Last week, the Scientific Validation and Research on Panchgavya project, coordinated by the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, internally approved 34 proposals for research into panchgavya – a concoction of five products and derivatives from cows including milk, dung, urine, ghee (clarified butter) and curd.

These now await an external review by the Ministry of Science and Technology, which is funding the project, and bodies such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Indian Council of Medical Research.

If the proposals receive their approval, participating scientists will study the capacity of indigenous cows to absorb hazardous chemicals and heavy metals into their flesh, work towards creating a chip that can tell between the A1 milk of foreign or cross-bred cows and the A2 milk of their indigenous counterparts – they are distinguished by the position of a single protein in the molecular chain – and standardise the process of making ghee. They will also explore ways to produce capsules of distilled cow urine for the treatment of dengue, and cow-dung bricks that absorb ultraviolet radiation.

Scientists and doctors have already conducted preliminary studies in these areas. Over the next five years, the project will test their technology and validate their research.

Cow-based economy

The project is run by IIT-Delhi’s Centre for Rural Development and Technology, and its office decor is appropriately cow-themed. Project officials conduct their meetings under the benign gaze of a cow painted on the conference room door. Painted trees, birds, a hut and a figure of Krishna on the opposite wall complete the picture.

The cow-themed conference room at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology.

When the project and the centre’s head, Vijendra Kumar Vijay, started his career at an agricultural university in Udaipur, Rajasthan, in 1988, he worked toward a far less controversial goal: producing fuel. Sitting at his desk, with another painting of cows on the wall behind him, Vijay said, “I was already dealing with cow dung due to my interest in biogas.” In 2014, Vijay was in the news for making a car run on the fuel, which is produced from organic material such as agricultural and municipal waste and sewage.

His interest in a “cow-based economy” is more recent. It began in September 2002 with a conference on the subject at IIT-Delhi, he explained. “Dr Harsh Vardhan chaired and I was organising secretary, and people from over 1,000 cow shelters across the country participated, along with minsters and bureaucrats,” he said. “[It] generated interest in the IIT system.”

Vardhan, who was a member of Parliament from the Bharatiya Janata Party then, is now minister of science and technology.

But in the years after the conference, the subject received no interest from the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance, which was in power till 2014. This changed when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance came to power that year. And in November last year, Minister of State for Ayush Shripad Yesso Naik announced in the Lok Sabha that the government intended to undertake research and academic activities to promote the use of cow urine, especially its “anti-cancer and anti-infective” properties.

All this while, Vijay, 53, continued to be involved in research on the “efficacy of cow urine” as a mosquito repellent and insecticide at the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Rural Industrialisation in Wardha, Maharashtra, till 2008. He also worked with the Go-Vigyan Anusandhan Kendra, a cow science research centre, in Nagpur that is already using cow urine for treatment in its hospitals.

Does it work? “Yes,” he said.

Professor Virendra Kumar Vijay of the Centre for Rural Development and Technology is heading the panchgavya project.

Not emotional about cows

Project coordinator Kavya Dashora said that elsewhere too, scientists were conducting preliminary research on the subject. With an IIT now involved, the panchgavya project is aimed at establishing the scientific bona fides of these disparate efforts. The plan is to lift these out of the domain of “traditional knowledge” and set them firmly in mainstream scientific discourse. “Animals are not our mandate,” Dashora said. “The technology is.” She repeated emphatically that the group is “not emotional” about cows.

Despite such denials, Vijay faces scepticism both from within his community and outside it. Detractors have called the research pseudo-science, an unnecessary distraction from the real issues in conservation. “They do not try to understand the reality of society,” he countered. “In rural areas, you have to use low-cost technology with local inputs. Cattle are common in rural areas.”

What about goats and donkeys? “We will study the difference between indigenous cows and foreign breeds and those between cows and other animals too,” he said. And what if, during the course of their research, they discover that cow urine has no medicinal properties? “We will report it,” he replied.

Five themes

The project proposals are divided into five themes – indigenous breeds, food and nutrition, medicine and health, agriculture, and general utilities. The study of a cow’s absorption capabilities is part of the first lot. “There is a long-prevailing hypothesis that cows do not release toxins into milk or urine but absorb them,” explained Dashora. Another research goal in this set is to study the prodigious reproductive capacity of a cattle breed from Karnataka whose members are said to calve annually.

Dashora’s own research, undertaken as a PhD student at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Bikaner, Rajasthan, in 2005, is on the use of raw cow milk in “building low-cost resistance” in bajra (a type of millet).

With the chip-based detector – part of the food-and-nutrition theme – the group hopes to make A2 milk from indigenous cows more popular among the public than A1 milk from foreign or cross breeds. “There is research to show that A1 milk causes obesity and lactose intolerance,” said Harmanpreet Singh, who joined the project in December.

And under the utilities theme, the researchers will explore the possibility of producing mosquito repellents and bricks out of dung.

The micro-model complex at IIT-Delhi where most of the research will be conducted.

Early days

For all the interest it has generated, the project is at a nascent stage.

The research team comprises everyone at the Centre for Rural Development and Technology along with scientists from a few other fields, including biomedical sciences. They hope to eventually get a central instrumentation facility, with all the required machines and equipment, where they can carry out their work. But till then, the centre’s micro-model complex – a seven-acre area within the IIT campus where field tests of the technological innovations are carried out before taking them to rural areas – and its laboratories will have to do.

Raw material for the project, or the panchgavya, will be sourced from two to three fixed gowshalas or cow shelters that rear indigenous breeds in and around Delhi.

Harmanpreet Singh in a laboratory at the micro-model site.

All images by Shreya Roy Chowdhury.