Why the holy cow is dangerous for Mother India and the world

Asit Jolly
Asit JollyOct 08, 2015 | 12:06

Why the holy cow is dangerous for Mother India and the world

Cows have never been so contentious. In a country where the now significant majority reveres the female of the species as a "mother goddess", and where we have most brutally been reminded that we will be lynched on the mere suspicion of eating beef, there’s a whole lot about the "precious" bovines that Indians may be missing.

India’s cows, more than anywhere else in the world at close to 215 million (UN Food & Agriculture Organisation [FAO] 2013 data), are frying more than the brains of the zealots who murdered Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri. The holy cow is contributing dangerously to global warming. Way more than the distressing levels of vehicular pollution choking our cities. India’s cows are, believe it or not, central to the current debate on climate change.


Like other ruminants – buffalos, sheep, goats – cows excrete enormous quantities of methane, a green house gas (GHG) capable of trapping 21 times more heat than carbon dioxide, that irretrievably escapes into the atmosphere. India’s livestock population of well over half-a-billion (512 million as per the 19th National Livestock Census in 2012) accounts for more than a sixth of the total GHG from the world’s livestock.

New research suggests that the methane emissions are far higher than estimated earlier. Data published last year in the Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences shows that India’s livestock annually produces 14.32 million tonnes of GHG, which is a whopping 15.1 per cent of the global total. This is alarmingly much higher than the nine million tonnes estimated in 1994 or the figure of 11.75 million tonnes published by scientists at the Ahmedabad-based Space Applications Centre in February 2009.

There’s more. The world’s largest producer of milk at roughly 140 million tonnes a year, the country must considerably crank up production to 180 million tonnes over the next five years to cater to the needs of its growing population and expanding disposable incomes. Projected demands for meat and dairy products suggest that methane and other GHGs from Indian livestock could swell to nearly 19 million tonnes by 2050. Half of this will, unbelievably, be emitted from our cows.


EPA (the US Environmental Protection Agency) estimates that "a single cow can produce between 250 and 500 litres of methane a day". Indian cows, as any animal husbandry expert will confirm, are far more flatulent and produce much higher volumes of methane. Unlike dairy operations in western nations, where the animals are fed scientifically with regular dietary interventions to increase digestive efficiency, livestock in India is relatively undernourished. Only a small handful of farmers are ever able to afford the high cost of regulated feed and dietary supplements.

Of all Indian livestock, cows suffer the worst fate. Milch cattle that turn dry between milking cycles, older animals and nearly all the males – no longer used to plough fields in many parts of the country – are left to fend for themselves. Forced to feed on garbage in cities and viewed as pests by rural farmers, hundreds of thousand stray cattle have become a nuisance that often turns menacing.

On January 4, jat farmers in Haryana’s Bhiwani district convened a Mahapanchayat that drew hundreds including leaders of several influential Khaps or caste councils in the state. The farmers had a problem that had nothing to do with flatulent bovines and global warming.


Scores of stray bulls – disparagingly referred to as namesakes of a senior state politician – were unpredictably "raping" pedigreed heifers and prized Murrah buffalos. While on the one hand the farmers had to pay for expensive veterinary procedures to abort unwanted calves, this also meant the loss of earnings from a full milking cycle. Fed up with this and the added menace of stray cows and bulls eating through carefully tended wheat, paddy and fodder crops, they demanded a solution.

The problem of stray cattle isn’t new but evidently a lot more difficult to tackle since the Manohar Lal Khattar-led Bharatiya Janata Party assumed office and true to its election time promise imposed a ban on beef alongside stern penalties on transporting cows outside the state.

As in other states, the past months have seen a fierce revival of self-styled gau raksha samitis (cow protection groups) in virtually every city, small town and village in Haryana. Invariably identified as right wing hindutva outfits, the gau raksha samitis act as mafia-style gangs, extorting money from farmers transporting cattle, often also resorting to violence. A farmer and political activist from Fatehabad, Kishen Swarup Siwach laments that the overzealousness to protect cows has effectively put an end to all cattle fairs – once an important source of income for village panchayats – in Haryana.

Siwach says the problem of strays has turned so acute that farmers now have to spend huge sums to fence their fields. With an estimated 5,00,000 stray cattle in Haryana alone, state animal husbandry minister Om Prakash Dhankar’s promises of constructing more gaushalas – cow shelters to house a few thousand animals in four districts bordering Rajasthan – will clearly be inadequate.

Comrade Siwach insists it is a problem of definition: "The BJP and RSS are hell bent on repositioning 'gau dhan' (cow / animal wealth) as 'gau-mata' (mother cow)," he says.

But given the humungous quantities of methane they produce, the problem in the Haryanvi hinterland may be more immediate for jat farmers, India’s cows evidently spell bigger trouble – perhaps even contributing to scuttle Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise to substantially cut emissions by 2020.

Last updated: October 08, 2015 | 13:19
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