Inside India’s plastic cows: How sacred animals are left to line their stomachs with polythene

Grazing on rubbish on Delhi’s streets, cows consume large quantities of plastic, and doctors routinely find up to 50kg of waste in their stomachs during surgery. ‘Sometimes we find whole shoes, sometimes needles, or pieces of wood… but mostly it is polythene’

Adam Withnall
Sunday 24 February 2019 16:22 GMT
India's plastic cows: Why thousands of roaming cattle are resulting to eating rubbish

Six months ago, the manager of the Gopal Gau Sadan – literally a “home for old cows” on the outskirts of Delhi – was forced to declare that enough was enough; it couldn’t take any more animals.

With more than 4,000 cattle living on just 16 acres of land, the shelter wrote to the Delhi city authorities to say it would have to stop rehousing cows who, despite their revered status among India’s 1.2 billion Hindus, have been left to fend for themselves on the streets.

It’s a similar story at all of the five government-supported cow shelters in the greater Delhi area. Indeed, since Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP swept to power in the 2014 election, stray cattle crises have been seen breaking out across the nation.

Figures from a government survey estimate there are more than 60,000 abandoned cows living in the capital. Tourist snaps of Delhi often feature a robust-looking bovine stray, walking down the street and forcing rickshaws, cars, even buses to grant it right of way.

They are less likely to show the more unsavoury sight of the same cows grazing on piles of plastic household waste, at collection points and rubbish dumps throughout the city.

Unlike other stray animals, cows lack the dexterity to pick out food from the mass of polythene, glass, rubber and other inedible and hazardous garbage they stumble across.

Some extreme cases have made the news where up to 80kg of plastic have been pulled from the stomachs of a single cow during life-saving surgery.

But there is not one cow brought in off the streets that has not ingested at least a significant amount of plastic, says Dr Showkat, the head vet at Shri Krishna Gaushala, one of the city’s largest shelters.

Once a cow has consumed around 25kg of plastic it starts to affect their digestive system, he says. First they stop eating, then they stop defecating, at which point urgent surgery is required to remove the blockage. Many don’t survive the operation.

At least 12 cows per month passing through the shelter’s operating theatre for plastic removal surgery, according to the “sick patient register” on Dr Showkat’s desk – since the cow is revered in Hinduism as “mother”, the animals are “patients”, the veterinary surgery is a “hospital” and the vets are all “doctors”.

“We try to be as fast as possible, but it can take more than two, three hours to pull out all the plastic,” Dr Showkat says. “The maximum I have seen is 50kg, and it is not just plastic. Sometimes we find whole shoes, sometimes needles, or pieces of wood… but mostly it is polythene.”

The problem is definitely “getting worse over time”, he said. “I have been working here since 2014, and when I first arrived we were performing surgery on only one or two [plastic] cases a month.

“Since 2014, whether it is political or something else, we are receiving more and more cows. I think there is an apathy towards cows, and animals in general. At home, we say this is our cow-mother, but then from this home we throw it out. Our statements of love [for cows] are one thing, but the situation on the ground is very different.”

The political situation Dr Showkat refers to is the rise of Mr Modi’s BJP and, with it, the growing phenomenon of violence in the name of cow protection – one of the core issues that has defined the Hindu nationalist movement.

In speeches, Mr Modi has condemned “the widespread killing of our cows”. According to IndiaSpend, 45 people were killed in cow-related violence between 2012 and 2018, and many states now have laws banning all cow slaughter.

It means that when cows stop producing milk, where once they might have been sold for slaughter, the animals are instead cast out onto the streets by farmers who cannot afford to keep feeding an unproductive animal.

In neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere, growing herds of stray cattle are roaming the countryside and damaging crops, angering farmers – many of whom who say the issue will make them think twice about voting BJP in the upcoming general election.

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Mr Modi and other Hindu nationalist leaders, like Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister and prominent right-wing monk Yogi Adityanath, have addressed the problem by setting aside more money for cows and demanding strays be moved to shelters more promptly.

But like all other major existing facilities, Shri Krishna Gaushala is already full beyond capacity. Its campus resembles a city of cows stretching as far as the eye can see, complete with a temple, a school, its own food processing unit and Dr Showkat’s hospital. It is home to more than 8,400 animals – up from around 5,000 in 2012, according to workers.

The cows have all the food and medicine they need, paid for by both private donations and a government stipend of 1,200 rupees per animal, per month – no small amount, given many unskilled labourers in India get by on monthly salaries as small as 6,000 rupees.

The cows even get cooked meals. Sunita Tivari, stirring one of five vast cauldrons of bulgur wheat, speaks warmly of her work “looking after the gau mata” – the cow-mother. She has been working at the shelter for seven years, and says she believes it will bring her good fortune “not only in this life but the next”.

The only thing they lack is space. Deputy manager Mohan Garh admits the cows do not have the minimum 3.5sq m per animal recommended by veterinary science. “We will be able to take maybe another 50 cows and then we will have to say no more,” Mr Garh says.

He says that since Mr Modi has urged people to take any cows they see to shelters, pressures on existing facilities will only grow unless more facilities are built.

“The only way to reduce the [plastic] problem is to get the cows inside a shelter,” he says. “Even if we tell people they are harming the cows, it is difficult to get people to stop throwing away plastic.”

People for Animals, a rights charity founded by the BJP minister and prominent animal welfare campaigner Maneka Gandhi, says it has raised the issue of the capital’s stray cows with the Delhi High Court. It wants a complete ban on plastic bags in the city, but also a crackdown on the commercial dairies that cast the animals out when they stop producing milk.

“Running dairies in unregistered premises is a violation of law, and so is abandoning animals on the streets to fend for themselves, but the implementation of these laws is negligible,” says Gauri Maulekhi, a trustee for the charity.

Frustration at a lack of solutions to Delhi’s stray cow woes is a sentiment that unites all the workers at the capital’s shelters – that and their expressions of fondness for the creatures in their care.

Rashtra Pal, manager of the Gopal Gau Sadan, says he was deeply saddened by two recent incidents where cows dropped dead, he says, because of the amounts of plastic they had ingested. “After all, it is a human being,” he says, referring to the popular belief in Hinduism that equates the life of a cow to that of a high-caste Brahmin.

“When they bring them here you will find them all looking fat and healthy. But that fat is because of the polythene inside them,” he says. “So you can’t call them healthy – they look good but they are full of plastic. We do all we can to care for them but usually they don’t survive long.

“People need to be made aware of the harm they are doing to the cows by letting them eat plastic,” he says. “They should remember all the benefits they are receiving from cows, and the importance of cows in their lives.”

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