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India's Emaciated Cattle Needs Weed-Free Grasslands Not 'Gau Rakshaks'

04/07/2017 8:42 AM IST | Updated 04/07/2017 3:10 PM IST
Shankar S.
Cattle fodder in common lands and forests has become scarce in India due to weed infestation. (Photo by Shankar S.)

By Sanjiv Phansalkar*

Much passion is now generated in our country on the subject of protecting cattle. However, a dispassionate look at the reality of the cattle fodder situation seems to be largely missing in this narrative. India has 108 million adult female cows in a cattle population of 200 million, according to the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB). In addition, there are about 100 million buffaloes in the country. Other than the privileged lactating animals with aware dairy producers, they all feed on grasses growing in common lands — such as forests, public lands around roads, rails and canals, village grazing lands and general open wastelands — and on crop residues.

A very small minority is fortunate enough to feed on specially cultivated fodder. Nearly 200 million small ruminants also feed on the same feed resources. As pressure on common lands has increased, the situation faced by free-grazing livestock has become grimmer by the day.

As pressure on common lands has increased, the situation faced by free grazing livestock has become grimmer by the day.

Livestock evolution

In an insightful article written in the 1980s by the well-known economist, Tushaar Shah had identified four stages of livestock evolution in any region. The first stage is of abundant slack in commons and in crop residues, combined with low farm mechanisation and poorly developed milk markets. In this situation, the need for bullocks is the prime driver. As farm mechanisation and dairy markets develop, the need for bullocks reduces and the incentive to keep buffaloes increases and the cattle population falls, while the number of buffaloes rises.

When the slack in crop residues and commons vanishes, better breeding practice comes into vogue, increasing the proportion of productive animals in the total population. Finally, Shah suggests that both indigenous cattle and buffaloes start getting replaced by tightly managed stock of crossbred cattle to optimise the use of available feedstock. As the level of farm mechanisation, access to vibrant dairy markets and abundance of commons varies a great deal across different regions of the country, animal husbandry composition and population per hectare of land also vary.

Any long rural journey you undertake will provide numerous opportunities of spotting very large herds of emaciated cows.

Not enough food

The vast central Indian hinterlands bordered in the west by Bhil lands, in the north by the Chambal River basin, and in the east by the Chota Nagpur Plateau have traditionally been cattle dominated. Any long rural journey you undertake will provide numerous opportunities of spotting very large herds of emaciated cows. I have travelled in the region a few hundred times and have always been affected by the sight of the poor ill fed but numerous cows that Hindus famously revere. As one plain speaking Indian economist remarked, we do not like to kill our cow mothers, we only starve them to death.

Last year, while travelling from Bhopal towards Betul in Madhya Pradesh on the National Highway 49, I found hundreds of cows abandoned in the stressed forests of Ratapani. Closer investigation revealed that these were dhanihin (ownerless) or orphaned, as farmers prefer to bring them in trolley loads and leave them to their fate in these jungles.

The tragedy is that unwanted shrubs and weeds have invaded our commons, including the jungles. Three weed-like shrubs — prosopis in all drought prone areas, parthenium virtually everywhere, and lantana in most regions that have dry deciduous forests — are the most prolific. I recall travelling on the infamous 9/11 day through the so-called jungles between Panna and Katni. The scenery was depressingly green. Depressing because all the green was due to huge clumps of lantana. There were virtually no large trees anywhere.

I am not sure anyone has estimated the land-area covered by lantana, but it probably runs into a few million hectares.

Lantana menace

Lantana has also been prolific in all erstwhile forests in most other parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka and Maharashtra, and can be seen in other regions such as Meghalaya and Nagaland as well. I am not sure anyone has estimated the land-area covered by lantana, but it probably runs into a few million hectares. The aggressive and thickly growing lantana makes the growth of grass impossible and access to whatever lies beyond the line of shrubs very hurtful to man and beast.

I have wondered how the lantana menace can be controlled. Ideally, if any powerful economic incentive were available from the tree, then, of course, it would have vanished. For instance, no one finds a single tree of sandalwood anywhere. But lantana is a completely useless plant and serves only to hold the soil together. On a minuscule scale when compared with its availability, people have experimented with making furniture from lantana stalks and others consider its fuel value for bracketing, but the menace is truly huge. Can no one rid us of the aggressive lantana?

With the lantana gone, the farmer could collect almost twice the quantity of mahua flowers and fruit, earning ₹6,000 extra compared to the previous year.

There are solutions

It seems one can. Recently, I travelled to an area in the periphery of the Kanha National Park in Mandla district. A non-profit organisation there has motivated local communities to eliminate lantana, at least from their private forests. One farmer had, with the help of a group, cleared 11 acres of his until then useless land of lantana. They also did the stump dressing of whatever rootstock of ladiya, tendu, and other plants that had survived the outgrowth of lantana. With the lantana gone, the farmer could collect almost twice the quantity of mahua flowers and fruit, earning 6,000 extra compared to the previous year. And, he could cultivate 3 acres of the cleaned land with crops.

This farmer plans to cultivate fodder, which will be cut and carried by animal holders in Manikpur Rayat village. It cost him a mere 9,000 to manually uproot all lantana from 11 acres. I am told that during monsoon, when the soil becomes loose, the entire lantana shrub can be uprooted relatively easily. This is what a few farmers have done, and seeing the results, many more farmers and even some forest rangers had approached them to understand the technique. Perhaps, we may have found a way of controlling lantana.

The recent protectors of cattle can perhaps channelise their energy to eliminate lantana in all areas near them. That will benefit them, the cows and the environment.

Controlling weeds

Controlling the aggressive prosopis is less urgent for two reasons. In the first place, it is less useless than lantana since the pods are good feed for goats and since the plant stock is a common raw material for making charcoal. Of course, it probably has a similar deleterious impact on depressing grass growth as lantana, but as it is a classical weed in drought-prone areas, the loss may not be immense. Parthenium (Congress grass) is very aggressive and completely useless but appears not to cause the effects of suppressing grass growth or hindering access. But of course, both these need to be controlled if more lands is to be made available for grass growth.

In passing, it may be suggested that the recent protectors of cattle can perhaps channelise their energy to eliminate lantana in all areas near them. That will benefit them, the cows and the environment.

Sanjiv Phansalkar is Programme Director at Tata Trusts. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad.

This article was first published on VillageSquare.in, a public-interest communications platform focused on rural India.

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