On the evening of May 23, Assam Governor Prof. Jagdish Mukhi tweeted, “For a Hindu, cow is a sacred animal. It is a symbol of life and should be protected. Cow is a very generous animal and people consider that a cow gives more to the civilization that what she receives. We all revere and worship cows as it nurtures us through life sustaining milk. In fact, it is a symbol of the divine bounty of earth. I am happy to inform you that my Government plans to introduce the Cow Protection Bill in the next Assembly session. The proposed Bill envisages imposition of complete ban on transport of cattle outside the State. We will adopt a zero tolerance policy and enforce stringent punishment for the offenders. Once passed, Assam will join other States of the country who have passed similar Bills.”
The following day, quite a few BJP MLAs including the Assam Chief Minister followed the same line and commented, “Cow is our Mother. We will continue to take steps to prevent cow slaughter under the provisions of the Indian Constitution.”
While the nuances of the Cow Protection Bill are not clear as we wait for the draft Bill, two things are clear: One, the ideological positioning of the cow as a ‘sacred animal’ and two, the structural attempts to introduce a complete ban on cattle transport across the border. The Cow Protection Bill, if passed, will not only harm the livelihoods of rural and tribal poor but also bring Assamese society to the cusp of a larger Hindutva agenda.
Understanding livestock economy
Livestock provides an important source of livelihood, especially for rural and tribal poor and various migrant communities. Anybody aware of the ‘chapori economy’ knows that it contains many ‘Kuthis’ – places where a large number of cattle is herded. These Kuthis, mostly in the fringes of forest reserves in grazing lands, are manned to a large extent by migrant communities, especially from Bihar, UP and sometimes Nepalis too. From those Kuthis came the milk for neighbouring towns and cities. Guwalas (milkmen) from Kuthis came to various villages around every morning to collect milk from rural and tribal families. Payments were often made monthly in cash or kind in form of clothes, groceries or any other items ordered by the families. Growing up as a child, I remember my grandfather ordering his occasional clothes from the market via the Guwala. The Guwala often acted as a connect for the nearest town/city for tribal villagers in traditional times.
Tribes, despite many efforts, do not consume much milk. Whatever little is needed for the morning tea is kept at home while the remaining is sold to the Guwala. The little income, either by being the only source or complementing the income gathered from selling other livestock like chicken, ducks or pig, helped tribal and rural poor households sustain their livelihood. Domestic households generally sell cattle to meet emergency expenses, like medical costs, weddings or even for large scale rituals which involves considerable costs. About 60-70% (conservative estimate) of Mising households depend on such income for their livelihood. It is because majority of the community do not have govt jobs or other sources of stable income.
As years passed, tribes like Misings soon learned the benefits of cattle farming and began engaging with it full-time. Many Mising cattle farmers, in partnership with other migrant communities, started cattle farming in those ‘Kuthis’. They sold their cattle either at the weekly markets or directly to other traders engaged in cattle trade, who visited themselves or sent their middlemen to the ‘Kuthis’ for large scale purchases.
‘Kuthi owners’ and large scale cattle farmers tell me that majority of their cattle is being sold for meat, either to be consumed within Assam or other neighbouring states. With cross-border transportation being banned, it will majorly harm the cattle trade. For instance, the region, I come from is at Assam-Arunachal Border. There is quite a bit of trade at the border villages, of cattle. While the borders are porous, the Bill, if it becomes an Act, would in a single stroke, criminalise all such trades at the border areas. It will open flood gates of exploitation from authorities not just for the cattle traders but also domestic households who go to sell cattle, as it will drastically reduce demand. This demand reduction, traders tell me, will have a large-scale impact on pricing because the trade will be limited within the borders of the state. Some lamented that it will lead to several cattle being left to die.
Another important aspect that needed to be understood is the Dairy component in the business. Indigenous cows are not known for their milk-producing capacity. And farming hybrid or jersey cows is an expensive affair which most traders cannot afford without a solid infrastructure and support system from the government, which is not present at the moment. An indigenous cow, on a good day, will produce about a litre of milk, while a crossbred will produce about 3.5 to 4 litres. In Assam, the majority of the cow population is indigenous breed, which clearly indicates that breeding cows just for milk is not sustainable. For cattle traders and domestic households to have profit, the demand from across borders and the meat industry is an absolute must.
The Sacred Cow discourse
As mentioned, the proposed Cow Protection Bill finds its ideological basis in the Hindutva ideology, where a cow is accorded a mother status. Various BJP leaders, including the CM, through their speeches in the Assam Assembly, have already indicated the intention to ban cow slaughter in Assam. The slaughtering of cows is already regulated quite strongly by the Assam Cattle Preservation Act, so no need for an outright ban arises.
The Cow Protection Bill, if tabled and passed, will not just have legal and economic impact but also large scaled socio-political consequences. If the cow slaughter ban is invoked, the government will directly infringe upon the rights of communities to decide on the kind of food/meat they can consume. Politics, based on a religious discourse (Hindutva ideology) will reach our food plates.
While cattle plays a very important role in Assam’s society and economy, it has never been considered a ‘mother’ in Assamese culture. Cattle are loved, and at best, considered a companion in the journey of life and there is also a dedicated Bihu which is celebrated to offer gratitude to cattle.
But with cow now being considered mother, it also impacts the culture and pushes it more towards the rigid Hindutva discourse. Many communities in Assam consume beef and in various parts of Assam, meat items like pork, beef, chicken etc. are sold in the same market without taboo. If such a discourse become rampant in Assam, such social harmony of respecting each other’s food choices will not be found in the future. Ample examples of inter-community conflicts can be found in the states with ‘sacred cow discourses’. With this bill, Assam could also become one.
What should the state do?
Assam government, instead of such politicking, could have focused extensively on improving the support system for cattle farmers. The state still depends on imports from other states for cattle feed. Moreover, various instances of local communities engaging in conflicts with ‘Kuthi’ owners over grazing areas are reported in the media. Farmers and households often lose a large number of their cattle to annual floods. The government, instead of bringing such a Bill should make adequate provisions for cattle insurance and compensations to farmers and rural households.
Instead of calling for a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for cross-border transport of cattle, targeted efforts should be made to curb ‘smuggling’. The govt should instead focus on legalising such informal and illegal cross border trades and seek to earn revenue out of it. Access to diverse markets complemented with a strong support mechanism to the livestock industry, through improved investment from the state, would not only help traders, farmers, and households earn income but also improve the Assam economy to a great extent.
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