Wednesday, Oct 05, 2022

Beasts Of Burden: Why Maharashtra Farmers Are Abandoning Their Cattle

With farmers in Maharashtra reeling under crop failures and mounting debts, rearing milch cattle has not remained a profitable option.

Maharashtra farmers are selling their bullocks at low cost or abandoning them as demand for cows eclipses bullocks PTI/File Photo

It was a hot day when Bhiku Chivate travelled to the Modha cattle market in Yavatmal to sell off two bullocks. He had hired a tempo to transport the animals to the market. His hopes were high for he thought his animals would fetch him a good price. With the money he would get from the sale, Bhiku had hoped to buy either one or two younger bullocks.

However, fate had other plans for him. The highest bid for each of his bullocks was Rs 20,000 as opposed to the Rs 1.50 lakh in the auction for both animals. In another faraway district of Yavatmal – the heartland of farmers’ suicides in Maharashtra - another farmer Balu Dighe went to the Badnera cattle market for three weeks in a row, hoping to sell a pair of bullocks. He had priced his animals at Rs 70,000 each. The highest bid was Rs 22,000 for each. Neither Chivate nor Dighe could even recover the money spent on transportation of their animals to the cattle markets.

These are not isolated incidents but recurring tales that farmers in Maharashtra narrate. The cattle markets – once a place of a thriving business – are now mere caricatures, reflecting the grim reality of the farming sector. When unproductive animals remain unsold the farmers are not in a position to buy newer, younger animals, they say. “Since the beef ban came in we cannot sell our bullocks or cows. No one wants to buy them,” said Chivate. In fact, numerous farmers Outlook spoke to blamed the beef ban for their mounting woes and tales of debts.

Farmers in Maharashtra are reeling under crop failures, farm loans and mounting debts. They do not find it economically viable to rear milch cattle. In fact, a sizeable number of farmers have stopped buying cattle, be it cows or bullocks, said a source in the Animal Husbandry department. “More are rearing goats and are shifting to using goat’s milk for tea, consumption etc. there is no problem in sending the goats to the slaughterhouses,” said the source. Maintaining unproductive farm cattle has become an insurmountable problem for the farmers. Unless the old pair is sold farmers do not have the money to buy a new pair.

During the Pola festival in Maharashtra, bullocks are worshipped and given a day off from hard labour. They are bathed, decked up in colourful ribbons tied to their horns and fed special fodder. However, since the beef ban came into force, each year the number of bullocks being worshipped has seen a decline. According to Mahesh Kulkarni, a cotton farmer from Parbhani, buying cattle is no more lucrative. “In my village, there used to be at least 300 – 350 bullocks but this year the number was about 90. These numbers have been falling for many years and now it is less than 100. We farmers do not want to invest in cattle anymore as it is too expensive to look after them later,” said Kulkarni.

When animals die, it is again an expense few farmers can afford. They have to pay Rs 2,500 – 3,000 to bury its carcass. Looking after unproductive cattle, particularly in drought-prone areas is extremely tough. “The cattle need a lot of water. Getting water by tankers is very costly. It is easy to fetch water for the household but very tough maintaining cattle during the drought,” said Ajay Gurav, a farmer from Beed, a district that has seen decades of drought.

When problems arise solutions are found, that’s the belief a farmer lives by. However, when faced with a huge number of unproductive animals, farmers have now started abandoning their cattle. They take them to the borders of the districts or faraway places and abandon them. Since the state promulgated the beef ban, this practice has increased and will continue to do so, farmers tell Outlook. Coupled with the gruesome attacks by right-wing vigilantes on anyone transporting cattle, farmers are not keen to risk their lives. Abandoning their cattle is a better and safe option, said Digambar Halve of Ahmednagar.

On the other side, the gaushalas are inundated with abandoned and stray animals. According to a source from the Latur-based Guru Ganesh Gau Rakshak Samiti, the load on the gaushalas has made the load unmanageable. “We are unable to take on any more cattle. Besides, we cannot maintain the existing load of cattle. We are fully dependent on donations. After the lockdown and the financial problems, people are not donating much. We do not have enough funds for any additional cattle,” said the source.

In fact, many of the gaushala owners are appealing for government assistance. A minimum of Rs 150 is required for the daily maintenance of one cow or bullock. The gender disparity is glaring here as it is easy for an unproductive cow to find a home at any of the gaushalas, while the same cannot be said for the bullocks. “They take the cows but the bullocks we have to keep,” said a farmer.

If this situation continues and farmers stop buying bullocks, then bullock carts may just be a thing of the past, said another farmer. When it comes to farm work the type of cart is also important. Given the shortage of wood and an environmental ban on cutting trees, carts these days are made of iron. They are designed by the village blacksmiths and are light yet sturdy. A cart weighs about 300-400 kg. The cost of such a cart frame is a minimum of Rs 50,000. The price of a bullock cart is a minimum of Rs 1.50 lakh.

Farmers choose animals with the best pedigree, given their extra speed and endurance. The preferred breed of bullocks across Maharashtra is the Lal Kandari or the Khillar variety. Both these are either brownish-red or white in colour. The minimum price for both varieties is Rs 1.50 lakh each. While the Khillar variety is chosen for speed, farmers prefer Lal Kandari for heavy-duty fieldwork.

Bullocks have steep operating costs. A farmer spends about Rs 200 a day on fodder for a pair of bullocks. These animals do not just survive on grass. They need good quality feed which is expensive. Bullock cart has to be used and these animals have to be fed. Farmers who cannot afford bullock carts take them on rent on the condition that the animals are given quality feed.
Many farmers are now choosing to buy tractors, instead of bullocks. Those who cannot afford tractors rent them. In October 2021 the top 14 tractor manufacturers in India have recorded escalated growth. In the fiscal April 2020 to March 2021 the tractor sales in India recorded a growth of 26.86 per cent.

(This story is the spinal part of a three-part series on the impact of the government's decision to repeal the three contentious farm laws in India. Read the first and second parts on