Prahlad Singh, a farmer from the Sikar district in Rajasthan, winced and pointed to the barbed wires surrounding his crop of bajra. “We need to put this up or awara, feral cows will eat up all my crop,” he said. “I spend thousands on this, what can I do?”

Politics around the cow has taken centre stage in India of late, being one of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s main planks. The communal polarisation around the issue has helped the party do well electorally. The BJP is now in the government of 16 states and, most recently, won Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Yet, the cow is not only a religious animal in India – it is also an economic one. The BJP’s focus on cow protection has hit the bovine economy hard. Farmers are finding it difficult to sell cattle. This means falling incomes and increasingly large herds of abandoned cattle that pose a threat to crops.

This squeeze has resulted in a reaction from farmers in the Sikar district of Rajasthan. In response to a call from the All India Kisan Sabha, the farmer’s body of the Communist Pary of India (Marxist), since September 1, farmers gathered in large numbers at the Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee Mandi in Sikar town. They also implemented a chakka jam, roadblock of the major highways crossing the district resulting in a near paralysis. The farmers were angry at their falling incomes. They demanded loans waivers, better prices and a let up in the draconian rules that now govern the sale of cattle slaughter in Rajasthan. On Thursday, 13 days after the agitation started, the Rajasthan government gave in to the movement and agreed to meet their demands.

Agitating farmers at the Sikar mandi during the agitation

Bovine economics

“Livestock is a farmer’s ATM,” said Amra Ram. “Anytime he needs money, he sells a cow or a goat.” The main face of the Sikar agitation, 61-year old Ram is a three-time MLA from the CPI(M) and National President of the All India Kisan Sabha.

Ram explained how livestock is crucial to the life of a farmer. “Thirty percent of a farmers income comes from selling milk and animals,” said Ram. “First notebandi hit the farmer severely. But he will still recover from that. You kill the animal trade and the farmer will never recover.”

Livestock is especially crucial to Rajasthan given its status as an arid state with a low population density. As per the 19th Livestock Census, 2012, Rajasthan had the second largest population of livestock of all the states across the Indian Union. However, of late, growth has plateaued. While from 2003 to 2007, the livestock population grew by 15.3%, the rate of increase between 2007-2012 was only 1.9%.

Cow protection

Bhagwan Bagariya, a Kisan Sabha member and farmer from Badadar village, Sikar traced the inflection point to 1995, when the BJP government in Rajasthan had passed a stringent cow slaughter law (it was so strict that it upturned the dictum of innocent-until-proven-guilty and placed the burden of proof on the accused). Rajasthan even has a dedicated ministry for gau-kalyan, cow welfare.

“Earlier when a bacchra, male calf, was born, the farmer was happy, his whole family was happy,” explained Bhagwan Bagariya. “It meant he would earn Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 by selling it. But now that has nearly stopped. There are no buyers.”

Bhagwan Bagariya pointed to the state of Rajasthan’s large animals fairs to buttress his point. “Once the animal fair in Naguar [around three hours from Sikar town] was the biggest in Asia,” he claimed. “But now it is barely anything.”

The decline in the livestock trade, though, is not all due to the law. A large part is played by gau rakshak gangs, who often assault traders transporting cows, buffaloes and even goats. “Go raksha dals stop even farmers if we step out with our animals,” complained Gurdeep Singh from Rashidpura village in Sikar. “Due to this, animal traders have got scared and now they have stopped coming to our villages to buy our old cattle.”

“Look what happened to Pehlu Khan,” pointed out Subhash Bagariya, a farmer from Badadar village. Khan, a dairy farmer, was lynched by a gau rakshak gang on April 1 in Rajasthan. While Khan named six people in a dying declaration, the Rajasthan Police claimed the names weren’t reliable and summarily closed the case. “If the gau raksha gangs will never be caught, why should a trader risk his life to buy and sell our animals?”

Unable to sell cattle, Gurdeep Singh is angry with gau rakshaks for attacking traders.

Tightening the screws

Given that the cow plank has helped the BJP politically, rather than pull back, the party has of late pushed it even harder. In 2015, the BJP-controlled Rajasthan government made the rules against the transport of cattle even stricter. Earlier this year in May, the Union government drafted a new rule that banned the sale of cattle and buffaloes for slaughter, though the restriction was stayed two months later by the Supreme Court.

In 2015, the Rajasthan government even passed a law that placed stringent restrictions on the trade in camels, effectively killing off the industry. In 2016, the famous camel fair in Pushkar saw only 2,500 camels on sale compared to 40,000 a decade ago.

“We had so many camels in this area till some time back,” rued Subhash Bagariya. “But now they are all gone.”

Kishan Singh, who retired from the Indian Army, owns 20 bighas of land and harshly criticised the new laws. “Neither these politicians nor these gau rakshaks have ever handled a cow, it seems. These new rules mean we simply can’t sell cattle. And it costs Rs 50,000 to keep a cow for a year. How can a farmer afford it?”

Feral cattle

Neither able to sell nor keep his cows, the farmer has chosen the only other option available to him: abandonment. This means that herds of feral cattle are a growing menace across states in north and west India with harsh cow slaughter laws.

The issue has gripped the politics of many states. The Madhya Pradesh Assembly has fiercely debated the feral cattle menace even as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister wanted all stray cattle to be in sheds by September 15. Both Haryana and Rajasthan are also discussing the viability of having specially designated sanctuaries for feral cows while Kota city wants to sterilise stray bulls in order to keep the bovine population from growing.

So acute is the issue that feral cattle are even causing deaths. In Surat, Gurjarat, stray cattle cause 25 accidents everyday and in Delhi, a BJP member was mauled to death by a stray bull. In response, Ahmedabad police have threatened to book cattle owners who abandon their livestock with culpable homicide.

Women and children set up a roadblock during the Sikar agitation.

Back down

The scale of the problem made feral cattle a major question in the Sikar stir. Farmers were angry with herd of cattle eating up their crops and the cost and effort required to keep the animals out. The fact that farmers were able to bring Sikar district to a halt for around a week meant the government was forced to sit up and take note. In an agreement reached with the All India Kisan Sabha on Thursday, the Rajasthan government promised to firm up the cow shelters in the state, put in a scheme to fence fields and amend forest laws. Most impactfully, the Rajasthan government also promised to make it easier to trade in cattle. It said that it would reduce the age limit of the male calf when a farmer is allowed to sell it from three to two years. The government also promised to make complete arrangements to protect cattle traders.

Experts have continuously pointed to the detrimental effects the curbs on cow slaughter and trade would have. The culling of livestock is crucial to animal husbandry. In Sikar, this meant that farmers were ready to agitate in order to force the government to back off. For the first time since the BJP formed the government in New Delhi, the party was forced to retreat on its policy of cow protection.

“Pashu vyapari aur kisan ka choli daman sa sambandh hai,” explained Arma Ram. Cattle traders and farmers go together like a blouse and skirt, he said, referring to the traditional female dress in large parts of Rajasthan. “If you break this bond, the farmer will rise up to protect it.”