For farmers like Vijay Rawat in Uttar Pradesh, stray cattle are turning into a source of huge loss: the animals raid fields in large numbers, trample on the crops and devour whatever they find. Hoof marks in his field indicate that some damage has already been done. “They ate up all the mustard I had sown. I had to sow them again. Now, if I don’t put up the fence, there will be no wheat to even consume [for his seven-member family],” he said, as he worked on the fence.

Issues ultimatum

A Dalit, Vijay Rawat lives in Jabaroli village in the Mohanlalganj Lok Sabha (reserved) constituency, rural Lucknow. He blames the Yogi Adityanath government for the menace and even issues an ultimatum. “Make some arrangement soon or I will not vote for the BJP in 2019,” said Mr. Vijay, who voted for the party in 2014 and 2017.

Farmers, cutting across political lines and castes, claim the menace of stray cattle got worse after March 2017 when Yogi Adityanath came to power, owing to the fear of vigilante groups (who disrupt cattle transport), collapse of local cattle markets and fairs, fall in the value of non-milking cows and bullocks and campaign against illegal slaughterhouses. Last week, angry villagers in Firozabad and Aligarh even locked up stray cattle in government schools to draw the State’s attention.

Both men and women have been forced to defend their fields with lathis or stay up on machan for vigil at night.

Rohit Rawat, who lives in Mohanlalganj’s Hulas Khera, known for its archaeological site, confesses that his family released a bullock in the open last year owing to financial burden. “We could not feed it, what else,” he says.

Farmers say the local cattle market at Mau has seen a fall in the sale of non-milking cows and bullocks as they have no takers. “It’s a good thing cow slaughter came to a halt, but so did the market,” said Vijay Rawat in Jabaroli.

A few kilometres away, among the vegetable sellers squatting at a local bazaar, is Radhe Mohan.

Radhe Mohan, an OBC Kashyap, whose family grew potatoes and green vegetables on their 10 biswa land every year, did not dare grow the crops this season. He was forced to source vegetables from a mandi and sell them at the bazaar for a living. “The animals come and destroy everything,” he rued. Fear of police action, vigilante groups and religious beliefs prevent him from using force against the raiding cattle, he said.

Tapping the anger

Samajwadi Party leader R.K. Chaudhary, who was runner-up from Mohanlalganj in 2014, is trying to capitalise on the anger brewing among farmers. On December 27, he tried to lead a group of aggrieved farmers and around 700 stray cattle to the tehsil headquarters as protest, even leading to a lathi-charge. If the problem of stray cattle was not resolved within a month, Mr. Chaudhary said he would bring one lakh stray cattle from across U.P. to 5, Kalidas Marg, the official residence of the Chief Minister in Lucknow. “We will hand them over to Yogi, you take care of your animals,” said Mr. Chaudhary.

In Hulas Khera, Gyan Chand Dikshit, a Brahmin farmer whose four-bigha field was heavily damaged by stray cattle, says: “In the eyes of the farmer, the Yogi government has fallen.” He expects stray cattle issue to be a factor in the 2019 election. “Whichever government comes will have to find a solution because at this rate people will be dying of starvation,” said Gyan Chand.

Damage control

Alarmed by the reports of aggrieved farmers and protests, the Yogi Adityanath government was pressed to make several announcements over the last couple of weeks to tackle stray cattle, including an ultimatum to all district magistrates to lock up the cattle in cow conservation centres by January 10. The State Cabinet also decided to levy additional cess on excise items to fund “temporary” cow shelters in both urban and rural areas.

Mr. Adityanath also ordered officials to identify and take action against those who abandon their animals or tie them up in government buildings, calling them “anti-social elements.”

No to slaughter

Listing the reasons for the menace, Cabinet Minister for Animal Husbandry S.P Singh Baghel said the male calf had been rendered “useless and valueless” owing to mechanisation of farming, crushing and transportation. “U.P. is a State of small and minor farmers, with two crop seasons of rabi and kharif. For 15 days of ploughing, a farmer no longer wants to feed two bullocks all year round,” said Mr. Baghel.

The immediate cause for the menace, he said, was that the Adityanath government had “strictly implemented” the cow slaughter prevention law. “Cow slaughter is as important to us as homicide. Now you can estimate [by the number of stray cows] how much illegal slaughter was taking place under the previous governments,” said the Minister.

To regulate the population of the male calf in the long-run, the government has started a sex-sorted scheme under which the chances of a cow producing a female calf would be as high as 90-95%. After the successful experiment in Barabanki, Etawah and Lakhimpur Kheri districts, the scheme is set to be launched in all 75 districts.

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