Cattle are tom-tommed as the backbone of our economy. However, increasingly, farmers are finding it difficult to take care of them
A couple of years ago, a senior ophthalmologist residing in my locality got up as usual for his regular morning walk. His wife, a physician at a local government health outpost, was also getting ready. It was 4:00am.
He put on the light of his portico and opened the door. The distance from his main door to the gate was just a few feet. As he opened the gate, two persons suddenly barged in and pounced upon him. They were wielding swords.
“Go back into your house!” they warned in menacing tones.
The good ophthalmologist was still rubbing his eyes. From the haze, he could see a Maruti Omni van on the road in front of his house. There were two or three more people there. They were loading a cow into the vehicle.
He went inside and tried to peep out from his window. The operation was quick, the men jumped into the van and they drove away.
In the local Tulu lingo, they were petta kandunakulu (roughly translated, it means those who steal cows)—or cattle rustlers—common in the coastal areas.
Later that evening, our colony’s residents’ association president, secretary and a few other people met. This was the situation: Cows from the adjacent village are left to graze in our colony without anyone to mind them, and they populate our colony.
Every resident had his own, but similar story to share. In the dark hours, sometime between late night and early morning, a van or a car or a tempo used to drive up. The cattle rustlers injected the cow with some ‘medicine’, and once it became unconscious—usually in a couple of minutes—they would load it into a van or jeep and whisk it away. Everything was done in an eerily quiet manner. On occasion, such thefts took place in the afternoons when the streets were deserted because the men were away at work and housewives were having their siesta.
This writer was a member of the colony along with the ophthalmologist already mentioned earlier, two retired senior bankers, a businessman, a school headmaster, and a surgeon in a major multi-specialty hospital. We walked down to the old houses in the village, a few yards away, and spoke to the residents who owned the cattle.
After an hour or so of discussion, they promised to take care of their cattle “from now on”.
Yet, the story continued. And it still continues.
The businessman, a popular social worker in the area, went to the nearby Manipal police station along with a couple of residents. The cops admitted that cattle rustling was a major issue and assured him that they would “look into it”.
But everybody knew that the police were hand-in-glove with the thieves. There were police barricades three-four kms either way on National Highway 169A abutting our village. The rustlers cannot move even without being stopped for a check.
This writer spoke to many villagers in the surrounding areas -- mostly farmers and separately, to their wives, about the cattle theft.
Living a couple of hundred metres away from my house, Shakuntala Shetty, 55, is the head of her household. Her father-in-law is very old and cannot work anymore. Her husband is an autorickshaw driver. They have a three-acre farm, on which they grow mostly rice.
Shakuntala also has three children, all grown up and educated. One son works in Mumbai, another is doing his 3-year diploma course at a polytechnic institute and the third is still in school. They also have other relatives staying with them.
They have two cow-sheds and possess several cows.
Shakuntala is also the president of the local dairy cooperative. Every morning and evening, she heats up gruel for the cows, feeds them, milks them and lets them free to graze in the nearby areas; she later leaves for the diary office, a few kilometers away, to sell the milk and talk to others of her ilk.
In between, she has to do the household chores, look after the paddy fields and organise labourers during the two harvesting seasons, since it is all manual work.
As we have a large compound and find it difficult to maintain–removing the weeds, overgrown grass, fallen leaves and so on—Shakuntala leaves a couple of cows with us, especially when they are pregnant. She will come and tie the cows inside our compound. In the evening, she comes and collects them.
She knows that we love cows: All of us, my wife, son, daughter and, of course, myself. My daughter has named them Kaveri and Gowri, based on their colours.
Shakuntala knows that we will take good care of her cows.
That was until a year ago when I fell ill seriously. Due to hospitalisation and other issues, we could not take care of the cows. Recently, the cows came back. On their own!
But Shakuntala’s reason for leaving the cows was not that there was enough grass in our compound nor the fact that I also ran a “cow wash”. (She barely has any time to clean them…)
It was her fear that her milch cows would be whisked away by cattle thieves.
These thieves are not the only issue faced by villagers. By itself, taking care of cattle has become a cumbersome chore.
A few days ago, I travelled by train from Udupi to Kumta on the scenic Konkan Railway route, about 150kms away, in the beautiful monsoon season.
The fields along the railway tracks for miles and miles around were being readied for harvesting. I could see the farm folk—women included—going about their work. Some were repairing the bunds, some spreading fertilizers, a few others ploughing their fields.
What struck me later was that at only one place I saw a couple of bullocks being used by a farmer for ploughing. At all other places, it was a mechanical, hand-operated plough at work!
The second thing that struck me was that most of these people were middle-aged or older.
I noticed the same thing in the villages and hamlets in my neighbourhood also.
I spoke to a farmer sometime back – he owns six acres of land about a couple of minutes from my house. They were once well-known for possessing some of the finest stock of cows in the area. However, one night, after a hard day’s work, while he was having his regular tipple at a local bar, he told me that he had to give up his cattle, one by one. In the middle of the night, he would take a head of cattle, leave it in nearby Manipal city, and return.
“What to do? I am growing old, my wife is also not keeping well. Our children go out and they find it below their dignity to taking care of the cattle,” Ramdas Nayak told me.
Besides, they are ‘educated’. They rarely come to help in the fields, even at the time of sowing or during harvest.
Even though Nayak’s fields are next to River Swarna, they are entirely dependent on the monsoon. The reason is that during summers, the river turns salty as sea water comes in with the tide.
“Earlier, we used to have at least two cycles of paddy, but nowadays we barely manage one,” he said, sipping his ambrosia.
One of his ‘educated’ sons—‘only’ 12th fail—is now driving an autorickshaw. His daylong earnings are spent in the same watering hole along with his friends.
Coming back to the cattle, when one of Shakuntala’s cows gave birth to a male progeny, she was dejected. The cows give milk, the bulls are of no use, and they are abandoned to their fate.
And, they say, cattle is the backbone of our rural economy!
(Shrikant N Shenoy has been a journalist since 1980, having worked in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Dubai. He launched a news portal and an online Konkani language channel from Manipal, Udupi, but ran out of money. In 2011, he successfully launched an English newspaper with five editions simultaneously on a shoe-string budget. He tweets as @udupinet