Sitting under a tree in the middle of his three acre farm in western Uttar Pradesh on March 28, Tara Chand of Dola village in Baghpat Lok Sabha constituency fretted that his younger son Krishan would have to spend the entire night guarding their cucumber crop against stray cattle.

Tara Chand lost his eyesight 12 years ago after developing cataracts in both eyes. Constantly reminding Krishan that any laxity could lead to huge losses for the family, he said if he still had his eyesight, he would share the night patrol with his son.

“He has to guard the farm day and night and though I cannot see, I spend most of my day here just to be around him,” said Chand. “Yogi Adityanath was wrong in banning cattle slaughter. It has made the lives of ordinary farmers like me miserable. Earlier, we would work during the day and sleep peacefully at night. Now, thanks to Yogiji we can’t even sleep at night.”

Not just Adityanath, Chand also blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not fulfilling any of the promises he made to the farmers during his 2014 election campaign.

“I have filled up the form for the PM Kisan Yojana and have not received the Rs 2,000 under the scheme,” he said. “Both these leaders were elected by people with great hopes and they have failed to live up to the expectations.”

Tara Chand.

Alongside cucumber, Chand has sugarcane growing in one part of his field. Sugarcane dominates the landscape of western Uttar Pradesh. His crop is ready for harvesting but Chand does not seem excited about that. He complained that the delay in payments from sugar mills has also hurt farmers in the region.

Several farmers in Baghpat and Kairana Lok Sabha constituencies claimed that “gai-ganna”, or cows and sugarcane, are the two most important issues among farmers in the region, and could have a huge impact on how they vote.

Eight seats from western Uttar Pradesh – including Kairana, Bijnor, Baghpat –will go to the polls in the first phase of the elections, on April 11.

This story has been reported from three Lok Sabha constituencies.

Stray cattle menace

India has always had a stray cattle problem. But paranoia created around cow slaughter by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters has exacerbated it in the past five years.

The fear of cow vigilantes has meant that it has become increasingly difficult for farmers to sell cattle who had outlived their usefulness to butchers, as many of them did in the past. Instead, unable to feed and care for these unproductive animals, farmers set them loose.

In Uttar Pradesh specifically, soon after taking over as chief minister in 2017, Adityanath clamped down licenced and unlicenced slaughterhouses and on the smuggling of cattle for slaughter.

This has led to a massive increase in the number of stray cattle in the state in the past two years, said local residents. These animals have been raiding fields and feeding on crops much to the dismay of farmers like Tara Chand.

In 2012, according to the 19th Livestock Survey, Uttar Pradesh had nearly one crore cattle and more than 10 lakh stray bovines.

A barbed wire fence broken by stray cattle.

‘Commando cattle’

Chand is one of the few farmers in the region who has not yet fenced his farm to protect it from stray cattle.

A few kilometers away, Rajbir Singh of Mundet village in Kairana Lok Sabha constituency claimed that barbed wire fencing was ineffective in preventing cattle from entering fields.

Singh compared young bulls to commandos because of the ease with which they slipped through this fencing. “They even hurt themselves in doing so, but they just do not care,” he said. They are starving and even deep cuts do not deter them from entering the fields. They even break the poles on which these wires are tied.”

The stray cattle have also attacked many people in villages across these two constituencies.

After stray cattle mauled his uncle in June, Deepak Sharma of Bamnoli village has been mobilising support to ensure the government immediately addresses the problem.

“He was trying to chase stray cattle away when one of the young bulls charged at him and kept hitting him till he was unconscious,” said Sharma. “He was taken to the local hospital but did not survive.”

Fear of cow vigilantes

Several farmers in the region admitted that they used to sell their unwanted cattle to butchers. This helped them earn some money, and also kept the stray cattle population in check, they said.

“A farmer does not have the capacity to take care of each and every animal,” said Jitendra Huda of Khedi Bairagi village in Kairana constituency. “Where will we get the fodder to feed these many animals? Moreover, they need to be washed, cleaned and need space to live. We would earlier sell such animals and earn some money. Now, we are being forced to abandon them.”

Cattle have an average life span of about 15 years. While cows are the most useful to farmers because of the milk they produce, once they age, the quantity and quality of their milk starts to deteriorate, making them a financial burden.

Bulls are no longer required either for field work or for breeding purposes because of the use of tractors in fields and the procedure of artificial insemination. Male calves are of no value to farmers either.

With limited resources and the collapse of local cattle markets because of the government clampdown and cow vigilantism, farmers have been forced to abandon their unproductive animals.

“Even if my cattle get sick, I fear to take them in a tractor or truck as gau rakshaks [cow vigilantes] could attack the vehicle,” said Huda.

Crop damaged by stray cattle in Shamli.

‘Yogi and Modi have come’

Farmers in the region are so perturbed with the stray cattle menace that they refer to such animals as “Yogi” and “Modi”.

“If a young calf enters the field, we say Yogi [Adityanath] has barged in,” said Deshpal Rana of Lilonkhedi village in Kairana. “If an older one does, we call him Modi.”

But not everyone in this region thinks stray cattle is an insurmountable problem.

Shyam Singh of Naya Gaon in Baghpat Lok Sabha constituency acknowledged that stray cattle were causing problems in the region, but said farmers were to blame for this because they had abandoned the animals in the first place.

“Who abandons an animal that has fed them for 10 years?” asked Singh, who used to work at a nearby sugar mill but has now retired. “Their greed will be judged by gods. For now, the government should ensure that there are enough cowsheds where these animals can live peacefully.”

Asked whether he has any cattle, Singh said: “I never reared cows. It is too much of a burden.”

The money sugarcane mills owe farmers is a much bigger issue than stray cattle, said Singh. According to him, the arrears have never been so high in the past.

Deshpal Rana at his farm.

Cattle and sugarcane, a poll issue

In Mundet village of Kairana Lok Sabha constituency, Rajbir Singh, president of the Bharitya Kisan Sanyukt Kisan Union at the Upper Doab Sugar Mill in Shamli, said the non-payment of sugarcane dues by sugar mills have led to several protests in the region, including a 11-day-long dharna at a sugar mill in Shamli town in January.

According to him, the mills have not paid farmers arrears worth Rs 11,000 crore, which has led to many Jat farmers raising the banner of revolt against the BJP government.

“Farmers, especially Jats voted for Modi in 2014 and Yogi [Adityanath] in 2017 with the hope that a BJP government at the Centre and state would benefit us,” said Deshpal Rana. “On the contrary, the situation has worsened under their watch. BJP has failed on each of its promises made to farmers who will express their anger through their votes. Gai [the cow] and ganna [sugarcane] will sink the BJP in UP.”

Mill operators were colluding with influential farmers in the region and only buying their sugarcane, alleged Chaudhary Raj Pal of Behdi village in Bijnor Lok Sabha constituency. According to him, influential farmers buy sugarcane from other farmers at a cheaper rate and then use their influence to sell it to the mills.

“Since poor and marginal farmers are in desperate need of money, they end up selling their crop at a lower price,” said Pal. “Do you think someone like this would not think about it before casting his vote?”

In Khedi Bairagi village, Huda pointed out that the Adityanath government has failed to increase the State Advisory Price for sugarcane as previous governments had done. “Ten years of Mayawati and the Akhilesh Yadav government witnessed a sharp increase in SAP [State Advisory Price] but there has been only 3% increase under the Yogi government,” said Huda.

Many farmers said that when the Samajwadi Party’s tenure ended in March 2017, the State Advisory Price was Rs 305 per quintal. Since then, it has increased only by Rs 10. “How are we expected to continue farming considering the rising cost of labour, fertilisers, electricity, diesel, among others?,” asked Huda. “Farming has become completely unviable and no farmer, including me, want our children to pursue it.”

Labourers waiting for work in Shamli.

No jobs in farms

Huda also pointed out that the non-payment of arrears by sugar mills was having a domino effect on the rural economy: farmers are not hiring labour because they do not have money to pay them.

Several labourers waiting at a railway crossing in Shamli for some daily wage work to come by attested to this.

“I get work once in three or four days,” said Vinod Kumar of Shikka village. “How will I feed my family for three days with just Rs 400? The condition of labour class is shocking and we are starving.”

Many other labourers – Johnny Kumar, Deepak, Rampal Sharma, Shiv Kumar – also said work was hard to find. But most of them said they will vote for the BJP despite their troubles, claiming that Modi has done what no other leader could achieve.

Many of them, however, could not specify how they had benefitted under Modi, claiming instead that India had become a superpower under the prime minister.

“He deserves another term,” said Rampal Sharma of Gomtipur village.

Johnny Kumar of Alipur Kala village echoed him. Kumar, who claims to be a “Modi fan”, said he had to sell his shop after demonetisation wreaked havoc on the economy. But he believes that Modi is the only politician who can take India forward.

Labourers in Shamli.

Urban views

Urban areas in western Uttar Pradesh seem to be oblivious to the cow-sugarcane troubles of the rural areas. As this region prepares to vote, Modi, nationalism, and communalism dominate the political discourse.

“Neither stray cattle nor delay in payment to sugarcane farmers will have any impact on the people,” said Harpal Singh, a real estate dealer in Modinagar town. “It is only about Modi becoming the prime minister yet again.”

All photographs by Akash Bisht.