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A Cow Cabinet in Madhya Pradesh?

Amid a pandemic and educational crisis, why is one of India’s least developed states focusing political energy on cow welfare?

A Cow Cabinet in Madhya Pradesh?

In a move that is bizarre even by Indian political standards, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), and a senior leader of the ruling right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), has launched a “Cow Cabinet” for the protection and conservation of cows in the state.

The world’s first such initiative for animal welfare, the cabinet encompasses six ministries: home, revenue, animal husbandry, agriculture, panchayats, and forests. In a flurry of initiatives, over 2,000 cow shelters will be built across the state to safeguard the bovine creatures and a cess, a tax to be used for a specific purpose, levied on citizens to generate additional funds to operate them.

“I am thinking of imposing some minor tax to raise money for the welfare of the gaumata [a reference to cow] and for the upkeep of cow sheds…” Chouhan said last week. “We used to feed the first roti to cows. Similarly, we used to feed the last roti to dogs. Such was the concern for animals in our Indian culture — which is vanishing now. So we are thinking to collect some small tax from the public for the sake of cows,” he added.

Chouhan’s other cow-centric measures include a new law for the management of cow shelters and a research center to bolster a cow-based economy in the state. The center will also conduct R&D on cow dung, cow urine, and cow milk and devise ways to promote their use among the public and in government offices.

Cow milk will henceforth be distributed to severely malnourished children in Madhya Pradesh’s anganwadis (government preschool child care centers) instead of eggs. Additionally, cow dung will be promoted for use for last rites in all crematoriums and insecticides made of cow urine used for cleaning in government offices. Chouhan also advocated use of cow dung cakes for Holika dahan (a traditional bonfire lit during the Holi festival).

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Cows, considered sacred by Hindus and revered as “gaumata” (holy mother), have often been used by political parties as a symbol to peddle thinly veiled populist measures. Opposition parties have equally been guilty of indulging in such activities to garner political brownie points. In the Congress-ruled state of Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel announced plans to purchase dung from cow owners to woo them in the run-up to the state’s by-elections held earlier this month.

However, critics have slammed such governance innovations as a case of skewed priorities. Instead, they recommend that funds be better utilized to help the poor and to address other pressing issues. Such prudence is all the more critical for backward states like Madhya Pradesh, which lag on critical human development indices like education, child welfare, women’s empowerment, job creation, and education.

Madhya Pradesh is traditionally clubbed as part of a group of India’s four most underdeveloped states – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh – also referred to using the acronym BIMARU, a play on the word “ailing” in Hindi. According to Census 2011, Madhya Pradesh has a literacy rate of 70.6 percent as against the all-India average of 74 percent. As few as 34.1 percent of the states’s children in Class 5 could read a Class 2 text in 2014, compared to 75.2 percent in the case of Himachal Pradesh, according to the Annual Status of Education Report 2014.

Madhya Pradesh also spends abysmally on education – about $150 per student per year as compared to Tamil Nadu, which invests $225 per student according to the Economic and Political Weekly. The state’s health parameters are also unremarkable. The latest Sample Registration System bulletins reveal that Madhya Pradesh has the highest infant mortality rate and the third highest maternal mortality rates in India.

“These statistics clearly underscore a flawed approach to governance, one that prioritizes animal welfare over citizens at a time when the entire country is battling a deadly pandemic, thousands are dying, migrants don’t have jobs and food to eat, and children’s education is in shambles due to closure of schools,” opines social activist Avantika Pujari, an associate at Sakhi, a Delhi-based NGO.

Despite the gravity of the situation, however, such issues have rarely bothered cow worshippers. In fact cow symbolism in Indian politics can be traced back to the 1960s when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi chose a cow and her suckling calf as the Congress party’s symbol in a bid to exploit the emotive issue and bolster her party’s electoral plank.

However, under the right-wing Bhartiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalist administration, cow worship has taken on an unprecedented salience. Legislation in some 20 of India’s 29 BJP-ruled states has been amended to ban cow slaughter, and criminalize the sale and transport of cattle/beef as well as mere possession of beef, whether it is intended for sale or not. The punishment for such offenses has also been enhanced and they have also been made non-bailable.

Anyone found guilty of cow slaughter in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s western home state of Gujarat and Haryana in the north can face imprisonment of up to 14 years. The average jail term for cow slaughter in other states varies between five and seven years.

In India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has unleashed a slew of cow welfare measures since he assumed power in March 2017. These include, among others, a cow ambulance service, a toll-free number to assist the authorities in rescuing cattle in distress, as well as a scheme by which the state exchequer allocates about $15 monthly for each cow’s wellbeing.

Adityanath has also directed the state police to take action against cow slaughter and cattle smuggling under the draconian National Security Act and the Gangster Act. Of the 139 people against whom the NSA has been invoked in Uttar Pradesh this year, 76 – more than half – have been booked in connection with alleged cow slaughter cases, points out a report in The Indian Express. The gory lynching of anyone transporting cattle, or any animal meat suspected to be beef, at the hands of vigilantes across the country has already been widely reported and invited  international opprobrium.

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Not to mention ridicule. BJP leader Dilip Ghosh created a storm on social media last year by claiming that cow milk is imbued with extraordinary powers. “There is a special feature of the Indian cow. Its milk contains traces of gold. That is the reason the color is yellow. When sunlight falls on a desi cow’s hump, the swarna nadi (gold artery) generates the yellow metal,” claimed Ghosh.

Such political claptrap apart, critics say that if cow worshippers genuinely care about the animal, why don’t they focus on its wellbeing and maintenance instead? Cracking down on cattle smuggling rampant along India’s border to neighboring Bangladesh can be a good start. The flourishing leather industry and the production, import, and export of cow leather in India, a sore point with animal rights activists, could be next.

Hundreds of stray cows die across the country while consuming plastic waste from garbage dumps. In Uttar Pradesh, 9,261 cattle deaths were reported in 2019. In another shocking case, around 12 kg of plastic covers were removed from the stomach of a lactating cow that died in Karaikal, Puducherry, earlier this year. Veterinarians who conducted the autopsy also found other waste such as hairpins, fishing nets, and needles nestling in the cow’s stomach.

The Supreme Court has called the death of cattle from plastic consumption “alarming” and has urged all local governments to take strict action against offenders. To curb plastic bag pollution, the court advocates fining residents and businesses that don’t dispose of waste properly.

Only if the vigilantes take their minds off electoral politics and vote banks can they pay attention to the real neglect cows face in the country.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist.