Holy cow! It's Delhi's urban cowboys

With the Commonwealth Games just around the corner, India's capital city is attempting to clean up its streets. Andrew Buncombe joins the bovine police on patrol

The bull stood on a filthy rubbish tip, silhouetted against the background of a run-down Delhi neighbourhood. It looked up, defiant, waiting. Was it the imagination, or did the bull really drag its heel through the garbage, like some baited toro awaiting a matador. It certainly looked ready for a fight.

In an instant, there was a flurry of action. A group of young men carrying ropes rushed towards the bull and it set off. As it headed down a narrow alleyway, people scattered, children screamed. One man, nonchalantly shutting the door to his house, looked up to see the bull trying to enter. One of the young men managed to throw his rope over one of the animal's horns. But the battle had only just begun.

In India's capital, cattle are both sacred and yet often surprisingly neglected. Cows that may be owned by a farmer and milked regularly, are often left to wander the traffic-filled streets during the day, creating chaos and causing accidents. Sometimes, the animals themselves get hurt. It's not uncommon to see a lame cow painfully limping through the evening traffic. By law, the city authorities are tasked with dealing with these strays. And with the Commonwealth Games (and the subsequent impact they are expected to have on the reputation of the city) just a year away, officials are working to remove them from the streets. At the forefront of this effort are the teams of cow-catchers who go out to capture the cattle equipped with no more than a rope.

The dangers facing these urban cowboys are many. The horns of a bull can cause nasty injuries and it's common for the cowcatchers to come home with injuries. These young workers – the majority of whom are privately contracted and receive just $70 a month – invariably have no health coverage.

Then there is the threat of the people who either claim to own the cattle, or who disapprove of the supposedly sacred animals being captured and unceremoniously loaded on to a hydraulic truck. "Sometimes people will fight with us and try to release the cows," said Lal Krishnan, 37, a goodnatured cow-catching foreman who has been doing this job for 18 years. "Sometimes they throw stones. Sometimes they beat us up. I've been beaten up before."

On a recent morning, The Independent accompanied Mr Krishnan and his team as they set off from their headquarters in the Green Park neighbourhood in search of cows. The destination was the southern fringe of the city, an area known to have a lot of strays.

It wasn't long before the first target was spotted. A decent-sized bull was sitting quietly under a tree, enjoying its shade and harming no-one. Surely they weren't going to bother this somnolent beast? By way of an answer, the truck screeched to a halt and the young men tore towards the animal, throwing a noose over its head before it got to its feet. That might have been the end of the matter had the bull then not tried to escape by rolling over and as it did, it fell down a raised embankment on to a parked motorbike. It looked utterly painful.

By this point, the truck had been reversed beside the roped animal which was pulled to its feet, cajoled on to the trailer by pulling on its tail and then lifted into the truck. Blood could be seen coming from a gash on the animal's hindquarters.

The team's second capture was less stressful. A stray cow standing by the side of the road was quickly seized and lifted into the truck where it was tied up beside the bull. The team was making it look easy. "The first thing you have to be able to do is catch the cattle with the rope," said Amir, 20, who has been working as a cow catcher for just eight months. "You have to be able to stop them running. That is when you can get hurt. It can be really unpredictable."

The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), which is responsible for rounding up the cattle, says around 1,200 are captured every month. Cow catchers admit they compete with other teams to see which can get the most bulls. "The number we catch remains constant, but the number of cattle on the roads is going down" said Dr M L Sharma, the city's senior veterinary enforcement official.

Once captured, the strays are tagged with an electronic chip that is placed in the animal's rumen, or first stomach. Then they are taken to one of five Hindu cow sanctuaries, or goshalas, on the outskirts of the city where the cattle live out their lives. That, at least, is what happens in theory. Stories abound that money often passes hands between officials and the cow owners and that captured animals can be returned. Reports suggest cow catchers sometimes catch an animal that has already been electronically tagged.

"What has happened in India is that the milk industry has become highly mechanised. The number of animals has greatly increased and now we have so much milk we pour it into the sea," said N G Jayasimha, a spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) India. "But when an animal cannot produce the high amount of milk, the farmer just gets rid of it. The easiest way to do this is to let it go on to the streets where it can live off rubbish. What small amount of milk the farmer gets is a bonus. When they cannot produce any milk, they are sold to a slaughterhouse."

The morning was getting on but plenty of room remained in the truck. That was when the team pulled over in a poor, litter-filled neighbourhood called Nab Serai. Standing on a sprawling mound of rubbish was a large, powerful-looking bull. As the team approached, the animal ran – creating chaos as people fled from its path. "Run away! The bull is coming," shrieked one of the residents.

The first of the team to reach the animal with his rope was Vikas. With a white bandana tied around his forehead, the 22-year-old was also a relative newcomer to the team. Like all his young colleagues, he also wanted to show his courage, his willingness to be first in. "When I started I was afraid but now I'm not really frightened," he claimed later.

But securing one rope around this mighty beast was just the beginning. The bull clearly enjoyed his freedom and as other members of the team moved in with their own lassos, he pulled and tugged and gave no indication which way he might run. On the roof of a partially completed building, a group of children watched excitedly. Indeed, the spectacle was creating quite a crowd. Among those watching intently was a man wearing a pair of shorts. He said nothing.

Gradually, the team cornered the animal and, with enough ropes thrown around it, were able to subdue it. The vehicle was reversed towards the bull and it was loaded on to the hydraulic lift and raised into the rear of the truck, now treacherously slippery with dung and urine.

Before lunchtime, the team had caught another two cattle. Now it was time to drive them to the sanctuary. The drive through the city would take anywhere up to three hours. Before they set off, the team stopped for tea. Mr Krishnan, the foreman, looked content with the morning's work. He too, said it was wrong that the were not treated better. "They shouldn't be eating rubbish and plastic bags. She should be treated properly. I am a Hindu," he declared.

As the team set off for the goshala, it emerged they were not alone. Lingering by himself as the cow-catchers had drunk their tea, was the man in the pair of shorts who had watched the second bull being caught. It quickly transpired, of course, that it was his bull and he wanted it back.

The team loaded up their truck and set off for the north of the city. As they headed down the road, the man in shorts chased after them on his motor-scooter. The cow catchers of Delhi were themselves now being pursued.