Locking horns to save the Sacred Cow: India’s Indigenous Pastoralists Fight for Their Livelihoods and Cultural Traditions
The sacredness of the cow in India, especially to Hindus, hardly needs an introduction. According to the Hindu scriptures, all cows are descendants of the mythical cow Kamadhenu (also known as Surabhi). Born of an ocean of milk, Kamadhenu generously provides good things to anyone who asks. Her four legs symbolize the four Vedas, the holy scriptures of Hindus, and her four teats are the four Purusharthas, the four goals of human life: righteousness, prosperity, love, and liberation. The sun and the moon are personified on her face, and Agni, the god of fire, is embodied in her shoulders. Hindus revere cows as they believe them to be the earthly manifestation of the sacred Kamadhenu.
With such a degree of reverence, it might come naturally to imagine that cows (especially indigenous breeds) must really be thriving in India, but not so. Despite the reverence, perhaps a majority of Indians fail to recognize that the sacred cow is not at home on a farm or in a gaushala (cowshed) but rather in forests and pastures. Forest policies and acts first designed and enforced by the British Colonial Government and the later forest conservation and biodiversity policies enacted by the government of independent India have relegated the holy cow to being mere “cattle”: unholy livestock that destroys forests and pastures by grazing to satiate its voracious appetite, and that hence must be banished from forests and grasslands and banned from entering them! So that’s the end of the story—or is it?
There are many Indigenous communities in India that have been safeguarding the sacred cow and fighting to conserve her. For them, the cow is more than just a sacred animal: she is the symbol of their identity and is key to their livelihoods, their culture, and their very existence.
There are many Indigenous communities in India that have been safeguarding the sacred cow and fighting to conserve her. For them, the cow is more than just a sacred animal: she is the symbol of their identity and is key to their livelihoods, their culture, and their very existence. The Indigenous pastoral communities of the Maldharis, Gujjars, Lingayats, Gaolis / Gollas, and Banjaras, who inhabit different regions of the Indian subcontinent, predominantly rearing cows, have been fighting back to save the sacred cow and prevent her from being reduced to just cattle and livestock.
Two unsung heroes of the fight to save the sacred cow are Hanumanthu Gantala, 37, and Malya Ramavath, 65, two men who hail from the nomadic Goramaati Banjara tribe (also known as Lambadi in Telangana State and Sugali in Andhra Pradesh State). They have been doing their best to conserve the Poda Thurpu cattle, one of the beautiful Indigenous cattle breeds of India. Poda Thurpu cattle are maintained exclusively within mobile agro-pastoral systems and represent a classic case of community-based improvement and conservation of an Indigenous livestock germplasm.
But the life and journey of these Indigenous communities in efforts to save the sacred cow have been far from easy! In fact, it is only the persistence and endurance of the Indigenous Golla and Banjara communities against all odds that gave the state of Telangana its first-ever official cattle breed. In February 2020, the National Bureau of Animal Genetics in Karnal, India, officially registered Poda Thurpu as the first Indigenous cattle breed of Telangana. How did this extraordinary development come to pass?
Hanumanthu and Malya are residents of Lakshmapur Tanda and Mannanur villages, respectively, located in Amrabad Mandal, Nagarkurnool district, in Telangana. Their villages are situated within the buffer zone of the Amrabad Tiger Reserve. Established in 1983, the tiger reserve covers an area of about 2,800 square kilometers in the Nallamala Forest ranges. The Nallamala Forest is the prime grazing location and lifeline for the local pastoral system. Local pastoral communities say that there are many customarily used grazing patches located inside the Nallamala Forest. Establishment of the tiger reserve has proved fatal for the pastoralists and their livestock, as they have been forbidden from accessing their customary grazing lands. That has resulted in severe fodder shortages, consequently forcing many pastoralists to give up cattle rearing and causing a decline in the local cattle population.
According to Hanumanthu Gantala, Sevalal Maharaj Goramaati is the spiritual Guru (leader) of the Indigenous nomadic Banjara tribe. Sevalal Maharaj led the life of a shepherd, taking care of his father’s seven thousand cows. As disciples of Sevalal Maharaj, the Goramaati Banjaras rear cows and continue his legacy. Explaining the significance of the cow in their culture, Malya Ramavath says that “those who serve the cow will attain nirvana and reach heaven, and those who serve the cattle will die a natural and peaceful death.”
Malya points out that there are at least 26 or 27 pentas (patches of land with fodder and water) inside the Amrabad Tiger Sanctuary of the Nallamala Forest. Those pentas have been used customarily for generations, and there is documented evidence of local pastoralists paying taxes for grazing their herds inside the Nallamala Forest. Until fifty years ago, local herders paid one Indian rupee (USD 0.013) per animal to the state’s Forest Department to graze cattle on their customary pastures inside the forests. For the past few decades, however, things have been changing—and they have changed very drastically over the past few years. The Forest Department has been imposing many restrictions on access to customary grazing lands inside the forest, which is adding to the misery of the local pastoralists.
Recounting the growing conflict between the Forest Department and the local pastoralists over access to the customary grazing patches located inside the now Amrabad Tiger Reserve, Hanumanthu and Malya point out that the forest, the cows, and the locals are as old as the earth and have been there since time immemorial. The Forest Department and the Tiger Reserve, instead, only came recently. Until 1975–76, the then Divisional Forest Officer and the Forest Range Officer allowed cattle herders to graze their cattle up to fifteen kilometers inside the forest. A decade ago, however, these rules were changed: the Forest Department restricted access to only three kilometers within the forest. Without access to customary pastures in the forest, finding enough fodder, water, and shelter, and maintaining large cattle herds has become economically inviable.
Without access to customary pastures in the forest, finding enough fodder, water, and shelter, and maintaining large cattle herds has become economically inviable.
Discussing the ecological significance of pastoralism, Malya says that if cattle are not allowed to graze inside the forests, then the grass will grow more than a meter tall and will dry up during the summer, resulting in huge forest fires. He laments in his native language: Akaal ko dakaal nahi; Jungle ko darwaaja nahi (Jungle thrives only when it rains; and it is something that doesn’t have doors). Furthermore, cattle turn grass into dung, which they deposit in the forest during migration, enriching the forest’s otherwise nutrient-poor soils. One wonders why the Forest Department doesn’t get something as simple as that!
What’s more, the Forest Department officials started manhandling the local herders, ordering them to sell off their cattle and refusing compensation for the loss of human life and livestock from wildlife attacks inside the sanctuary. Crop damage caused by wildlife raiding their fields further stoked the tension between the two camps. The local pastoralist communities began locking horns with the Forest Department.
The conflict escalated, until in July 2015 it broke out into a huge protest. Hundreds of local pastoralists along with their cattle herds took to the Amrabad intersection on the Mahabubnagar to Krunool district highway and blocked the area for the entire day, demanding compensation and withdrawal of all restrictions on access to customary grazing lands inside the Amrabad Tiger Sanctuary. The then Forest Range Officer did come to negotiate with the protesters, although the then Divisional Forest Officer refused to meet with them.
Yet, relations between the two parties did not improve as a result. On the contrary, the protest backfired on the pastoralists. The Forest Department ended up imposing even stronger restrictions on access to grazing inside the forest, totally banning entry into many zones of the Tiger Reserve, and harassment of the pastoralists escalated. Violations have been met with severe penalties and punishments. For instance, in 2018 the Forest Department beat up cattle herders and set fire to five cattle enclosures that had been erected in the Komani penta area inside the forest. In another case the same year, three cattle enclosures were burned down in the Potinagarugu penta, and Forest Department personnel warned the cattle herders never to show up in that vicinity again.
Without knowledge of the legal rights enshrined in the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006 (Forest Rights Act 2006), the local pastoralists have been left defenseless against mistreatment by the Forest Department. The department’s personnel continue confiscating cattle herds and filing cases against the local pastoralists for trespassing. The local pastoralists are left with no other option but to pay penalties (or bribes) and endure whatever they are subjected to.
The local pastoralists are left with no other option but to pay penalties (or bribes) and endure whatever they are subjected to.
Amid all the conflict and chaos there has been a bright light, however. The Poda Thurpu cattle somehow managed to catch the attention and interest of a few researchers and government officials working with local small-scale farmers and pastoralists. In 2016, the Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN), a nonprofit based in Hyderabad, Telangana, in collaboration with the Telangana State Biodiversity Board (TSBB), started a project to identify and register the Poda Thurpu cattle as a unique Indigenous cattle breed and to conserve its germplasm.
This project came as a ray of hope for the local pastoralist communities, who saw it as an opportunity to save a cattle breed that their communities had conserved for more than four centuries. Over a hundred Poda Thurpu cattle breeders came together and extended their support to the project. In 2018, with WASSAN’s support, they registered the Amrabad Poda Lakshmi Govu Sangham (APLGS) cattle breeders’ association). APLGS collaborated closely with WASSAN and TSBB in gathering the scientific data and documentation necessary for the registration of the Poda Thurpu cattle breed. It took about four years of dedication and hard work to make it happen.
The registration of Poda Thurpu might be a game-changer for both the cattle and the local pastoralist communities, as it makes conservation and improvement of this cattle breed a state subject. That means the government of India is obligated to conserve and improve the cattle germplasm. Interestingly, the Central Government of India has also constituted a committee to take stock of the status of recognition of the customary rights of pastoralist communities all across the country under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006.
Both of these developments and the changing political landscape surrounding the cattle breed might work in favor of the local pastoralists. Some of the APLGS members have educated themselves about the FRA and have started creating awareness of it among their fellow pastoralists. APLGS has released a couple of articles in regional newspapers urging the state government to take action to conserve the Poda Thurpu cattle breed and to secure the pastoralists’ rights and livelihoods.
Hanumanthu Ganatala has played a crucial role in the entire process. He was highly instrumental in the recognition of Poda Thurpu cattle as a unique indigenous cattle breed, as well as in organizing the local pastoralists and registering the APLGS to support their conservation efforts. With these successes on their side, the pastoralists are now hopeful that the registration of the Poda Thurpu will change the fate of the breed—and that of their communities, way of life, and livelihood.
Acknowledgments: This story was inspired in part by a study carried out by the Indian NGO Sahjeevan and its Centre for Pastoralism for its Living Lightly Exhibition on Mobile Pastoralism in the Deccan Plateau region of India (http://pastoralism.org.in/living-lightly/). The traveling exhibition was curated by Sushma Iyengar of Sahjeevan.
The author Kanna K. Siripurapu is a researcher interested in the biocultural diversity of Indigenous nomadic pastoral systems and agro-ecological systems of India. He is associated with the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network, Telangana, India.
First published by Terralingua on 19 Oct. 2020