Fodder prices have gone up by more than a third in the past year and most farmers cannot afford to keep cows after they stop producing milk, said farmer Rajesh Pahalwan as he smoked a hookah pipe in the village of Manoharpur. Six farmers sitting with him mainly nodded in agreement.
In India, the world’s biggest milk producer, about 3 million cattle become unproductive every year. In the past, Hindu farmers would sell unproductive cows to Muslim traders and about 2 million of these would end up smuggled to Bangladesh for meat and leather. But that trade has now been throttled by the government crackdown, trade and industry officials say.
That has led to many unproductive cattle being abandoned, farmers said, but governments – both state and federal – have failed to construct new shelters, leaving rising numbers of stray cattle that are feeding on crops, or even garbage.
“The government clearly did not think of alternatives before putting these curbs in place,” said farmer Deepak Chaudhary, who grows wheat on the outskirts of Mathura, considered to be the birthplace of the Hindu God Krishna. “As Hindus, we treat cows as sacred but these unwarranted measures have upended the economics of farming.”
The government did provide some relief in its interim budget last week as it announced a cow welfare programme costing 7.50 billion rupees ($104.6 million) in the year beginning April.
But there are hardly any “adequate measures to rehabilitate” cattle, said Fauzan Alvi, vice-president of the All India Meat and Livestock Exporters Association.
“Forget about cows, we cannot sell even a single animal to even our relatives thanks to cow vigilante groups which are aided and abetted by the BJP,” said the wheat farmer Chaudhary.
Modi has in the past condemned violence by cow vigilantes, but critics and opposition politicians say some of the right-wing Hindu groups involved have links to his party, a charge the BJP denies.
Nearly 85 percent of India’s farmers own less than 2 hectares (5 acres) of land, so even a relatively small area damaged has a big impact on their livelihood.
Only two weeks ago, some cattle ravaged an acre of wheat grown by farmer Chandra Pal in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh.
“My investment went down the drain after some stray cattle trampled and ate up the crop,” he said.
Many farmers in Uttar Pradesh are now using barbed wire to stop animals from entering their farms, but that is expensive.
“We have been at the receiving end of anti-farmer policies of the government and the problem of stray cattle is just another blow to us,” said farmer Amar Chand, from Maholi village who voted for Modi in 2014. “Unlike the previous general election, farmers are not solidly behind Modi, who’s on shaky ground this time round.”