the brunt. The government has now succeeded in convincing China to import buffalo meat from it.

The cattle that are not in factory farms are in gaushalas or shelters running on crores of rupees that come by way of donations. These funds are often misused, while hundreds of cows and bulls lie there without proper food, water, sanitation and medical facilities. Above all, they have no freedom. Many gaushalas are nothing but dairies. The animals stand in their own waste, in a cloud of flies and mosquitoes. No one visits them, volunteers with the shelters or helps contribute to their welfare.

The crowds at Chennai's Marina Beach last week. Photo: Arun Sankar/AFP

Jallikattu debate

I wish even a part of that crowd in the Marina Beach would protest all this. Those who advocate jallikattu in the name of tradition and who feel that the existence of native cattle hinges on a sport that has become virtually irrelevant in an agrarian context must know that the bull is already on its last legs. Jallikattu alone is not going to save the species. Besides, is that all we have to offer to this wonderful majestic animal today, who is supposed to be intrinsic to our heritage and culture – a mere trial by fire?

However, a ban on jallikattu is just as irrelevant, because it will propel the process of native bulls becoming extinct. A court order banning the bull-taming sport without appropriate directions on protecting indigenous cattle means their sure death. The bull, then, faced with the continuation of jallikattu or a ban on it, is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

The solution to protecting the bull lies in agriculture not jallikattu. We need to de-mechanise agriculture in small holdings and encourage farmers to adopt practices that have a low carbon footprint. We have contaminated soil, water and air and the very food we eat by making cattle irrelevant to a farm. We need to revisit our traditional agrarian systems, value dung over milk and bring our cattle back into farms.

Of and by the animals

At the Beejom farm in Noida, we practice all this and more, with incredible results. We are presently protecting 12 breeds of draught as well milch indigenous cattle from across India and are in the process of bringing in more that are on the verge of extinction. We are a dung farm and have a project called Dung Ho! that celebrates the role of manure in producing clean food and making farming more sustainable, with zero carbon footprint.

The yields are amazing in our farm thanks to our cattle. We save indigenous seeds, use cow dung to make biogas, solar energy to make electricity and use earth worms and bees for greater fertility and pollination. It is the animals who run the farm, we are merely facilitators. On our farm, the bulls save us, we don’t save them. They are generators and producers, not recipients of our charity. They pull the carts and run the sugarcane, grain and oil chakkis. They plough our lands gently too. We use their dung to make fertilisers, pest repellents, agarbatti essence sticks and vermicompost.

Beejom farm, via Facebook

We grow millet through the year so that we may get healthy grain and the animals can have clean fodder. We make them graze on our lands so that the soil can heal and become more fertile. For all this, they are rewarded with a free range life, clean water, food, love, care and above all, a life of dignity. That is because this is a matter of tradition and culture. This is how we lived and farmed before, gently and sustainably, respecting our soil, land, air, flora and fauna.

I wish we would congregate like we did to protest the ban on jallikattu to oppose the killing of stray dogs in Kerala, the slaughter of animals everyday and the way slaughter houses function. I wish we were all just as outraged at all the factory farms and the thousands of abandoned animals in every shelter in the city.

Why doesn’t it anger us when the food we eat is contaminated? Why does no one bother about farmers’ suicides and raise their voice against the companies that sell unregulated pesticides and fertilisers? Do we ever get emotional about our polluted dying rivers, vanishing water bodies, forests and wildlife? All a matter of tradition and culture too.

Therefore, before we decide to be for or against jallikattu and make a dash to protect our culture, we need to know our agriculture. Most of the farmers who are defending the sport may be chemical farmers who have no real use for the bulls on their farms. The matter should be taken out of the political arena and all necessary steps should be taken by the legislature, executive and judiciary to protect our indigenous animals from extinction. by setting up sanctuaries to preserve the breed and model farms for people to replicate.

Most of those on the Marina Beach in Chennai today, even if well meaning, are out to defend a tradition they know not much about. Little do they know that all it would take to protect a bull is a pile of bull shit.

Aparna Rajagopal is a lawyer-turned-farmer who works on indigenous cattle preservation.