The cow has been in the news since the present government came to power. There has always been a difference of opinion between those who think that the cow is a species of mother and those who consider it a source of meat like a chicken or a goat. It is worth looking at the facts of India’s animal economy. They are a bit dated, since its last census was held in 2012. But bovine conditions cannot have changed much since then.
Cattle and buffaloes were not the only animals covered; the census also covered horses, sheep, goats, pigs, donkeys, mules, mithuns, yaks, camels, elephants, dogs, rabbits, ducks, turkeys, quails, and other poultry. Indian cattle and foreign or mulatto cattle were distinguished. So were Indian and foreign cocks, hens, ducks and drakes; foreign chicks were termed “improved”.
The number of canines went down from 19 million in 2007 to 11.6 million in 2012 – a fall of 39 per cent. Dogs declined by 32 per cent, and bitches by 52 per cent; obviously Indians prefer male to female dogs (these figures exclude strays). But they prefer female to male goats (98 million females against 37 million males in 2012) and sheep (51 million females against 15 million males). And their preference for females is spreading to bovines; the number of males fell from 103 million in 2007 to 84 million in 2012, while the number of females went up from 201 million to 215 million. The sex ratio is adverse to males amongst yaks (35000 against 42000 in 2012), mithuns (129000 against 169000), and rabbits (25500 against 33700).
In general, if animals are kept for milk, males are useless. They are necessary for breeding, so a few burly fellows will be kept for impregnation; the rest will be killed or allowed to die. That is how the cattle industry functions in the west. A farm will have rows and rows of cows, but at most one or two bulls. They live miserable lives; except when they are taken out once in a few weeks to mate with a cow, they are just tied up. So generally they are very bad-tempered. If they can break free and get a chance, they will attack humans. While the meadows in Europe look very inviting in summer, it would be a good idea to make sure there is no bull around. Indian bullocks are better behaved because they are made to work, beaten if they misbehave, and most of them are castrated. We let them live, but their lives are not much better.
Whatever use they are put to, cattle kept in the west are more efficient than in India; so foreign ones have steadily infiltrated India and been interbred with local cattle. Between 1992 and 2012, the number of Indian cattle fell from 189 million to 151 million, while the number of foreign and hybrid cattle went up from 15 million to 40 million; the number of buffaloes went up from 105 to 109 million. Foreign and hybrid cows give roughly six times as much milk as Indian cows. They will breed faster, for their (male to female) sex ratio in 2012 was 15 per cent against 41 per cent amongst indigenous cattle. It is still high in India because local bullocks continue to be used for ploughing and haulage; but they are being rapidly replaced by motorized vehicles as they have been abroad, and their proportion is declining.
Buffaloes’ sex ratio was 15 per cent, as for foreign cattle; both are primarily used for milk and meat. Buffaloes yielded 4.5 million tons of carabeef, half of which was exported, mainly to Vietnam, Egypt, Malaysia and Thailand. Sheep and goats are used primarily for their meat, and are bred as fast as possible, as their 2012 sex ratios – 20 and 18 per cent respectively – show. Pigs are obviously kept for their meat, but surprisingly, their sex ratio is not skewed; it is close to 50 per cent. That, I guess, is because they breed so fast that there is no need to keep special males for impregnation. There are so many fowls, ducks and turkeys – 729 million in 2012 – that the department of animal husbandry gave up on estimating their sex ratio. It also did not try for elephants because, I suspect, its coverage is very poor: it estimates their number to have gone up from 1000 in 2007 to 22000 in 2012, which is absurd.
Let us now take a longer view. Between 1992 and 2012, the number of cattle fell from 205 to 191 million, while the share of foreign and hybrid cattle went up from 7 to 21 per cent. Obviously, the higher milk output of foreign cows is behind the decline in the number of local cows. The number of cows went up from 103 to 123 million, while the number of bullocks fell from 102 to 68 million; that is the impact of mechanization. The number of female buffaloes went up from 67 to 93 million, while the number of male buffaloes fell from 17 to 16 million; this too can be traced to mechanization.
The number of sheep went up from 51 to 65 million. It rose most in Assam, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand, which are relatively less densely populated; it rose little in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu which have the largest number of sheep. Clearly, shepherding is migrating from the old dry peninsular states to less developed ones in the east. The number of goats went up from 115 to 135 million; it rose most in Assam, Bihar and Chhattisgarh. We see the same migration in goats as in sheep to less densely and less developed states. But the role of the two animals is very different. Sheep yield wool and meat; goats, surprisingly, supply 31 per cent of the milk. A goat is a poor man’s cow.
The number of pigs fell from 128 to 103 million, mostly in Orissa, Eastern India and Andhra Pradesh. All these states have got richer over the three decades; so it is unlikely that meat consumption has fallen in any of them. But we do not see them leading in population growth of goats and sheep, which do not seem to have replaced pigs. How is this possible? My guess is one or both of two things have happened. First, pig rearing technology has improved: either pigs have grown fatter or they are growing faster or both. The other is that there has been a shift from pork to chicken. The number of poultry increased from 284 to 693 million in the two decades.