Editor's note: Swaraj Abhiyan founder Yogendra Yadav is on a padyatra of drought affected regions of Marathwada and Bundelkhand. He will file dispatches for Firstpost about the drought and his march. This is the third story in the series.
“Aur gayya tadap, tadap kar mar gayi”. It was a little girl who broke the silence.
This was the first day of the padyatra in Bundelkhand. Our village meetings had become public hearings. I was asking the usual questions about water scarcity, foodgrain supply from quota-dar (the local word for ration shop owner), NREGA yojna and so on. Then I remembered to ask about fodder availability, something that I had forgotten in the previous village.
A little girl raised her hand. She must have been around eight-years-old. Dressed in a nice frock, she was unusually articulate in chaste Hindi. She went on to describe how she witnessed a cow dying of thirst and hunger in her own village last week. She had tried asking the elders for help, but to no avail. She had wished to bring the cow home and feed her, she concluded.
No one disputed her account. I asked if this was a common occurrence. There were many corroborations. This is when the real story started unfolding. We started asking about animal deaths in every village. The leader of our research team (another Yogendra Yadav, by the way) came up with accounts from nearby villages that we did not plan on visiting.
Jayati Saha, a freelance photographer, was on a vehicle and could reach far beyond the other padyatris. We asked her and other local journalists about their encounters with the problem. Slowly, the small pieces started to piece together a bigger picture.
In our previous visit, we had noticed a spurt in the practice of abandoning the domestic cattle. Usually, it is the cows as no one lets off buffaloes, as they continue to yield milk. In Bundelkhand, this practice is called the Anna Pratha. So the sight of dozens of stray cows outside every habitation had ceased to surprise us.
We had also spoken about animal malnutrition and the impending fodder crisis. Weak, bony cows trying to scrounge for any blades of grass or anything edible was something to be expected. It was bound to be worse this time, for the winter crop had also failed in this area, leaving little for the animals to chew on. We had begun to notice the occasional stench of dead animal bodies. Still, we were not prepared for the reports about the deaths.
It was hard to get the exact numbers. Villagers could tell the number of domesticated cattle that had perished but not about the Anna Pratha cattle. Every village that we visited thereafter reported anything between 10 to 100 cattle deaths in the last month, that could be attributed to drought.
Taking a conservative average of 30, it works out to one dead animal per day per village. There are 11,065 villages in the 13 districts of the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Going by this guesstimate, we could be looking at over three lakh mortalities in the month of May this year alone. And this does not include wild animals like Neelgai, monkeys and deer. Rain is still three to four weeks away. Another round of heat wave could take a bigger toll.
Bundelkhand is in the midst of a cattle famine. Amartya Sen was right to say that famine does not take place in modern democracies because free media and popular protests act as a safety valve. The trouble is that animals don’t have a vote. There are TV channels about them but not for them.
Numbers are hard to pin down, but some patterns are clear. There are plain cases of starvation. Often the enfeebled animals fall prey to some disease. Goats are adept at plucking food from thorny scrubs, but cows end up hurting themselves in the process.
There is another common pattern: their search for water takes animals to swamps or ditches where they get trapped. Wild animals like monkeys get into wells to scrape water and don’t come out. In any case, drinking that muddy water hastens their departure.
Is anyone doing something about it? As far as we could see, there was little action. In Beed district of Maharashtra we saw government organised cattle camps, where domestic animals were fed free of cost.
There are none in UP and MP. There is of course the government set up for fodder supply and schemes for “fodder banks” in drought-hit areas. But MP government does not feel the need to do anything yet. Its affidavit to the Supreme Court says they have plentiful fodder stock that can be released as and when needed. The need has not arisen yet, it seems.
Uttar Pradesh government is less brazen. It admits fodder shortage, but claims that it is supplying fodder to the needy. We checked on this claim in every village. In one or two places they said a truck had come a month ago and distributed dry fodder to some villagers, not always to cattle owning households.
We were told that the government’s fodder bank exists only on paper. And there were rumours about someone close to Mulayam Singh’s family getting the contract for the fodder supply.
What about gaushalas? There are some, but the scale is miniscule, given the current challenge. My mind turns to the loud protestations in recent months about cow slaughter and beef eating. I wonder where those gau-bhakts are at this moment, when the poor cow is battling for survival.
I am not much of gau-bhakt or an animal rights activist, but I respect anyone who is willing to extend the boundaries of one’s self. For those who truly care for animal life – and not for the name of those who end their life – the time for action is now.
Back in Delhi, I noticed a front page headline: “Meat at crime scene in Dadri is of a cow, claims report”. Something churns inside me.
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