VARANASI, INDIA — At an open-air barn outside this holy Hindu city, a gaushala, a "cow residence" or asylum, is doing its part to fulfill the ancient tradition of caring for India's famously sacred cows.
Today, there are more than 4,000 gaushalas – a haven for sick, abused, or abandoned cattle – throughout the country. Federal law has long recognized the need to support the animals that Hindu scriptures refer to as the "most efficacious cleansers of all." But now, as rural lands vanish, cities burgeon, and quality of life indicators spike for millions of people across the subcontinent, the fate of India's cows has become uncertain.
Gone is the age when India could compassionately support all its bovines, activists say, and some have begun suggesting that modern times call for a new approach to cow care. The Indian subcontinent has lost more than 45 percent of its grazing lands to development since independence from British rule in 1947. Gaushalas remain among the few places where cows are guaranteed a permanent home, even if the living conditions aren't everything animal rights activists hope for.
But devout Hindus maintain that caring for cows is a religious obligation. In the middle of these ideological crossroads stand more than 197 million cattle.
From her office in Mumbai (Bombay), Anuradha Sawhney, the head of India's chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that she would like to see her fellow citizens "taking an action that is in the best interest of the animal concerned and not something that is making you happy."
She referred to the piety of some Hindus who believe that saving a cow from a slaughterhouse or an urban byway is the only religiously sound option – regardless of the conditions the animal may face in the gaushala.
The national Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1960 mandates that owners give their animals adequate food and shelter. Police can fine up to 100 rupees – a hefty amount in 1960, but only about $2 today – to anyone found abusing or neglecting a cow. Officers who discover someone transporting or intending to slaughter livestock without the proper permits are to confiscate and deliver the cattle to the nearest gaushala.
Though the federal government recognized nearly 50 years ago the need for care, regulation and money never followed. Today's gaushalas – almost entirely privately funded – are a mishmash of clean, well-run dairies and filthy lots.
"It becomes a one-man show rather than a systematic way of running," Dilip Bafna, a trustee of India's Animal Rights Fund, says from Bangalore.
Still, gaushalas remain an integral part of the cultural and religious heritage for India's 886 million Hindus. They reflect the ancient history of revering – though never worshiping – cows, says Satya Narayana Dasa, a devout student of Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy.
From his religious community near Mathura, Mr. Dasa says, "The spiritual reason is the cow is very dear to Krishna." That avatar of the god Vishnu belonged to the caste of cow herders, he says.
There are also practical reasons to value cows, he added. They have long provided people with labor as well as many daily necessities: milk, curd, and butter for nutrition, and dung and urine for fuel and fertilizer. Because they generated so much from eating only grass, cows became valuable economic commodities.
They remain so today. In 2001, India's cows produced an estimated 93 tons of milk, more than any other country in the world and about three times as much as US dairies reported, according to New Delhi's Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying, and Fisheries.
Whether farmers keep it for their families or sell it at market prices, dairy is important to a country where more than two-thirds of the population still dwells in rural areas. That's why Indian animal rights groups are advocating veganism. Only when humans stop relying on the commodities cows produce, say activists like Mr. Bafna and Ms. Sawhney, will there be an incentive to control the population.
Many gaushalas take their duties to the cows seriously, according to Dasa, who bathes his 150 charges during the summer months and massages them with a brush when a chill is in the air.
"When I was growing up in a village, people would take care of the cows like a family member," Dasa says. Then his voice changes. "It is not the way it was."