Slippery business may stop the bull calf surplus
NEW DELHI, India––Cracking down hard against illegal cattle slaughter and exports to slaughter, while boosting milk production, the Hindi nationalist Nahendra Modi regime ruling India since 2014 caused the perennial Indian bull calf surplus to explode.
Now, however, the Modi government has reportedly embraced sperm-sorting technology to prevent the surplus, a potentially controversial move that perhaps only a politician as closely associated with cow protection as Modi could sell to the nation.
The problem is basic. To produce milk, a cow must give birth, but on average, half of the calves born are males. In a society where cows are revered as the “Mother of India,” yet beef-eating is rare and indeed almost illegal, a perpetual bull calf surplus is inevitable if there are not also sizable export and clandestine slaughter trades.
Alternatively, India could go vegan, as advocated for more than 30 years by Maneka Gandhi, an eight-term member of the Lok Sabha (Indian parliament), a cabinet member under four prime ministers, and founder in 1992 of the national advocacy organization People for Animals.
The Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations endorsed the vegan approach in 2018 with a “Don’t Get Milked” campaign.
Long-term, India is well-positioned to replace cow’s milk with vegan alternatives, ranking first in the world in coconut production, second in rice production, sixth in soy production, and first in the export of scientists of expertise in producing bio-cultured milk from yeast, of identical chemical composition to cow’s milk.
Humane crisis became national disaster
Short-term, too many unwanted and often abandoned bull calves wandering streets, marauding into fields of crops, and grazing the understory in forests nominally reserved for wildlife has been a growing humane crisis for decades.
Under Modi, heading the majority Bharatija Party, the humane crisis swiftly exploded into a national disaster.
Already roaming the countryside intimidating, extorting money from, and sometimes lynching people alleged to be transporting cattle to slaughter, vigilante mobs of “Gau Rakshaks,” or “cow protectors,” have flexed their muscles with apparent impunity, even after Modi himself on July 29, 2017 forcefully denounced the violence.
Jobs & money
Elected on the promise that he would create jobs, especially in rural areas, Modi saw as many as 5.5 million jobs in agriculture and the leather trade vanish overnight, saw $11 billion in export revenue disappear, and saw large dairy conglomerates milking thousands of big Holsteins take the livelihoods from village producers relying on the much less productive native Indian breeds.
Off-the-shelf technology, with risk of misuse
But sperm-sorting, a 30-year-old off-the-shelf technology, widely used in the U.S. but neglected in India, was capable of rapidly reversing the bull calf surplus. First, though, someone had to introduce it. Politically, there was the risk that sperm-sorting, if promoted by secular elements, might be misrepresented by Hindu nationalist fundamentalists as an affront to the “Mother of India.” Even more problematic was, and remains, the certainty that sperm-sorting will be misused to further upset the human gender balance in India, already running at 1.1 births of boys to each birth of a girl.
Working to boost access
Anul showed the way
The dairy cooperative Amul, of Anand, Gujarat, showed the way.
Begun in 1946 as the Anand Milk Federation Union Limited, Amul grew into the largest food production company in India, and among the biggest in the world, with 3.6 million dairy farmers enrolled as members.
Among the founders was Moraji Desai (1896-1995), a close associate of first Indian prime minister Mohandas Gandhi, who served as prime minister himself from 1977 into 1979.
Threat to social stability
Sperm-sorting to limit bull births was experimentally introduced circa 2000, but was almost immediately appropriated by families favoring sons to prevent conception of human females, and was therefore prohibited for a time as a threat to social stability.
But surplus bulls are also a longtime threat to Indian social stability.
In the U.S. commercial dairy industry most cows birth calves at least once per year. Each cow births six to 10 calves, half of them males who are castrated and eventually sent to slaughter as steers. When “spent,” the cows too are “retired” to slaughter.
Females, called heifers, replace older cows in dairy production, or in the past have been used to expand production. As the dairy industry is now rapidly contracting, many older cows are now being “retired” to slaughter without being replaced.
In India, where more than 80% of the human population are Hindu, only two of the 29 states even allow cattle to be slaughtered.
Historically, when Indians were much less affluent, and there was much less consumption of dairy products, surplus bulls were castrated and used to draw ploughs and ox carts.
Cows were usually milked until they died. Some were retired to “cow shelters.”
Turned loose to wander
Others who became unproductive were just turned loose as prey for then-abundant tigers, leopards, Asiatic lions, or hyenas. In some regions rural people believed that “sacrificing” surplus cattle to predators reduced the likelihood that the predators would invade villages to kill humans and productive animals.
Traditional Indian methods of disposing of surplus cattle began to fail with the near-simultaneous mid-20th century advents of mechanized transport, replacing the use of bullock carts, and large-scale dairy production, steeply increasing the numbers of calves born.
Already, when India won political independence from Britain, what to do with surplus cattle had become a question often exploding from debate into riots, pitting religious Hindus against beef-eating Muslims and Christians. The first such riot on record occurred in 1893.
Slaughter for export
Butchering of all sorts, throughout India, has traditionally been done by Muslims, while exporting cattle for slaughter abroad, until recently, most often involved covertly driving or shipping the animals to predominantly Muslim destinations, especially in Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Kerala, one of the two Indian states that never banned cattle slaughter, developed a major slaughter-for-export industry, drawing truckloads of surplus calves and “retired” cows from around the nation.
Religious & ethnic tensions
Among the major destinations for slaughtered Indian cattle were Indonesia, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia––all of them also majority Muslim.
Thus tension over cattle slaughter easily mingled with the religious and ethnic tensions afflicting India for centuries.
From 2012 to 2015, one year into the Modi regime, India led the world in beef exports, shipping just over two million metric tons of the 2015 global beef export total of nearly 10 million metric tons, according to the beef industry web site Beef2Live. Almost all of the legal exports passed through Kerala.
Brazil, Australia, and the U.S. have regained global leadership in beef exports since then, while India slipped to fourth in 2019, exporting about 6.9 million metric tons.
The introduction of sperm-sorting to decrease the births of male calves will not entirely end the Indian cattle surplus.
However, the combination of restricting bull calf births with increasing the productivity of Indian cows to match that of cows in the U.S. and Europe, the other major goal of the Modi government insemination program, could keep Indian milk production at the present level while allowing a decrease of as much as two-thirds in the calf birth rate.
“Even as the nation is engaged in an acrimonious debate over cows and beef,” wrote Bharat Yagnik in the November 30, 2015 edition of The Times of India, when the Amul sperm-sorting program started, “bulls stand to be ‘sexed out’ in 95% of cases in Amul’s new artificial insemination center. This reproductive facility, spread over 43 acres, has been set up to develop the country’s own ‘sexed semen’ technology. This sorting of genetic material is done by a process called ‘flow cytometry.’ The sorting of sperm cells is done by a laser beam, staining sperms with a DNA-binding fluorescent dye.”
Heifers & buffalo
Rathnam, managing director of Kaira District Co-operative Milk Producers Union Limited, an Amul member, told Yagnik that the sperm-sorting project began with 2,000 heifers.
“Once successful among cows, the project will be extended to buffaloes as well,” Rathnam told Yagnik, drawing the distinction commonly made in India between light, brown, and multi-colored bovines, called cows, and black bovines, called buffalo. All would be considered cattle in the U.S., and are closely enough related to North American bison, also called “buffalo,” that all can readily interbreed and produce fertile offspring.
Buffalo by Indian definition, unlike cows, may be sold to slaughter in some states that prohibit “cow slaughter,” so are often favored by dairy farmers.
Role of cow shelters
The urgent need to reduce the Indian bull calf surplus was evident not far away from the Amul headquarters, at the 400-year-old Ahmedabad Dabhla Pinjarapole, the largest of several cow shelters serving the city of Ahmedabad, population 6.5 million.
Sprawling as widely as Houston, with about the same human population as the cities of Los Angeles and Chicago combined, Ahmedabad is a harsh environment for working animals. Those who remain ambulatory when they reach the Ahmedabad Dabhla Pinjarapole often become longterm residents, but those who drop have low odds of recovery.
Among the oldest and largest cow shelters in India, the Ahmedabad Dabhla Pinjaraole might easily be mistaken by a casual passer-by for a massive feedlot. Located in the village of Dabhla, just beyond the Ahmedabad city limits, the pinjarapole is the economic engine for the surrounding countryside, employing more than 80 people, supporting countless small farms by purchasing fodder.
5,000 animals at a time
The facilities house more than 5,000 animals at a time. The population typically includes about 2,500 adult cattle, 2,000 calves, 200 buffalo, and miscellaneous other species including donkeys, horses, camels, an occasional nilgai antelope, and a small resident troupe of languor monkeys.
Most of the cattle are male, abandoned on the streets of Ahmedabad because cattle cannot legally be sold for slaughter. Many were once working bullocks, but suffered injuries or illnesses that rendered them unfit. Others arrived as starving calves.
Arrivals & deaths
About 1,000 animals per month arrive, on average. About 750 die. The remains are flayed and their hides sold for leather. Some are rehabilitated and sold back into use pulling bullock carts.
At the pinjarapole the animals receive good food and clean water. Other care is rudimentary. Monsoon flooding is an annual menace. Mired cattle die of exhaustion. Parasites breed in the standing water.
The few cows among the cattle and buffalo are housed with the males, at risk of impregnation by the occasional intact bull. Traditionally, if calves are born at a cow shelter, their mothers’ milk is believed to convey special blessings to those who buy and drink it, at premium prices.
Land rents and inheritances have made the Ahmedabad Dabhla Pinjarapole wealthier than the Animal Welfare Board of India itself, management boasts. But such affluence is rare, and the difficulty of operating a “cow shelter” successfully is illustrated by the reality that the remains left out for vultures in fields behind the Ahmedabad Dabhla Pinjarapole have made the site the national leader in vulture conservation.
Enduring frequent spasms of reform and reinvention ever since automobiles began to replace ox carts, “cow shelters” are among the most distinctive Indian traditions, and are the oldest form of organized humane work, having originated more than 3,000 years ago, in Vedic times.
Perhaps more ubiquitous in India than either schools or firehouses, sometimes endowed with substantial inherited assets, but most often not, “cow shelters” appear certain to survive in some form, even after the surplus cattle issue is resolved. Their future role and relevance to modern India, however, is a matter of intensifying debate.
Religious or secular?
Among the issues are whether cow shelters should be religious or secular institutions, whether they should be supported by taxation or strictly by charity and the sale of milk and byproducts, and whether they should lead cultural reform, becoming actively involved in politics, as many do, or merely endure as quaint cultural symbols.
Few objections are raised when cow shelters promote traditional Indian values, but controversy erupts whenever the directors point out that their work alone is not enough to prevent cattle from being sold to slaughter, and that prominent politicians and their families are involved in the illegal slaughter traffic.
Gaushalas, gosadans, & pinjarapoles
The terms gaushala, gosadan, and pinjarapole are often applied interchangeably to cow shelters, 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. Gaushalas often breed cattle, ostensibly to conserve native genetic traits. Many gaushalas have become commercial dairies.
Gosadans are hospices for dying cattle. Pinjarapole is the most inclusive term for cow shelters of any type.
“Mothers of India”
All, in concept, are places where cattle found wandering at large are confined. All honor the mythic role of the cow as “Mother of India.”
Historically, most were projects of specific Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist temples and religious charities, but many today are non-sectarian.
Vedic references are said to mention cow shelters existing for as long as written Indian history exists. Cow shelters already operated in most major cities before the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, in approximately 400 BCE (Before Christian Era).
Moguls, when India was under Muslim rule, often bought public favor by helping to support cow shelters, even though the moguls ate beef. The British governors who succeeded the moguls found cow sheltering somewhat incomprehensible, but did not interfere.
Cow shelters inspired RSPCA
Some British officers who studied the concept helped to cofound the Royal SPCA of Great Britain and eventually adapted the practices of cow sheltering into modern dog-and-cat sheltering.
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, while the abandoned cattle they exist to rescue starve in the streets.
Cow shelters not actively engaged in dairying often exist today as adjuncts to municipal efforts to clear the roads of animals whose meanderings cause accidents and impede traffic.
City-run cow shelters have become stereotyped in public opinion as places where cattle are deliberately starved to death so that dishonest staff can sell their hides.
Though this has happened, and has often been exposed in prominent cases, in fairness, the cattle who starve in shelters––either public or private––usually come already severely debilitated from having ingested plastic bags that block their intestines. Emergency surgery saves some, but many are beyond help.
Cow shelters operated by animal advocates typically take on more ambitious roles, for instance trying to rescue cattle from the illegal slaughter traffic, rescuing surplus bull calves who are abandoned at temples, and attempting to defend and promote the traditional Brahmin lacto-vegetarian diet.
Funding cow shelters
Current Indian national cow shelter policy still centers on the Gandhian notion, promoted by the Modi government as well as by generations of predecessors, that the shelters should become economically self-sufficient.
This, however, is a contradiction in terms if cow shelters are expected to absorb the surplus animals from the ever-expanding milk industry.
An alternative approach would tax the dairy industry to support cow shelters.
Taxing each milk-producing cow would encourage dairy farmers to increase per-cow milk output.
This would most easily be done by replacing cows of less productive breeds with breeds of high output––and then providing them with richer diets and more water to maximize their productivity, all of which is also part of the Modi government’s agricultural strategy.
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