Dalit, Muslim livelihood disproportionately affected by attacks in the name of cow protection


Excerpt from the chapter “Impact on Agriculture, Trade, and Livelihoods” in “Violent Cow Protection in India: Vigilante Groups Attack Minorities”, a 104 page Human Rights Watch report, released recently:

The cow protection movement is hurting farmers and herders, and impacting their right to a livelihood. M.L. Parihar, a Rajasthan-based author and expert on animal husbandry, said the country’s economy has been harmed by this movement: “Hindutva leaders who are promoting this obsession with cows don’t realize how much loss they are causing to their own Hindu community, and damage they are causing to their country.”

Nearly 55 percent of India’s population is engaged in agriculture and associated activities, contributing 17 percent of the country’s Gross Value Added. Farmers often supplement their incomes and food requirements by maintaining and trading livestock and selling dairy products. India has about 190 million cattle and 108 million buffaloes. India is also the largest milk producer in the world.

However, with increasing mechanization of agriculture the demand for draught cattle such as bulls and oxen has declined, and male calves are often sold. Farmers also sell unproductive and aged cattle. Writer Harish Damodaran said that for the farmer, it is costly to feed unproductive animals, noting that in the past “[t]he ‘Hindu’ farmer never had any issue with the ‘Muslim’ butcher.”

Tougher laws on cow slaughter, transportation of cattle, and mob attacks by cow protection groups have disrupted not just the cattle trade and the rural agricultural economy, but also leather and meat export industries linked to farming and dairy sectors. It has also adversely impacted transporters. “The transport of cows has become very difficult, because it was mostly Muslims who were involved in that work,” said Harishwar Dayal, an economist and social science researcher in Jharkhand.

Shahabudeen, who owns a transport company in Alwar district in Rajasthan, described the impact on his business when, after the killing of Pehlu Khan, the police filed FIRs against the driver and owner of the vehicles Khan was using for his cattle. This, despite the fact that Khan had receipts for the cattle he had purchased, Shahabudeen said, making it clear that it was no longer safe to transport cattle:

“Most of my drivers are Muslim, they can’t go on the road at all anymore if there is a cow in the vehicle. And not just cow, even buffalo. It’s too huge a risk. These cow protection groups damage the vehicles, set them on fire, beat, or even kill drivers. No driver wants to do this work anymore.”


Impact on Communities

Dalits and Muslims are disproportionately affected by the attacks in the name of cow protection. While slaughterhouses and meat shops are mostly run by Muslims, Dalits traditionally dispose of cattle carcasses and skin them for commercial purposes such as leather and leather goods. However, disruption of the rural economy has affected all communities whether Hindu, Muslim, Dalit, tribal, or nomadic.

“It’s not just about Muslims,” said P. Sainath, an author, journalist, and expert on India’s agricultural economy, pointing out that Hindus, even those considered of higher caste, have been affected. For instance, he said that many that own cattle cannot sell them because cattle prices are low or because they are attacked by mobs. So, they watch their cattle die or abandon them. And it is not just farmers and herders, but also traders and others associated with cattle. Said Sainath, “At the cattle markets, the middlemen are often from other castes. Many are also engaged in making handicrafts associated with cattle or leather such as bells, shoes, trinkets and they are all devastated.”

Farmers, including Hindus, earlier sold their unproductive cattle but now they are forced to care for them even when they cannot afford to feed them. Most farmers simply abandon them, which has caused yet another problem for farmers with stray cattle destroying their crops. Parihar said: “Even Hindu farmers never opposed slaughter because they knew that if the animals stayed in the village, they would damage the crops. It was part of the economy. He may have emotional attachment to the animal, but he still sold it knowing it was going for slaughter, because the farmer knew that he couldn’t afford to feed it and keep it anymore.”

For nomadic herders, these attacks have brought their livelihood to the brink of collapse. In April 2017, in the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir state, a mob brutally attacked five members of a Muslim nomad cattle-herding family, including a 9-year-old girl, on suspicion that they were taking their cows for slaughter. There have been several attacks on the Banjara nomadic community in Rajasthan. Banjara community leaders say they face increased attacks even when trading cattle in government-run markets “with cow vigilante groups repeatedly harassing, assaulting, and extorting money from them.”

The violence appears to have contributed to a significant decrease in the number of animals traded at government-organized cattle fairs. The Rajasthan state government organizes 10 cattle fairs annually. In 2010-11, over 56,000 cows and bulls came to these fairs and more than 31,000 of them were sold. In 2016-17, their numbers dropped to less than 11,000, with less than 3,000 of them sold. Azad Khan, father of the 12-year old boy who was killed and hanged in Jharkhand on his way to a cattle market, said he gave up cattle trade after his son was killed. “I am too scared to do that work now,” he said. “I now work in other people’s fields.”


Cow protectors often point to the illegal cattle trade and flourishing cattle-rustling on the India-Bangladesh border to justify their actions. In 2014, India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh told the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) at the Bangladesh border to “stop the smuggling of cows at any cost.” In 2016, he claimed that cow smuggling at the border had declined by over 80 percent, and called for continued vigilance.

India is the largest beef exporter in the world, exporting buffalo meat worth US$4 billion a year. However, after the BJP government came to power in 2014, exports have mostly declined, and actions by the BJP-led government in Uttar Pradesh state, the top meat producing state in the country, have led to further uncertainties over the future of the trade.

Soon after the BJP appointed Adityanath as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in March 2017, he cracked down on slaughterhouses and meat shops, mostly run by Muslims. He contended that he was shutting down illegal establishments, but the businesses said they were forced to close without notice or due process.

India produces nearly 13 percent of the world’s leather and the leather industry is a major foreign exchange earner. It has an annual revenue of over US$12 billion (exports are $5.7 billion and the domestic market is $6.3 billion) and provides employment to about three million people, 30 percent of whom are women. In 2017, the government identified the leather industry as key to generating jobs and for growth. At the same time, the government survey admitted that “despite having a large cattle population, India’s share of cattle leather exports is low and declining due to limited availability of cattle for slaughter in India.”

Fear of cow vigilantes and shutdown of hundreds of slaughter houses has led to disruption in availability of cattle hides, say leather manufacturers and exporters. While export of leather and leather products grew by over 18 percent in 2013-14 and 9 percent in 2014-15, they declined by nearly 10 percent in 2015-16. They picked up only slightly in 2017-18, by 1.4 percent.

Rising Costs of Protecting Cows

As more and more farmers are forced to abandon their cattle, there has been a significant rise in numbers of stray cattle, resulting in anger among farmers whose crops are at risk. The BJP governments in several states have increased funding for gaushalas or cow shelters, even adding new taxes, or compromising health of prisoners by setting up shelters in prisons. In Uttar Pradesh state, angry villagers started locking up stray cattle in government schools and offices in December 2018, prompting the chief minister to set a one-week deadline for district authorities to move all stray cows and bulls to shelters.


But most existing cow shelters, even temporary ones are already overflowing. Earlier, the government allotted 20 million rupees ($290,000) to set up cow shelters in 12 prisons, and 816 million rupees ($11.7 million) to open cow shelters. In 2016, the Haryana state government allotted 200 million rupees ($2.8 million) to the Gau Seva Aayog for the protection and welfare of cows. In 2018, the budget rose to 300 million rupees ($4.1 million).

There are 513 gaushalas housing 380,000 cows, bulls, and bullocks, most of them unproductive, but there are still about 150,000 stray cattle in the state and the numbers may continue to rise. The government has since decided to set up gaushalas in prisons, a move that has been criticized by commentators who emphasize that overcrowding and lack of proper sanitation are already causing health concerns among prisoners, a situation that could be made worse by introduction of gaushalas.

Rajasthan has a separate cow ministry. In 2016, there were 550,000 cows and bulls in government-funded gaushalas. By 2018, this number had grown to 900,000. The government budget for this dedicated ministry has grown exponentially—from 130 million rupees ($1.9 million) in 2015-16 to 2.56 billion rupees ($36 million) in 2017-18. To generate funds to care for unproductive cows and bulls, the government levied a 10 percent surcharge on stamp duties for property transactions and a 20 percent surcharge on liquor sales. Madhya Pradesh opened its first cow sanctuary in September 2017, costing 320 million rupees ($6.2 million).

However, on opening day, it was overwhelmed by farmers from nearby villages who showed up with 2,000 cows. Five months later, the sanctuary had to stop admitting any more cows due to lack of manpower and funds. Jharkhand doubled its monetary support to gaushalas to 100 million rupees ($1.4 million) in 2016. In 2017, the Maharashtra government said it would spend 340 million rupees ($6.7 million) to set up cow shelters. In Punjab, when the state power company stopped free electricity supply to cow shelters in May 2017, it angered BJP leaders and prompted questions from the head of the state’s Gau Sewa Commission.

Download full report HERE


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