Cowboys and Indians | The Economist

CLOSE your eyes and you could be in a farmyard: a docile heifer slurps a grassy lunch off your hand, mooing appreciatively. Now open your eyes to the relentless bustle of a huge city: the cow is tied to a lamp-post, cars swerve to avoid it and its keeper demands a few rupees for providing it with the snack.

Across Mumbai, an estimated 4,000 such cow-handlers, most of them women, offer passing Hindus a convenient way to please the gods. In a country where three-quarters of citizens hold cows to be sacred, they form part of an unusual bovine economy mixing business, politics and religion.India is home to some 200m cows and more than 100m water buffaloes. The distinction is crucial. India now rivals Brazil and Australia as the world’s biggest exporter of beef, earning around $4 billion a year. But the “beef” is nearly all buffalo; most of India’s 29 states now ban or restrict the slaughter of cows. With such strictures multiplying under the government of Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, entrepreneurs have sought new ways to profit.

One promising line of business has been to become a gau rakshak, or cow protector. Some of these run charitably funded retirement homes for ageing cows, including rural, ranch-style facilities advertised on television. Other rakshaks have proven more concerned with punishing anyone suspected of harming cows or trading in their meat. Such vigilantes have gained notoriety in recent years as attacks on meat-eating Muslims or on lower-caste Hindus working in the leather trade have led to several deaths. A mob assaulted a group of Dalits (the castes formerly known as untouchables) last month in Mr Modi’s home state of Gujarat, thinking they had killed a cow. In fact they were skinning a carcass they had bought legitimately; Dalits traditionally dispose of dead cows.

More commonly, India’s less scrupulous cowboys simply demand protection money from people who handle cattle. An investigation by the Indian Express, a newspaper, found that cattle breeders in the northern state of Punjab were forced to pay some 200 rupees ($3) a cow to ensure that trucks transporting livestock could proceed unmolested. Under pressure from the rakshaks, the state government had also made it harder to get permits to transport cattle.

Earlier this month Mr Modi broke a long silence on the issue. Risking the ire of his Hindu-nationalist base, the prime minister blasted “fake” gau rakshaks for giving a good cause a bad name. If they really cared about cows, he said, they should stop attacking other people and instead stop cows that munch on rubbish from ingesting plastic, a leading cause of death.

In any case, vigilantism and the beef trade generate minuscule incomes compared with India’s $60 billion dairy industry. The country’s cows and buffaloes produce a fifth of all the world’s milk. As Indian incomes rise and consumers opt for costlier packaged brands, sales of dairy products are rising by 15% a year. But although a milk cow can generate anywhere from 400 to 1,100 rupees a day, this still leaves the question of what to do with male animals, as well as old and unproductive females.

Not all can be taken in by organised shelters. This makes the urban cow-petting business a useful retirement strategy. A good patch (outside a temple, say) can generate around 500 rupees a day from passers-by. Feed costs just 20 rupees a day, says Raju Gaaywala, a third-generation cow attendant whose surname, not coincidentally, translates as cow-handler.

He inherited his patch in Mulund, a northern suburb of Mumbai, when his father passed away in 1998. His latest cow, Lakshmi, cost him 4,000 rupees around three years ago and generates around 40 times that every year, enough to send his three children to English-language schools and, he hopes, to set them up in a different form of entrepreneurship.

The handlers fear their days may be limited. A nationwide cleanliness drive has targeted urban cow-handlers, who are in theory liable for fines of 10,000 rupees. In practice the resurgent Hindu sentiment under Mr Modi should help leave the cattle on the streets. It may kick up other opportunities, too. Shankar Lal, an ideological ally of the prime minister’s, in an interview with the Indian Express extolled the many health merits of cow dung. Spreading a bit on the back of a smartphone, as he does every week, apparently protects against harmful radiation. Usefully for Indian farmers, only local cows can be used, not Western breeds such as Holsteins or Jerseys, he warns: “Their dung and milk are nothing but poison.”

Source: Cowboys and Indians | The Economist

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