The great divide
First, a refresher of what is commonly known. With 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area and 16 per cent of the world’s human population, India has 20 per cent of the world’s livestock population. Yet, India’s share in the total milk production in the world is estimated around 13 per cent. The annual average milk yield of Indian cattle is 51 per cent less than the world average, according to the Union ministry of agriculture’s department of animal husbandry and dairying (DAHD).
This large livestock population has put tremendous pressure on the land available. About 90 per cent of the cattle population in the country subsists on natural grasslands or common pasturelands, which are in an extremely poor state (see ‘The milk that ate the grass’; Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 22; April 15, 1999). There is a great scarcity of fodder. In the absence of proper feed, productivity is low. This, in turn, means that more animals are required to produce the same amount of milk, putting further pressure on resources. N S Jodha, analyst at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (icimod), Kathmandu, says: “The livestock economy of India is characterised by low productivity, overpopulation of animals and their poor management and maintenance of stock.”
“Broadly speaking, India’s livestock population of 450 million large and small animals depends on a meagre area of 12 million hectares for green fodder. This means 40 animals to one hectare of land, while the burden should not be more than five animals. Consequently, livestock encroaches into forest as well as denigrate the available pasture,” says N S Ramaswamy of the Bangalore-based Centre for Action, Research and Technology for Man, Animal and Nature (cartman), which has done a great deal of research on issues relating to livestock, the environment and sustainable development.
Livestock, forests and agriculture
The issue of livestock grazing in the forest is a bone of contention between those involved in management and research of forest and wildlife on the one hand and livestock-owning communities living in and around forests on the other. Pitched battles are common in virtually all the protected forests of the country, and there are about 550 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. One widely publicised case is of the proposed 82,000-hectare Rajaji National Park (rnp) in Dehradun. This requires the eviction of 5,000-odd Van Gujjars and their 12,300 buffaloes. It also meant that they relinquish their age-old traditions and nomadic lifestyle (see ‘Mutually assured destruction’; Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 20; March 15, 2000).
“The buffaloes owned by Van Gujjars are largely unproductive. Lopping off trees has denuded large forest tracts. Besides, buffaloes living in forests trample seedlings, lowering the rate of regeneration,” complains Dhananjay Prasad, range officer of the Ramgarh range of rnp. Ruchi Badola, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who specialises in the relationship between people and protected forests, says, “Barely 4.6 per cent of the land area of our country is protected forest. If this colossal livestock is allowed to graze on it, wildlife will be destroyed as there will be no habitat left.” She says people maintain large livestock herds because these animals graze free of cost on public land: “So any income, even the little from unproductive animals, is a bonus.”
Like most wildlifers, Chandra Prakash Goyal, director of the proposed rnp, says unproductive animals, which are a drain on national resources, have to be culled if India is to keep its forests healthy: “It is a tough decision, but somebody has to take it. We have to learn to separate these issues from religious sentiments.” This is vociferously opposed by Hindu religious outfits and even by those who believe in prevention of cruelty to animals. It is a strong lobby and the media is full of stories of those vigorously opposing cattle slaughter.
As 43.5 per cent of India’s livestock population comprises cattle, any discussion on livestock invariable becomes a discussion on cattle. Especially due to the sacred status accorded by Hindus to cows and bullocks. Several experts on livestock related issues estimate that 85-90 per cent of the cattle population is ‘non-descript’, which means it has no pedigree. These animals are at the core of the issue.
“Animals form an essential part of our food security, especially as soil fertility is declining alarmingly,” points out Pran K Bhatt, country director of the Heifer Project International, an international agency with 28 livestock rearing projects in India and operations in 102 countries. “But, as things stand, it seems humans will compete with livestock for food and water. The choice is between growing foodgrain to feed the poor or growing crops useful for animal feed. While culling seems like the only option to do away with unproductive animals, it is not viable in India as the issue generates a lot of religious emotion. It is a stalemate.”
But there is more to livestock in India than milk, meat, wool, leather and other such products. Draught power and cowdung, two extremely significant aspects of India’s ‘unproductive’ livestock, especially cattle, are hardly factored in when their economic utility is calculated, which shows the appalling bias against rural India that exists among the policy-makers and politicians (see box: Driving the Indian economy).
Now, what is known but is seldom recognised. “Our age-old farm energy source (draught cattle) is now classified as ‘unconventional’ energy and placed in that ministry and not in ministry of agriculture by the government of India.” These words, delivered in a keynote address at the Regional Conference on Draught Animal Power held in Bangalore in 1995, are from K K Iya, the founding director of the National Dairy Research Institute in Karnal, who retired as the deputy director general (animal science) of ICAR. “The Sun and wind are now considered ‘unconventional’ sources of energy and diesel and petrol are considered ‘conventional’ sources. Probably, in another 25-30 years, we will come back to the Sun and wind as the ‘conventional’ energy sources when diesel and petrol become scarce and ‘unconventional’... Everybody thinks now only of milk production and crossbreeding with exotic germplasm. The pride of our country’s draught animals is left to fend for itself, despite the fact that they provide energy for agricultural operations and transport, among other things, for a vast number of rural agricultural populations. It is mainly an aberration of urban thinking. We constantly have to be reminded that 75 per cent of our total population lives in villages and farms. Milk becomes a priority and draught animals today are not even allocated any special funds for development. Even the state animal husbandry departments do not consider it a critical issue.”
“Traditionally, the wealth of a family or a person was counted on basis of four aspects and livestock was one of them. The other three were: land, knowledge and money,” writes D V Rangnekar, who has been associated with Gandhian organisations for over 30 years (see box: Economics melts into religion). More than 200 castes of nomads