Roving street cows are ubiquitous in India, eating trash, leaving behind dung, and generally posing a safety hazard to anyone driving on India’s roads.
The abundance of stray cows stem’s from the country’s religious traditions and the laws that have come from them. Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Hindu’s all revere the cow and most consider killing it a sin.
While India’s constitution calls for basing animal husbandry “on modern and scientific lines,” it also says the state shall “take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and [draft] cattle.”
Despite the apparent constitutional ban on killing cows, the laws on this issue differ by region and religious demographics. Some states outright ban the killing of all cattle, while others allow it depending on the age, gender, and economic value of the animal.
The other part of the problem is that, while killing cows is taboo, there is no prohibition on drinking cow’s milk, which means a cow has be constantly giving birth and lactating to be economically valuable.
“When they give milk they are useful, but when they don’t give milk, they become useless,” said Chowdhary Sukhbir Singh, the president of the community trust that governs a cow shelter southwest of Delhi.
This could be why India has 45 million milk cows, the highest in the world, according to data from 2012 by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The Shelter Solution
While not solving the problem at its root, a 127-year-old cattle shelter located in Kishangarh village southwest of New Delhi, is trying to preserve a tradition of community responsibility for these homeless cattle.
The shelter is financially supported by 96 villages, which care for some 850 orphaned, abandoned, and disabled cows.
The villages pay around $1 a day for each cow, which covers food, medicine, labor and other expenses to care for them. Altogether, this comes to $24,112 a month, according to the accountant and administrator of the shelter, Bhupinder Gulia.
“All of it comes from the people of the 96 villages,” he said, emphasizing they receive no money from the government.
According to Gulia, they receive up to 10 new cows at the shelter each month. While the shelter doesn’t have the resources to care for seriously injured cows, they do have 86 blind cows, many of them residents of the shelter since birth.
“People leave them here and we take care of them,” he said, adding they try not to turn one away for fear it will be captured and taken to an illicit slaughterhouse.
Tradition of the Gaushalas
The tradition of community cow shelters, called gaushalas, are at least several thousand years old in India, according to a report by the National Commission on Cattle.
People used to donate their land to the cows, and the community set aside certain grazing areas for them because the animal was seen as a symbol of material and spiritual wealth. This is how the gaushala in Kishangarh came by its urban real estate.
Under British rule however, this tradition of caring for unwanted cows became less common, and in the rapid development and urbanization of the country, Gaushalas were largely left out of the city planning.
The Delhi government has tried to remove the urban cows by catching and tagging them with a microchips. Then they either sell them outside the city or give them to a shelter, a strategy that doesn’t appear to be making a dent in Delhi’s stray cow population.
The cow shelter in Kishangarh is one of a few hundred left in the country. As long as Indians still consider the cow too sacred to kill but a good source of milk, the idea of community-supported cow sanctuaries may well be the only humane way to deal with India’s cattle problem.