Barren Assets: The Milkybar Cow isn’t Happy.
“Woaaah look! Cows on the road!”
-Exclaimed the U.S born and brought up first cousin on his annual summer trip to India, when he was 3. I at the time, must’ve been no more than 7, still baffled over my cousin’s amusement and ignorance even- aren’t cows normally found on the road and around temples, thriving amidst heaps of garbage?
“It’s all so normal for us”, I replied. Little did I know then, that it wasn’t something India could afford to boast of. Far from it.
Most urban kids, from the generation I belong to and beyond, have little reason to visit their rural roots- unless they have the (now seen as fortunate) privilege of visiting grandparents, who decided to hold on to their ancestral homes or property. Our knowledge of food and its production hence, comes from benevolent ‘Did you know?’ books for kids which are carefully animated and aesthetically decorated to meet standards we think are appropriate for kids to engage with.
These colorful books are mostly confined to stating the obvious ‘milk comes from cows’ connection, in their dissemination of information. Fed to us at age 4, this is the reality most city folk grow up believing till they (if they), make an effort to dig deeper into the nuances of the dairy industry.
At the risk of sounding like an apologist, urban ignorance over the dairy industry, especially in India does not surprise me. Let’s try breaking down the general notions one grows up with in cities, around cows, milk and everything that relates to cattle.
- Childhood awareness level: Milk comes from cows.
- Pre-pubescent awareness level: ‘Mother Dairy’ or ‘Verka’ provide us with milk. How do they procure it? The 90’s Amul co-operative add featuring Rajasthani women traversing sand dunes, carrying milk pots through villages and singing about an ocean of milk, is the closest one gets to experiencing the procurement process. Most urban kids at this age still haven’t figured out how milk from a cow reaches their evening shakes.
- Puberty awareness level: Come puberty and we know vaguely that the udders are involved. But how is our milk consumption connected to the cow’s biological mechanism? At an age where human kids are just discovering the nuances of the human reproductary system, who has the time OR interest to care about the biological interventions undertaken for the purpose of producing that white liquid stored in a steel container, in the refrigerator? That’s mum’s department anyway.
By the time we exit our teenage and develop into full grown adults, there is little incentive left to question our habits, leave alone dietary habits.
Kids in urban India grow up terrified of cows-their interaction (or the lack of it) with them being limited to the road or the municipality garbage area. We know by now that cow habitat ‘traditionally’ comprises of a rural setting; their presence on the road however, barely strikes us as odd. Cows in India, belong on the road, don’t they?…“It’s all so normal for us”.
Sprinkle dietary conditioning convincing one of the inherent requirement of dairy by the body, with some ‘holy’ water and you have an industry with a consistent demand for milk(cow) production, with a clog in the disposal. No wonder the cow is normally thought of as a perennial milk giving machine, ‘meant’ to produce milk for human consumption, through as naive a process as- Cows give us milk.
THIS is how it works-
A cow gives milk as long as her udders feel the need to provide milk. When do mammary glands feel the need to provide milk? When the cow goes through a full pregnancy, of course. Needless to say then, for an ever increasing population of humans who consume dairy in more forms than we can count on our fingers, the cow needs to be kept pregnant and milking, continuously! (Unless she continues to give milk for years after delivering a calf, which is extremely rare and not reliable for mass production)
In India, the cow is abandoned on the road soon after she is rendered barren. The reverse is true too- multiple homes in rural India are opened to stray cows who are found pregnant.
Since they’re not scavengers or predators, stray cows rely on easily available food. The garbage heap thus becomes a convenient spot to forage for food-like dumpster diving, except animals are too innocent to realize the difference between food and the plastic that holds it. Recently, one of the many cows we rescued, collapsed dead after battling a hernia on one side of her stomach. She would poop out plastic for weeks together through an intestine which was clogged with..no points for guessing.. rock hard plastic!
It is almost like cows in India have developed a taste for plastic. Behaviour patterns do pass on from one member of a species to another.
Hey, what about the male members of the cattle?
Most are left to starve soon after they’re born, since tractors have replaced ox labor. The ones who make it, are used on the plough when needed- they’re left on the road after sowing season is over, and then caught again to be put on the plough when harvest season beckons.
No, they are not needed to impregnate cows. That requirement is met with, through artificial insemination. Artificial insemination is how they make sure a cow is kept pregnant, for a constant supply of milk.
Like humans, a cow’s gestation period spans to about 9 to 10 months depending on the breed. The weening period lasts for about 7–8 months. Since the procurement method in India relies on a co-operative structure, how a farmer chooses to benefit from his cow is his prerogative-wether he impregnates her immediately after she reaches heat post a delivery or gives her time; wether a calf is given its share of milk before the extra liters are sold off or if the calf is allowed access to a single udder- all depends on the farmer.
Cattle is considered a liability, like most drought animals, if rendered useless. The female cow is thought of as an asset as long as her reproductive system serves the human demand for dairy- the ever growing human demand for cheese, yogurt, mayonnaise, smoothies, shakes and what not.
Connections between cattle on the road and (the failure of) a cow’s reproductive organs are not made obvious at first glance. “Cows on the road”, do not exist because India loves its cows to the point that it wishes they were immortal. Cows exist on the road because we require them to fulfill a placebo, we’re convinced of. The denial of the cow as a living being with a reproductive system, which cannot keep organic pace with the growing demand for dairy, leads to an unsustainable system.
The only way we see out of this mess is for everyone to gradually give up dairy. Have an idea you can offer around reducing cows on the road in India, so they can lead a plastic free, healthy life? The comment section is where you head next.
Further watching: ‘The Plastic Cow’; Dir. Kunal Vohra- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SifRIYqHfcY