Earlier this year, farmers and agricultural labourers in a village in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh decided that enough was enough and that something finally needed to be done about the cows in their district. With the state administration raiding slaughter houses, cow vigilantes (gaurakshaks as they are referred to) running amok lynching cattle traders and the overall poor economic return on these cows, it made little sense to continue rearing them.

Frustrated with the situation, a number of farmers decided to release the cows out of their sheds, but this was no solution. In fact, it would only go on to compound the nuisance, with these cows found to be grazing on other farms. A more permanent solution needed to be identified and a large meeting attended by over a thousand residents was organised to brainstorm solutions. In a discussion that lasted several hours, the residents eventually agreed on a novel but rather strange idea to deal with the cow menace.

They collectively decided to herd all the cattle in trucks and leave it in neighbouring Nepal. However, the plan failed as Nepali villagers protested. While a fight broke out between the villagers, a train ran over more than 30 cattle tied to the railway tracks. The government of Nepal has now allocated funds to build bovine shelters for cattle abandoned by Indians. If this doesn’t embarrass our political class, nothing else will.

India is the top-ranked milk producing nation and home to the largest bovine population in the world. 330 million cows or onefourth of the world’s cows are in India. India also has more abandoned cows than any other nation and these cows contribute more to global warming than the transport industry by excreting, burping and belching methane. Methane traps 25 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does and has been found to be significantly more dangerous to the environment.

According to India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, 12-15 per cent of greenhouse emission is caused by the cattle population and scientists believe these numbers might just be conservative. And while policymakers are aware of this problem, it’s best not spoken about as the cow is sacred. The National Action Plan for Dairy Development Vision 22 document only makes a passing reference to the issue of climate change.

Can Lord Shiva be blamed for using Nandi (a bull) as his primary mode of transportation? Lord Krishna was also known as the cowherd god. According to ancient scriptures, the four legs of a cow represent the four objectives of life as outlined in the Vedas- material wealth, desire, righteousness and salvation. A mix of superstition, religion, politics and overall lack of planning has resulted in a system that threatens to spiral out of control if immediate corrective measures are not introduced.

With fraudulent NGOs and religious institutions backed by political leaders managing cowsheds in several states in North India, an epidemic of false concerns has resulted in the political class milking our cows, but only for political gain. Last year, MLAs in the state of Himachal Pradesh passed a resolution to declare the cow as ‘rashtra mata (mother of the nation). Surely, that must have made a difference in the lives of the cows? Seemingly not.

A recent study of the welfare of cows in India shelters found that “small space allowance per cow, non-uniform flooring, little freedom of movement, and lack of access to pastures” were some of the issues in most of India’s bovine shelters. Moreover, the study also noted that, “very few cows were recorded as lame, but about half had carpal joint lesions and slightly less had lesions from interacting with shelter furniture.” The condition of stray cows is even more abominable as they consume polythene bags and other dangerous plastic products.

Cows are productive for dairy farming from the age of three to 10. But they can live for 15-25 years. Till the anti-slaughter laws were put in place and the recent growth of cow vigilantism, owners would sell their cows after 10 years and buyers would reportedly slaughter them for their produce and the income would be used to buy new cattle. As it currently stands, a circular economic model that was in place in states like Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh is now broken.

This phenomenon will likely result in several perverse outcomes for India. For starters, India’s dairy industry that employs over 70 million farmers and labourers will slowly wean away from rearing cows and seek jobs as construction labourers in India’s big cities. A number of farmers might also consider shifting towards rearing buffalos. Farmers who continue to rear cows will do so on a much smaller scale and will abandon their cows once its dairy cycle is complete.

The abandoned cows will graze on harmful substances and contribute significantly more to climate change. Moreover, even during the dairy cycle of the cow, farmers will make limited investment in the shelter and upkeep of these cows as their profit margin diminishes. Overall, in the longterm, this phenomenon is likely to result in India losing its dominant position in the dairy industry, eventually becoming a net importer of dairy products. On the grounds of respecting religious sentiments, this might have been an acceptable trade-off if the quality of the cow’s lives improved as a result of these decisions. But it is clearly not the case.

A robust business model that considers the lifecycle cost of managing a cow and monetising its produce at every stage is the only way out of the current crisis. The government might only be focussed on the dairy economy, but the myriad uses of a cow after its death cannot be ignored, a sentiment echoed by even Mahatma Gandhi- “mother cow is as useful dead as when she is alive. We can make use of every part of her body her flesh, her bones, her intestine, her horns, and her skin.

Well, I say this not to disparage the mother who gives us birth, but in order to show you the substantial reason for my worshipping the cow.” Going forward, it is critical for a central body like the National Dairy Research Institute to work with professional managers (students graduating out of the Institute of Rural Management Anand?) to put in place a system that is economically robust and more importantly, environmentally friendly. In recent years scientists have found that mixing seaweed in the fodder helps reduce methane excretion by over 30 per cent and this move has found success in countries like US, New Zealand, Australia and Scandinavian countries.

Scientists at the Cow Research Institute in Mathura have also been experimenting with certain formulas and have met with some success. But these measures have not been piloted at scale. The real need of the hour is for the government to facilitate the creation of world class large, industrial and scientifically managed bovine shelters in every district that would adopt animal friendly, sustainable, humane and healthy farming practices. For the time-being, the ‘rashtra- mata’ awaits a divine political intervention.

(The writer is a former IPS officer, a member of the 15th Lok Sabha and a member of the Aam Aadmi Party)