With the government’s assurance to the Supreme Court on Tuesday that it would suspend implementation of new regulations on cattle trade, the nation’s cows, bullocks, bulls and buffaloes are back on the front page. The new rules, notified in May, had been greeted by vociferous protests from some state governments. As many pointed out, the regulations made it virtually impossible for cattle to be sold for slaughter – leaving farmers with the enormous burden of feeding old, fallow animals that are of little economic value.

In the intense debate around the new regulations, it became clear that the government had failed to consult livestock economists and animal husbandry experts before notifying the new regulations. There are indications even Chief Economic Advisor was taken by a surprise, when the Livestock Market (Regulation) Rules were notified. As Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanyam noted in a recent interview, “If social policies impede the workings of the livestock market, the impact on the economics of the livestock farming could be considerable.”

As it turns out, the nation’s surplus cattle have been a focus of study for Indian academicians for more than a century. They seem to have debated them almost as much as they’ve discussed the sacred cow. The two ideas are closely related. Livestock economists have frequently suggested that India’s social attitudes towards the cow are linked to cattle that livestock experts during the British Raj classified as surplus – animals that were viewed as useless, failing to offer any economic service to a farming household or society at large.


Perhaps the first academic study of India’s cattle was undertaken in 1893, when John A Voelcker of the Royal Agricultural Society of England submitted his “Report on the Improvement of Indian Agriculture”. He referred to free roaming Brahmani bulls as a “standing religious menace” to crops in the country.

The concerns over whether surplus cattle were consuming resources that could be used to feed more promising milch and draught animals were reiterated in 1928 by the Royal Commission on Agriculture. It said that even as there had been an increase in area sown, this had been accompanied by subdivision and fragmentation of land holdings. This had led to a greater demand for draught cattle or beasts of burden,which in turn meant more competition with humans for the food resources.

During the second phase of surplus cattle debate between 1920 and 1950, the arguments were followed by estimations based on available statistics and experimental data. Economists CN Vakil and SK Muranjan wrote in 1927 that slaughter of one-fifth of existing cattle would not have any detrimental effect on foodgrain availability. However, in 1926 a book written by Nilanda Chatterjee had attributed the deterioration of cattle to “excessive rather than insufficient slaughter”.

During this period, concerns about cattle slaughter did not rest on religious and cultural logic only and the lobbyists were not motivated by cow worship arguments alone. There were diverse groups that wrote and spoke about cattle slaughter. For instance, members of the Humanitarian League argued that milch stables in cities operated in such adverse conditions as to effect drain of the best indigenous milch breeds of cows and buffaloes.

The policy discussions during 1920s suggested not a legislation to ban cattle slaughter and beef consumption, but an effort by municipalities to remove the milch stables out of the city limits and encouraged the establishment of milk supply routes from rural centres.

Optimal numbers

The optimal number of cattle India required was constantly being questioned. The first all-India livestock census in 1919-’20 showed that in a total cattle population of 113 million in British India, there were 5.1 million breeding bulls. But by 1966, there were only 0.4 million breeding bulls, even as the cattle population had grown to 176 million.

Artificial insemination had made it possible to support breeding operations with fewer bulls. But also, as economist SN Mishra observed, “Religious considerations which seemed to have helped in swelling their numbers beyond economic necessity (half a century ago), definitely yielded ground in the long run to inescapable economic compulsions.”

The 1960s found several economists estimating the extent of surplus number of bullocks and cows. I Chatterjee in an essay published in 1962 argued that reducing the number of adult female cattle by 20% of their present level would bring their numbers to optimal level. VM Dandekar in 1964 analysed 1961 livestock census figures for Maharashtra and proposed that nearly 50% cows were redundant, if one kept in mind the stock required to reproduce the existing bullock population. Dandekar had asked his readers, “True, slaughter of cattle is not in consonance with our cultural traditions and values. But what is more humane and more in harmony with our cultural traditions and values, slaughter or killing through starvation?”

In 1971, K N Raj found it curious that “there were only 47 adult female cattle for every 100 male cattle in Uttar Pradesh”. He commented that “this high rate of elimination in the heartland of India, where the Hindu feelings about the cow were apparently strongest is not something that can be brushed aside”. He also said, “Whether one regards it as a reflection of the pragmatism of the peasant or as another evidence of Hindu hypocrisy, at least no one can say that the technique adopted for cattle stock adjustment is ineffective”.

Varying estimates

The surplus cattle debate had seen so much of writing from different viewpoints that the estimates on surplus had ranged from 80 million useless cattle to scarcely any surplus at all.

A lot of milk – and in recent times blood of innocent people too – has flown in India since 1980s. India has now emerged as the world’s largest milk producer. Meat export earnings for 2016-’17 were Rs 26,303 crores. However, what India sadly lack today is an engagement by policymakers with livestock economists.

The rise of hooliganism in the name of cow protection, drastic changes in the policies on cattle slaughter and beef, and now a knee-jerk intervention in the functioning of cattle markets will not only affect the nation’s cattle but also communities and livelihoods that are so intricately linked with the after-life usefulness of sacred cow.

As it revises the rules, as it has promised to, the government would do well to revisiting the long history of discussion about sacred and hence surplus cattle, rather than allowing policy to be hijacked by the politics of polarisation.

Himanshu Upadhyaya teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.