Call it an irony of sorts or a result of lopsided policies, the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) in its prized state of Gujarat is caught in a piquant crisis around gaumata – the symbol of its nationalism. As it braces for a crucial December election, the year-old Bhupendra Patel Government has been forced by strong protests by cattle-keepers (maldharis) to withdraw a legislation to deal sternly with stray cow menace, lest it loses the community’s votes.
It was after several reprimands by the Gujarat High Court over the increasing number of stray cows on the streets that the State Government passed a strong legislation to check the menace and penalise cattle-breeders who leave them on the streets after the animals no longer produce milk.
But the proposed legislation-- Gujarat Cattle Control (Keeping and Moving) in Urban Areas Bill, 2022 which was passed with a majority vote on the last day of the assembly budget session on 31 March after a debate that stretched until midnight, was withdrawn on 21 September– this time unanimously, in a two-day monsoon session.
'Moo-'ving The Needle In Cow Case
Albeit, the maldharis were assured within a few days of the passage of the legislation that it won’t be implemented. This was after vociferous protests from the maldharis who threatened to boycott the BJP during the elections. The community can tilt the balance in several seats in North Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutch regions.
That there have been as many as 4,860 cattle attacks and 28 human deaths caused by it during the last 10 months,as officially reported in eight major cities with a municipal corporation status and 162 towns in an increasingly urbanising Gujarat, has been glossed over.
If former Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel in the outgoing Vijay Rupani Cabinet was attacked by a rampaging cow and fractured his leg in Porbandar earlier this year, the new Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel saw a bull running into his rally the very next day.
Taking The Bull By The Horns
But wait, the bovine agitation is far from over. The Gujarat government had made a provision of Rs 500 crore in the same 2022-23 budget for the 450 registered gaushalas (cow ponds) run by charitable organisations for keeping strays as well as gaumatas brought to them by vigilante groups after ‘rescuing’ them from being allegedly taken to slaughterhouses.
It has been six months but the budgetary provision under the 'Gaumata Poshan Yojana' has remained on paper.
Under this scheme, Rs 30 a day was to be given for each cow at a gaushala. After the maldharis, it is the gaushalas who are on a warpath with the BJP Government.
They not only want the actual disbursal of the budget allocation but also that it should not be a one-off provision for this year. According to Kishore Shastri who is associated with a cow pond in North Gujarat and a spokesperson of 10,000 representative trustees of the cow ponds, the 450 gau shalas keep anywhere from 500 to 2,000 cows each.
These are the registered ones, but all in all there are an estimated 1,700 cattle ponds, including individual initiatives or smaller groups keeping 10 to 20 cows.
The Deesa-Rajpur gau shala in Banaskantha district, to which Shastri is associated with has 8,900 cows. This district alone has 180 cow ponds out of the 450 registered ones in Gujarat.
As a mark of protest last week, gaushalas in North Gujarat’s Banaskantha district released all their cows on the streets and in the government premises and they have decided to intensify their agitation by sprinkling cow urine and splashing dung in government offices in various district and taluka (tehsil) headquarters.
A ‘Bovine’ Intervention for the BJP
Shastri claimed that, “A negligible subsidy of Rs 8 per cow per day, which was being given to the gaushalas, was stopped after Narendra Modi took over as the chief minister in 2001. Later, when several regions in North Gujarat and other places got flooded in 2015 and 2017 in the rains and during 2020 and 2021, the Vijay Rupani Government gave a subsidy of Rs 25 per cow a day but only for two to three months.”
“As against this,” he went on, “the Rajasthan Government has spent Rs 4,500 crore after Ashok Gehlot became the chief minister in 2018 and this is about Rs 50 per cow per day. The Uttarakhand Government itself runs 1,000 gaushalas. Why can’t the BJP make a regular annual provision for Gujarat, while it swears by the gaumata?” said Shastri.
He says more than 50% of the 8,900 cows in the Deesa-Rajpur gaushala have been sent there by the State Government on orders of various local courts wherever the strays are impounded.
“Isn’t it the responsibility of the government to maintain them? They send them to us because they have no land available to keep the cows. Doesn’t the police keep the goods they catch in their custody?” Mahesh Dave, a trustee of Deesa as well as another gaushala, adds, “The cows we keep are not our cows, we don’t bring them, they are brought to us by various government agencies or private persons. We are a charity.”
What Started This Stray Cow Menace?
For the urbanites, this may appear to be a straightforward issue of municipal bodies being unable to rein in the hot-headed cattle-breeders who release their cows with impunity on the streets at great risk to commuters, and the government tolerates them for electoral expediency.
But the problem runs deeper into the economic policies of the BJP Government for the last three decades where industrialisation is the ultimate paradigm of development which has resulted in such haphazard urbanisation that the land for the cattle to graze is shrinking.
“The cow breeders become the villains of the piece while they are actually at the receiving end,” says Dinesh Rabari of Maldhari Vikas Sangathan (Gujarat). Rabari says, “From our recent survey based on State Government data, the latest 2019 National Livestock Survey and house to house visits in 920 villages in 15 taluka (tehsil) of three districts, Patan in North Gujarat, Kutch and Surendranagar (Saurashtra region) districts, we learnt that as much as 63% gauchar (grazing) land has either been given away to industries or used for other construction.”
According to official yardstick, there should be 40 acres of grazing land for every 100 animals.
Rabari said, “We noticed that gauchar land had depleted wherever there is industrialisation. The situation is no different in the rest of Gujarat, in fact, it is worse in the big cities and the towns where there is almost no space for cattle grazing.”
He says the solution is to create grazing spaces or set up maldhari vasahats (colonies) with such land on the peripheries of the cities and towns. “But there is hardly any land for this with the government,” Rabari adds.
Shrinking Grazing Spaces Leave Cows Astray
He is not wrong. According to written replies provided by the Revenue Minister on the floor of the State Assembly on 28 March 2022, as many as 2,614 villages have no gauchar land at all, while 9,029 villages have less than the minimum grazing land of 40 acres for every 100 animals.
Gujarat has a total of 18,000 villages. A majority of these villages have little or no grazing land since they are close to cities or are already a part of them since all the eight major cities in Gujarat are bursting at the seams with massive real estate development, leaving hardly any open spaces.
And the situation is getting more difficult with high urbanisation in Gujarat, leaving less and less open grazing spaces. According to the Census figures, the urban population in the State has risen from 31.1% in 1981 to 42.6% or 2.57 crore in 2011. After Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, Gujarat is the most urbanised state in the country.
While the decadal growth of Gujarat’s population between 2001 and 2011 census was 19.17%, there was a rise of a mammoth 36% urban population in this period. As against this, the population growth was only 9% in the rural areas. As of today, as many as 75% (1.47 crore) of Gujarat’s population lives in the eight municipal corporation areas of Ahmedabad, Vadodara, Surat, Rajkot, Jamnagar, Bhavnagar, Junagadh and Gandhinagar.
(The writer is Founder Editor, Development News Network [DNN], Gujarat.This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)