The Bharatiya Janata Party is scrambling to contain the fallout of its efforts to prevent the slaughter of cows, which have distorted rural economies in unforeseen ways. To deal with one unexpected consequence, a Madhya Pradesh government panel has now recommended penalties for farmers who abandon their cattle.

This highlights the incongruity of the effort to impose a cultural sentiment (the protection of cows) with the basic economic fact that someone has to pay for the upkeep of these animals.

Cow trade

Over the years, various state governments, many led by the Congress, have enacted laws banning the slaughter of cows as a way of respecting religious sentiments in a country where many Hindus hold the animal to be sacred.

Since 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ascent to power at the Centre as well as its near-complete control of governments in what is known as the Cow Belt has added greater urgency to these rules. Some states have passed stricter laws and expanded the ban beyond cows to include other kinds of cattle.

Alongside these initiatives of the government, gau rakshaks, or cow protection groups, appear to have been given tacit support by the BJP apparatus across the country, leading to a series of lynchings of people accused of storing beef or transporting any sort of cattle. Although the prime minister eventually spoke up against the violence, state support to gau rakshaks has continued. In fact, the Centre has brought in new laws that impose many more restrictions on the sale of cattle, conditions that made it unfeasible for most owners to dispose of their animals.

The net effect of all this has been to turn the cow from an asset into a liability after a point. Where once farmers would have sold off cows after they stopped giving milk, the sale for slaughter is now mostly illegal and traders are afraid of attempting to acquire the animals. With no avenue to sell their cattle, farmers are choosing to abandon them rather than spend money on feeding the animals with no hope of any monetary return. This in turn has led to masses of abandoned cows that often wander into other farms, destroying crops and prompting an entirely new kind of man-animal conflict.

Man-cow conflict

In Bundelkhand, abandoned cows have been blamed for traffic snarls and adding to the water scarcity. In Lakhimpur Kheri, also in Uttar Pradesh, farmers locked 250 cows into a school to prevent them from wandering into fields, forcing the students to go home. Farmers are shooing away the animals with lathis and red chilli sprays. In Agra, abandoned cows were attacked with acid. Experts have said the large-scale abandoning of cows “is a sure threat not only to the dairy economy but more detrimentally to forestry, grasslands and also our urban facilities”.

Governments are now looking for ways to prevent stray cattle from causing more havoc. Madhya Pradesh is attempting to give every cow a unique tag, allowing the authorities to track the owner. The Centre has suggested this projectbe expanded nationally. Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir proposed 1,000 hectares of forest landed be allotted for cow sanctuaries in every district of every state where slaughter is banned. Others have recommended a cess on dairies like Amul and Mother Dairy, which will go towards the establishing of shelthers for unwanted cows. Lalu Prasad Yadav, on his part, suggested tying old cows outside the homes of Bharatiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leaders.

Abandoned farmers

The Madhya Pradesh government panel for cow protection now has a new suggestion. “We want to introduce a penalty for owners who abandon their cows,” Swami Akhileshwaranand, chairman of the executive council of the Madhya Pradesh Cow Protection Board, told the Indian Express. “The penalty will be slapped even if a cow is killed in road accidents because it’s proof that the owner has abandoned it.

If the proposal goes through, farmers will not only have been prevented from making an economically vital decision to sell fallow cows, they will also be forced to bear the expense of religious sentiments imposed by the government by having to spend money on rearing unproductive animals.