Understanding power of the cow in India

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Understanding power of the cow in India

Tuesday, 04 August 2020 | Vir Singh

After cow slaughter ban some time ago in India’s largest State of Uttar Pradesh and tough laws to deal with violators, the cow once again became a buzzword in India. Cow, undoubtedly, has been one of the central symbols of Indian civilisation ever since the Vedic Age (might be even before that).

The role of the cow is more pivotal ever since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. The cow, since then, has been providing the power necessary for feeding India, rather most of the world.

A poster hanging in the office of Navdanya in Dehradun portraying cattle reads that if all the cattle of India stand in a queue, the queue would reach the moon. With as many as 200 million cattle heads, India stands at number one in the world sharing as high as 33.39% of the world’s cattle population. Brazil with 22.64% and China with 10.03% of the world’s cattle population are at second and third rank respectively. India is also the largest producer of milk in the world. Total milk production in the year 2016-17 is estimated at 155 million tonnes, which is likely to rise to 210 million tonnes in 2021-22. It is thanks to India’s robust cattle population that we have been recoding an annual increment of 4% in milk production for the last 10 years. The NDDB chairman expects an annual increment of 7.8% during the next eight years. The white revolution, thus, has been sustainable unlike the green revolution which has been recording unsustainability indicated by stagnancy and diminishing returns. Per capita milk production in India has also risen from merely 178 g in 1991-92 to as high as 337 g in 2015-16. Thus, contribution of the livestock sector, especially of cattle, to India’s food security is enormous.

Contribution of cattle is counted only in terms of their milk production. As draught animals, nevertheless, they play still a more phenomenal role. I did my first doctoral degree with research focus on draught animal power with subsequent postdoctoral work also focused on the draught animal power in Indian agriculture. In the first agricultural university of India (Pantnagar University), I was the first ever PhD student to have appreciated role of cattle as draught animals. Again, I was the first research fellow at the Kathmandu based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) who ventured to carry out research work on draught animals. Ventured, because working on or even thinking about the draught animals is regarded as a symbol of backwardness. “Professors do not want to work on draught animals, or they will not get promotion,” said Prof NS Ramaswamy, the former director of Indian Institute of Management based in Bangalore, who has done seminal work on draught animals and is one of the pioneers of research work in this field.

Cattle are used in almost all agricultural operations making them the largest (but rather informal) power sector in India. When I was working on draught animal power in Indian agriculture in 1980s and early 1990s, the figures of cattle contribution to agriculture were dazzling: 66% from draught animals, 23% from human muscles, and only 11% from machines like tractors and combine harvesters. These figures might vary today. In fact, no organisation in the country keeps draught animal power related data in records. “There will be a separate cell for draught animal power in the Planning Commission,” said Som Pal, the then member of the Planning Commission, in an international conference on livestock organised at Pantnagar University in December 2002. But, I don’t think the Planning Commission ever made such commitment. In the Green Revolution belt of the country we generally encounter tractors tilling land and carrying agriculture produce from fields to home and market place. But, most of India still depends overwhelmingly on cattle for field operations ranging from ploughing to levelling, puddling, inter-culture, threshing etc. Most of the agriculture produce in rural India is hauled by animals, especially bullocks. Bullock carts still serve as lifeline of transport in most of rural India.

Not only is India supreme in cattle population and milk production, but also in the diversity of cattle breeds. There are fewer than 30 well-described breeds in India. Number of non-descript breeds is still larger. Each of the breeds has specific traits such as of milk yield, draught power, feed conversion efficiency, sturdiness, adaptability, negotiation with terrain, etc. Some Indian breeds, such as Sahiwal, Gir, Red Sindhi, Tharparkar and Rathi are amongst the milk breeds. Hariana, Amritmahal, Kankrej, Ongole, Red Kandhari, Malvi, Nimari, Negori, Kangayam, Hallikar, Dangi, Khillari, Baraguru, Kenkatha, Siri, Bachaur, Ponwar, Kherigarh, Mewati, etc. are draught breeds. Hariana cattle breed of the Haryana state is regarded one of the best draught breeds in the world. The Vechur breed found in Kerala is the smallest cattle breed in the world. You can milk it making it stand on a table, and yet it produces very hardy and valuable draught bullocks.

Agriculture in India in some of the areas, especially in the Himalayan mountains and in other mountain ranges, is unimaginable without cattle. Almost all mountain communities all over the world are livestock-dependent.Draught power input in cultivated lands and food productivity are directly correlated. Thus, we can understand the value of draught animals in food production and consequent food security of the nation.

Draught animals the cow is the mother of also play phenomenal role in maintaining agro-ecological integrity of our farming systems, especially in mountain areas, by managing agro-biodiversity, agricultural diversification, nutrient cycling, and soil fertility.

Further, dependence on draught animals precludes use of petroleum thereby preventing carbon emissions that would have added to climate miseries. It is also true that cattle also add to carbon emission particularly in the form of methane. However, that emission is more than compensated by their phenomenal role in enriching soils with organic carbon and in cultivating agro-biodiversity. Dependence on bullock power for agriculture, on the whole, is of carbon-negative proportions. Dependence on tractors and other farm machinery, on the other hand, due to exclusive dependence of fossil fuels, adds to climate woes.

India’s food independence and food security are largely attributable to overwhelming majority of small and marginal farmers (accounting for more than 83% of total land holdings) dependent on draught animals, not to a handful of large farmers dependent on farm machinery. Contributing to greenhouse gases to the extent of 32% (14% each from agriculture, and deforestation to give way to agriculture, and 4% from crop residues), the world’s agriculture, in fact, is a climate culprit. But it is the green revolution type of agriculture – largely operated by big farmers relying heavily on fossil fuel-based mechanisation and excessive nitrogenous fertilizers – which is to blame.

Small and marginal farmers largely manage crop-livestock mixed farming in linkages with forests and apply no or little chemical fertilisers. Smallholders’ agriculture is, thus, less likely to add stress to climate.

Now something about beef. There is much lamenting by the so-called secularists over the issue of banning cow slaughter. They are not concerned about the facts and figures, about national emotions, and not even about the crux of the problem.

Meat industry is one of the most brutal climate villains leaving trail of huge amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. Since the inception of Industrial Age when the world began to burn fossil fuels, we have warmed up the globe to the extent of 0.8 degrees Celsius. A World Bank report says that the world is locked into 1.5 degrees Celsius warming due to the past and the predicted carbon emissions. The Paris climate negotiations of December 2016 fix the target of 2 degrees Celsius. The figure of 2 is small but it has to have phenomenally negative impact on life and on living planet. Food habits, in the same way, appear to be personal matters (not to be questionable!), but largest phenomenal human impact on climate is only owing to food habits.

A meat diet, especially composed of beef, has the worst effect on the environment. Graphical representation of the data in a CNN report suggest that the largest carbon footprint due to a variety of foods is on account of beef,which is about 60 times larger than that of the diet composed by beans, peas and soybean (vegetarian diet).

The evitable cow controversy has merely political ramifications. Analysing from the socioeconomic end environmental angles we arrive at the conclusion the cow must be regarded as a pivotal source of India’s socio-economic and ecological development. A cow-powered India will truly be a happy and sustainable India. 

(The author is a professor of Environmental Science in GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology)

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