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Why India can’t contain 5 million destructive yet beloved stray cows, which killed 900 people in the last four years

An abandoned cow seen in the middle of the road, causing trouble to the motorists on a busy road in India.An abandoned cow seen in the middle of the road, causing trouble to the motorists on a busy road in India.

Shankar Narayan/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

  • About 5 million stray cattle roam India, eating garbage, causing car accidents, attacking people, and spreading disease.
  • Farmers are turning to artificial insemination to control numbers, and the government opened housing sheds across the country.
  • But critics are skeptical that artificial insemination and housing sheds will solve the problem.

There are more than 5 million stray cattle roaming the streets of India. 

The cow is a holy animal in the Hindu religion, but stray cattle — mostly abandoned males — have been causing chaos in India. There are frequent reports of cattle attacking people, causing car accidents, and spreading disease.

The increasing number of strays is due to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi tightening slaughter restrictions over the last decade. New technology also allowed farmers to need fewer cattle and often let their unnecessary cattle go. 

India has a whole lot of cattle — it is the second-largest producer of beef in the world and the largest producer of milk in the world. 

Here’s why there are so many strays.

There are 1.3 billion people in India and about 1 billion of them are Hindu. Hinduism is a decentralized religion, but its mythology often refers to cows and their nourishing, sacred role in society.A woman puts a ring of flowers around the neck of a cow during a Hindu festival in 2022.Devotees worship a cow during the Gopashtami festival dedicated to Hindu deity Krishna and cows.

Narinder Nanu/Getty Images

Sources: Washington Post, Bloomberg

Although it’s nothing new to see stray cattle wandering through towns or down highways in India, in recent years, things have been getting out of control.Cars line up behind a stray cow as it walks on a busy road in India in 2014.A stray cow walks on a busy road in India in 2014.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Source: BBC

Cattle have been gathering at garbage dumps.Cows graze in a dump in India in 2022.Cows graze in a dump in India in 2022.

Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Or taking a dip in the River Ganges.A stray cow stands next to the River Ganges in 2020. People, some wearing bathing suits, are in the background.A stray cow stands next to the River Ganges during the Ganga Dussehra festival in 2020.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Over the last decade, the situation appears to have gotten worse. There are now about 5 million stray cattle across India. They are mostly males and often in bad condition — either starving or injured after getting hit by cars.A stray cow walks among Hindu devotees in 2013. A white car and a motorcyclist share the road with the cow.A stray cow walks among Hindu devotees in 2013.

Manish Swarup/AP

Sources: Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Economist

Until fairly recently, most Indian farmers slaughtered unnecessary cattle. Muslims, of which there are 200 million in India, also openly consumed beef since it was a fairly cheap source of protein.A group of Indian men wrapped in woolen clothes are joined by stray cows as they try to warm themselves around a bonfire.A group of Indian men wrapped in woolen clothes are joined by stray cows as they try to warm themselves around a bonfire.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Sources: BBC, The Economist

But over the last few decades that’s begun to change as Hindu nationalists campaigned aggressively for the government to do more to protect cows.Villagers sit along a road with stray cows after a flood in India in 2020.Villagers sit along a road with stray cows after a flood in India in 2020.

David Talukdar/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Source: HRW

The issue was taken up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014. Since it is mostly Muslims and minority groups that slaughter cattle and eat beef, the issue appealed to his right-wing Hindu party.Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets his cabinet colleagues as he arrives on the opening day of the winter session of the Parliament, in New Delhi, India, on December 7, 2022.Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets his cabinet colleagues as he arrives on the opening day of the winter session of the Parliament, in New Delhi, India, on December 7, 2022.

AP Photo/Manish Swarup

During his presidential campaign, Modi called the slaughtering of cattle and the exporting of beef a “pink revolution.” Since becoming prime minister, he has tightened laws across the 18 states to stop the slaughter of cattle. 

The Economist said Modi had “a fixation with cows.” It said his political party used the cow as a symbol in its efforts to convert India into a Hindu state. 

In 2017, the situation got even worse when the Indian government ordered beef slaughterhouses to close across the country.

India is the second largest producer of beef in the world, and it is the largest milk producer in the world. So a ban on slaughtering cattle had massive repercussions.

Sources: BBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, HRW, The Economist, The Baffler

Most dairy cows live up for up to 15 years, but they usually stop producing milk after seven years. Every year in India, around 3 million cows in India stop producing milk.A woman milking a cow in a Village of Delhi, India, in July 2018.A woman milking a cow in a Village of Delhi, India, in July 2018.

Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Cows that can no longer calve or provide milk are seen as a burden by farmers. Before Modi tightened restrictions, these cattle were often sold to Muslim traders and smuggled overseas for their meat and leather.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Bloomberg

But now, since they can’t slaughter cattle they don’t need, farmers are simply releasing male calves and unproductive older females.wo women walk with a cow in India in 2019. Trees are visible in the background.wo women walk with a cow in India in 2019.

Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images

“People quietly abandon their unproductive cows in the night,” one farmer said.

Sources: National Geographic, Bloomberg

New technology has also played a part in the country’s boom in stray cattle. Only decades ago, male cattle were vital on a farm — they plowed fields and provided manure.A farmer plows his field using cows in India in 2020.A farmer plows his field using cows in India in 2020. This is no longer the norm.

Anuwar Hazarika/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Source: National Geographic

But with the development of tractors and chemical fertilizers, they are now largely unnecessary.A farmer plows his field with a tractor in India in 2021.A farmer plows his field with a tractor in India in 2021.

Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty Images

Source: National Geographic

Stray cattle might not sound — or look — too alarming, but when the number gets into the millions, it creates problems.A group of Indian children sit in a cart and chat as one of them leans against a stray cow in India in 2015.A group of children playing with a stray cow in India in 2015.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Source: National Geographic

They often don’t get fed enough and become aggressive. There are regular local news stories about people being mauled by bulls on the street — some have been killed and some have been severely injured.A cow walks through a town in India.A cow walks through a town in India.

Veronique Durruty/ Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Source: BBC

Stray cattle also cause car crashes. Between 2018 and 2022, in the Indian state of Haryana, more than 900 deaths were caused by cattle on roads.Stray cows roam on a busy road in India in 2014. Cars are seen next to them on the road.Stray cows roam on a busy road in India in 2014.

Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Source: National Geographic

Stray cattle can carry diseases. Farmers have been known to release diseased cattle since they can’t cull them, which can lead to outbreaks.Workers line up dead cows for removal after lumpy skin disease outbreak in cattle at a farm in India in 2022. Some live cows are seen in the background as a worker walks by.Workers remove dead cows after lumpy skin disease outbreak in cattle at a farm in India in 2022.

Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto/Getty Images

This is likely what happened in 2022 when lumpy skin disease impacted more than two million cattle. 

Source: National Geographic

Stray cattle also raid crops. About 85% of farmers in India own no more than two hectares of land, meaning any damage to their crops has long-term impacts.Farmers stand on a farm protected by fencing in 2019.Farmers stand on a farm protected by fencing in 2019.

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

Some farmers built fences or paid guards to protect their land, but this is unaffordable for most.

Anjani Dixit, the head of a farming association in Uttar Pradesh, told National Geographic that “a herd can destroy the whole crop in just an hour.”

Sources: Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, National Geographic

Instead, many farmers must guard their farms overnight to ensure cattle don’t eat anything.Indian cattle caretakers stand beside stray cattle in 2019.Indian cattle caretakers stand beside stray cattle in 2019.

Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

One farmer named Ashok Kumar, who had to escort a stray herd off his farm, told Bloomberg the government had made his life “miserable.”

“If we beat cows for destroying crops, we might go to jail and won’t get bail for months,” he said. “It’s the people abandoning the cows who should be behind bars.”

Source: BBC

Many people are afraid to take things into their own hands. Aside from the government’s ban, cow vigilante groups enforce the ban by killing people who violate it, according to Bloomberg.A volunteer for a cow vigilante group that enforced a ban on beef slaughtering has his hand up on the car window and explains the ban to a driver in India in 2015.A volunteer for a cow vigilante group that enforced a ban on beef slaughtering explains the ban to a driver in India in 2015.

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Between 2015 and late 2018, 44 people were killed by vigilantes and another 280 people were injured.

Sources: Bloomberg, Bloomberg, HRW

What makes the situation even worse is that in the majority of these cases, local police failed to follow up. At times, they have even been accused of being complicit in the crimes, according to Human Rights Watch.Volunteers for a vigilante group that enforced a ban on beef slaughtering are illuminated by headlights as they stand in front of a truck in India in 2015.Volunteers for a vigilante group that enforced a ban on beef slaughtering inspect a truck in India in 2015.

Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images

Modi himself did not come out and condemn the attacks until August 2018. 

“I want to make it clear that mob lynching is a crime, no matter the motive,” he said.

Sources: Bloomberg, HRW

In Uttar Pradesh, locals are required to report any dead cows to the local authorities. Any deaths that raise suspicion require a post-mortem.Cows on the steps beside the River Ganges in Uttar Pradesh in 2020. People climb the stairs alongside them.Cows beside the River Ganges in Uttar Pradesh in 2020.

Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket/Getty Images

Sources: Independent, Bloomberg

Between 2014 and 2016, Modi’s government also spent about $41 million building cow sheds called gaushalas to hold stray cattle. There are now more than 5,000 gaushalas across India. But, according to the BBC, it’s not enough.Cows in bad condition are crowded together at the Hingonai Cow Rehabilitation Center in 2016.Cows in bad condition are crowded together at the Hingonai Cow Rehabilitation Center in 2016.

Vishal Bhatnagar/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Meanwhile, in Uttar Pradesh, the government is planning on creating a cow sanctuary covering 130 acres.

Some farmers have also started artificially inseminating cows to almost guarantee the sex of their calves — meaning they would stop having as many male calves, but it’s an expensive solution.

Sources: National Geographic, BBC, Bloomberg, Washington Post

There’s a push to start turning cow urine and dung into medicinal remedies, which, although not new in India, is not backed by science.A woman sits behind medicine made from cow urine that is believed to treat cancer and kidney problems.A woman sits behind medicine made from cow urine that is believed to treat cancer and kidney problems. Cow urine has not been scientifically proven as a medicine.

Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

Source: National Geographic

Vallabh Kathiria, the former chairman of India’s agency to protect and promote cows, told National Geographic the plan was to make stray cows into a symbol of something good.Stray cows were seen on a highway during the pandemic in 2020.Stray cows were seen on a highway during the pandemic in 2020.

Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

He wanted people to “feel like they’ve found a gold ornament” when they see one, he said. But it’s hard to believe perception alone will be enough to solve this widespread issue. 

Source: National Geographic

Read the original article on Business Insider