Animal advocates wean themselves from the “gaushala” dairy tradition
NEW DELHI, India––The billboard message “#DontGetMilked. Ditch Dairy! Go Vegan!” posted recently in Nehru Place, New Delhi by the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO), is a crowd-stopper.
It might not rate a blink, let alone a shocked doubletake from visiting American and European millennials.
But it does from Indians.
Rare public criticism of dairy industry
American and European millennials may be as used to seeing messages critical of milk-drinking as Indians are to seeing traditional Hindu and Jain cow-worship.
“Animal rights” and “veganism” have co-existed in the west as facets of the same cause for longer than most millennials have been alive.
But to most Indians, including animal advocates, “Ditch Dairy! Go Vegan!” is at least as challenging a concept as “Don’t Wear Fur!” was to the then-fur-wearing board members of the American SPCA more than 40 years ago, in the early years of the U.S. animal rights movement.
“The mother of India”
Paying homage to the cultural notion––and frequently amplified political slogan––that “The cow is the mother of India!” has historically been inextricable from rituals involving consumption of milk and milk products, and nowhere more so than within the animal advocacy community.
(See Sperm-sorting comes to India.)
Indian animal advocacy––and vegetarianism––have grown for at least 2,400 years around the tradition of cow shelters whose funding has often as not come from the sale of milk and byproducts from “rescued” cattle.
This has meant in turn that much and until recently most of the Indian animal welfare sector has been engaged in the dairy industry, actively participating and even perpetuating cruel exploitation of cattle, especially bull calves and sick, old, or injured cows who no longer produce milk.
Heads & Tails
Former Indian minister of state for animal welfare Maneka Gandhi challenged the linkage of dairy with animal advocacy and urged against use of dairy products more than 25 years ago in her syndicated newspaper columns and her book Heads & Tails (1993).
Her perspective was mostly rejected, however, even among most of the members of the Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI), the federal advisory agency that was nominally under her leadership, at least for a time.
“Follow the money”
Charged with roles as conflicting and contradictory as the USDA roles in promoting animal agriculture and housing the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, the Animal Welfare Board of India, both then and now, tends to “follow the money.”
Filled by political appointment, the Animal Welfare Board of India also tends to represent the political perspective of the majority in the Lok Sabha, or Parliament, currently the Hindu nationalist Bharatija Janata Party.
FIAPO free to challenge
The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations (FIAPO), on the other hand, is an independent membership society, whose leaders need answer only to the voting members, and as such, has the liberty to go far beyond the AWBI in challenging mainstream belief––even when the challenge, to many Indians, fringes on religious heresy.
“FIAPO’s #DontGetMilked campaign, in association with #LivingFree and #CorporateOutreach, are working towards creating vegan friendly pockets in New Delhi,” FIAPO executive director Varda Mehrotra told ANIMALS 24-7. “Currently, we are concentrating all our energies in Nehru Place, which is one of the busiest commercial hubs of Delhi,” the Indian seat of national government.
Encouraging interest in vegan food
Explained the FIAPO electronic newsletter that announced #DontGetMilked, “To provide #CrueltyFree alternatives in the area, we are tying up with restaurants to start offering vegan dishes. In fact, Fidahh, a famous Lebanese restaurant, has already veganised their menu! We are continuously contacting other restaurants in the area, but they seem reluctant due to the lack in the demand of vegan food,” the FIAPO newsletter admitted.
But no one associated with FIAPO ever expected overnight success in trying to change dietary traditions established in early Vedic times, perhaps as long as five millennia ago, when herding peoples ancestrally descended from the ancient Egyptians crossed the Indus River to conquer and colonize the Indian subcontinent.
The FIAPO #DontGetMilked campaign originated from publication of Cattle-ogue: Unveiling the Truth of the Indian Dairy Industry, an investigative report by FIAPO founder Arpan Sharma and colleagues, published in October 2017.
Recounted Sharma, “The ‘White Revolution’ in India was brought by the launch of ‘Operation Flood’ in 1975,” which brought about a sevenfold increase in milk production over the next 43 years, making India “the largest producer of milk in the world, accounting for 18.5 % of world production.
Introduced European cattle breeds
“This massive increase in production capacity of the country has been made possible by introduction of Jersey, cross breeds and Holstein Friesian variety of cattle,” Sharma summarized. While vastly more productive than Indian native cattle breeds, these much larger animals are poorly suited to the Indian climate.
“In order to meet the high milk production targets, these animals are over-exploited, resulting in cruel dairy practices. Images of happy cows feeding on green pastures are the perfect façade for the ugly truth,” which is that most Indian dairy cattle “get little access to soft ground, spending their lives in cramped, poorly ventilated and dark enclosures.”
25% of male calves “die within their first month”
Visiting dairies in 10 Indian states, Sharma and fellow FIAPO investigators found that 78.8% offered cows no access to soft ground; 78.8% practiced continuous tethering; 57.9% “were found to have animals under stress or suffering from injuries or illness”; 57.8% underfed their cows; and up to a fourth of all male calves “die within their first month,” chiefly from neglect.
Sold to slaughter
“They are mainly either sold or sent for slaughter if they survive,” Sharma and team added. Old, unproductive cattle also face the same fate.”
Nearly two-thirds of the dairies visited sold underproductive cows to slaughter, contrary to Hindu and Jain religious teachings, though the comparable figure in the U.S. and Europe would be 100%, and for U.S. and European bull calves would be nearly as high.
Among Indian dairies that do not sell unproductive cattle to slaughter, Sharma and team noted, “One of the most convenient options for the dairy farmers is also to abandon these ‘unwanted animals’ on the streets.”
This is why cow shelters originated. Cow shelters taking in and making use of abandoned cattle already operated in most major Indian cities before the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, in approximately 400 BCE (Before Christian Era).
Over time, cow shelters evolved to fill three distinctive roles: gaushalas, gosadans, & pinjarapoles. The terms gaushala, gosadan, and pinjarapole are often used interchangeably, and often refer to the same facility, but under national regulations published in 1947 and 1954, they have somewhat different legal definitions.
Gaushalas have an awkward dual mandate, being officially considered agricultural institutions, as well as having an animal welfare role. Typically operating as commercial dairies, gaushalas often breed cattle, ostensibly to conserve native genetic traits, but in reality mostly to keep the resident cows producing milk.
Gosadans are hospices for dying cattle, including some facilities that collect abandoned cattle from city streets chiefly to sell their hides when they succumb to neglect.
Pinjarapole is the most inclusive term for cow shelters of any type.
Symbols of nationalism
Historically, most cow shelters were projects of specific Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist temples and religious charities, but many today are non-sectarian.
Mohandas Gandhi and followers promoted cow shelters as symbols of nationalism during the struggle for Indian independence. Post-1947, the newly enfranchised Gandhians tried to reinvent cow shelters as vehicles for rural education and economic growth.
Secularizing cow shelters, however, may have encouraged the tendency of many to operate for profit, even if enjoying the privileges accorded to nonprofit institutions, including government subsidies, while the abandoned cattle they nominally exist to rescue starve in the streets.
“Pro-milking vs. pro-gaushala”
Acknowledged Varda Mehrotra, “A large number of supporters of the animal protection movement in India continue to be pro-milking. I say pro-milking vs. pro-gaushala, because FIAPO is also pro-gaushala. Unlike street dogs, who can find food through the large amount of rubbish on the streets, abandoned cows need sheltering. So FIAPO promotes high-welfare gaushalas where income is generated not by selling milk products, but through the alternative cow economy using cow dung/urine etc. in addition to grants, donations and so on.
“In this,” Mehrotra told ANIMALS 24-7, “we are also trying to engage with the AWBI to train and build the capacities of gaushalas so that the quality of life of their animals is good. Admittedly, we haven’t been welcomed with open arms,” Mehrotra said, “and yes that is largely due to our anti-milking stance, but we haven’t been completely shut away either.
“Over the last several years,” Mehrotra continued, “FIAPO has recruited and trained nearly a thousand people who have made vegansim more popular, reaching out to millions more.
“Saw a need & started campaign”
“#Dontgetmilked started like all of FIAPO’s campaigns,” Mehrotra said. “We saw a need and – being an independent body – we started a campaign for it. We balance both vegan advocacy and a welfarist regulation of dairies. This has certainly led to some difficulty,” Mehrotra acknowledged, “but thankfully most people have continued to stand by us. I must add, that as a federation, we have also consistently improved our skill in balancing different opinions.”
Offered Chinny Krishna, the longtime chief executive of the Blue Cross of India and former member of the Animal Welfare Board of India, who with his wife Nanditha hosted the FIAPO founding meeting in 2007 at the C.P. Ramaswami Institute in Chennai, “FIAPO was not started as a pro-vegan group even though we served only vegan food.”
Many Indian animal welfare organizations at that time relied heavily on government subsidies for gaushalas, but AWBI funding was never nearly enough to meet the operating expenses of a gaushala meeting adequate animal welfare standards, and has dwindled in significance since then.
“So the question of AWBI funding on FIAPO’s policies hardly arises,” Krishna said, meaning that for FIAPO at least, money no longer limits discussion of the ethics of diet.