Holy Cow has become less holy in the Cow Belt

This morning Reuters reported that  India could soon become the world's biggest beef exporter. Exports of beef from India are likely to hit close to 1.8 million tonnes in 2013, second only to Brazil, according to an April forecast by the USDA, it reported. And even the Holy Cow is losing its fascination  for Hindus.

The stats certainly suggest so. Buffaloes have overtaken cows in milk output (592 lakh tonnes in 2009-10 of buffalo milk versus 478 lakh tonnes of cow milk), according to Harish Damodaran writing in BusinessLine. And this despite the fact that cows still outnumber buffaloes 2:1 in India. (Read the full story here.)

The unholy fact is not that Hindus are gradually abandoning the cow, but that the cow-belt is doing so ever faster.

 Holy Cow has become less holy in the Cow Belt

Protecting the Holy Cow is driving Indians to the buffalo! Reuters

According to Damodaran, buffaloes accounted for 34.6 percent of the country’s bovine herd in 2007, but in Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat — the Vaishan-Jain-Arya Samaj heartland which reveres the cow – buffalo shares were 79.3 percent, 74 percent, 55.8 percent and 52.4 percent. It is the cow’s traditional support base that is withering.

On the other hand, states with no qualms about beef-eating and cow slaughter had buffalo herds under 5 percent (Kerala, West Bengal and the north-eastern states).

What’s going on? Is Hindutva’s Holy Cow on its last legs? And why is this so?

Damodaran lists three causes for this increasing marginalisation of the cow: One is milk output. Buffaloes, especially cross-breeds, produce more and higher-fat milk. Two, with increasing tractorisation of agriculture, cows are no longer required for tilling the land. (Cows are better than buffaloes for tilling, but tractors even more so). Thus, beyond milk, cows can be only used for drawing carts, but buffaloes have the edge here. They can pull more and harder.

But the third reason should wake up the cow's traditional votaries. States that seek to prevent cow slaughter (MP recently made cow slaughter a bigger crime) are effectively raising the economic costs of owning a cow and forcing people to opt for buffaloes, where the injunction against slaughter is lower.

Their problem: what to do with a cow after its useful economic life is over? There are no NGOs offering free boarding and lodging for retired cows.

Surely, there is a lesson here for the cow protection lobby? Protecting the Holy Cow is driving Indians to the buffalo! If they really want to venerate the cow, the policy they need to adopt is counter-intuitive: give cows an honourable exit policy.

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2013 16:37:06 IST