Dear Gau Rakshaks, It’s Milk – Not Beef – That Really Harms Cows

It is undeniable that the rise of the BJP and its Hindutva agenda has also seen a rise in the rhetoric of anti-beef vegetarianism. In Mumbai, for example, there was, what was referred to as a “meat ban”, during Paryushan, a fasting festival observed by the Jain community, a couple of years ago.

Or when the BJP raised a hue and cry when Rahul Gandhi supposedly had non-vegetarian food on his way to Kailash Mansarovar. Or when there was outrage online when an advertisement showed meat-eating Bengalis on the occasion of Durga Puja.

This rhetoric of vegetarianism is criticised by liberals and others who see it as an attack on their way of life by hegemonic Hindutva forces. However, there are some, like me, who acknowledge this hegemony while also being sympathetic towards those caught in the fold—the animals.

Also Read: How Many Cows Does India Have? The Govt is Yet to Start Counting

‘Cow’ Economics

Let’s begin by considering the ‘cow’ in the room. Does a cow slaughter ban help the cows at all? The answer to the question may seem like a no-brainer. For those who consider cows to be holy, stopping the slaughter of cows would seem to go a long way. However, it must be noted that cows are not bred for slaughter in India like in the West.

There are no specific breeds that are raised for their meat, but it is the same dairy cattle that is slaughtered for meat, after they are first milked to whatever extent possible. Typically, a dairy cow gives milk for 7 to 8 years in her 20 to 25 year lifespan. In effect, a cow, for most of her life, is barren and cannot be milked.

For a farmer, that is an economic disaster. Cows are expensive to maintain and once the income from milk dries up, keeping an unproductive cow is no longer viable. So, cattle is inevitably sold for slaughter. The farmer may even be vegetarian themselves, but it is economics that compels them to sell their cow.

The Need to Limit Dairy Consumption

India is the largest milk-producing country in the world. If the large number of cows and buffaloes engaged in this milk production are not sold to slaughter or otherwise abandoned, what is one to do with them? Gaushalas are few, farmers are poor. Perhaps an option could be to substantially increase the retail price of milk, making it include the price of maintenance of the nonproductive cow’s remaining 10 to 15 years as well. An increase in the retail price of already subsidised milk is something we know is not going to work out favourably in the political sphere.

What then can be done? Cows are slaughtered because they are in excess. They are in excess because they are artificially bred for milk. Beef is essentially only an economic by-product of dairy, and it is dairy which fuels its production. Economically, the only way to stop cows from being killed, either for beef or otherwise, is to limit dairy consumption.

And that is something that no political party, pro-Hindutva or not, is talking about. Milk is somehow golden and untouched, even though it is milk production that is responsible for cow slaughter in the first place. This is even without getting into other ethical aspects associated with milk, such as artificial insemination or continual impregnation of the cow.

The Ignored Buffalo

For a person concerned with animal welfare, it is immaterial if the animal in question is a cow or buffalo, male or female. In states where there is some sort of cow slaughter in place, the proportion of buffalo milk production is more.

In Uttar Pradesh, buffalo milk production was almost double that of cow milk production, while in Kerala, where slaughter of the bovines is not prohibited in any way, buffalo milk production is negligible.

It is not without reason that in addition to being the largest producer of milk in the world, India is also one of the largest exporters of beef in the world. This is, again, a direct economic result of milk production, and with little to no restrictions on buffalo slaughter who remain outside the imagination of the populace at large. A reduction in milk consumption would also naturally lead to a decrease in buffalo slaughter.

Also Read: No one in India can repay cow's debt: Modi

Farming, Livelihoods, Environment

Cows and buffalos are an important source of livelihood for their rearers. India does, after all, have a large appetite for milk and milk products. Just as banning or restricting cow slaughter has an effect on the livelihood of meat-sellers, there would be a similar effect if dairy production were to be somehow artificially restricted.

The answer lies in creating a market for nutritious alternatives to milk that farmers could switch to. Plant-based ‘milk’, to be precise.

Countries around the world are seeing a boom in the market for such plant-based milks made from a variety of sources—soy, oats, almond, cashew, coconut, even peas! The production of not all of these would be suited to the Indian climate, but a feasibility analysis needs to be commissioned in order to ascertain which would suit the country better, for production as well as consumption.

Milk is also an inefficient source of nutrients in comparison to plant-based alternatives because crops are first fed to the animal, and only then can milk be produced, instead of consuming the crop directly. This makes milk have a high water footprint and carbon footprint, in comparison to possible plant-based alternatives.

Also Read: On World Milk Day, Let’s Go Natural!

A Bid to Give Up Dairy Milk

The issue of anything food is sensitive because it parts a large part of people’s culture. An attack on one’s food is seen as an attack on one’s culture, and consequently an attack on themselves.

Keralites consume beef because they are culturally inclined to do so. Many Hindus don’t consume beef because they are culturally inclined to not do so. It is exactly the same for milk. Gujarat is one of the highest milk consumers in the country, even as cow slaughter is prohibited.

If consumption of milk is indirectly responsible for cow slaughter and / or beef production, are the Hindus of Gujarat that revere the cow totally blameless for their high milk consumption? If they care about cow welfare, or indeed animal welfare, it is their responsibility to bring about a cultural shift that voluntarily eschews milk consumption.

Such a cultural shift could be beneficial to everyone, beyond party lines, religious lines or class lines. Unless the aim is such a grassroots cultural shift, the anti-beef movement is and will remain an empty political rhetoric.

(Shreedhar Manek is a master's student in Urban Sociology at IIIT Hyderabad. He tweets @blueringtail. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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