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India's sacred cows also touted as economic savior

Hindu activists and environmentalists in India are advocating “cow-based” farming – using urine instead of chemicals, bulls rather than big-rigs. They argue that while pesticides and expensive equipment yield bigger harvests, they have also indebted farmers.

By Staff writer / February 1, 2010

A farmer ploughs his paddy field in Kamalghat village, Monday. Rising prosperity will increasingly put pressure on food supply in India and the country urgently needs to boost farm productivity, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Monday.

Jayanta Dey/Reuters


New Delhi

Move over Bengal tiger.

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Indian activists drove 14 cattle carts into New Delhi Sunday piled high with an alleged 80 million signatures on a petition to name the cow as the new national animal.

Though the signature tally could be bullocks, the petition's aims are utterly sincere: ban the slaughter of cows, institute a central government Ministry of the Cow, and move India to a "cow-based" economy.

Most Indians are small farmers, not software engineers, and basing the economy around the cow means returning the animal to the center of farm production by substituting dung for chemical fertilizers, urine for pesticides, and bulls for tractors and big-rigs.

The movement reflects a growing Indian rethink of the Green Revolution, a technological transformation of agriculture in the 1960s that historians credit with saving the nation from starvation. Cow-based farming pulls together many critical voices – including Hindus, environmentalists, and antiglobalization activists – but worries some that India's food security could be jeopardized if taken too far.

"The application of the Green Revolution was mistaken," says Y.V. Khrisnamoorthy, a top organizer of the petition drive known as the Gou Grama Yathra. "Food yields should be increased, but the mistake is they opted for mechanical and chemical farming, and that wasn't necessary for India."

Hindus revere the cow as a sacred animal for its role as a provider to mankind. Religious leaders, including the politically powerful group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), funded and rounded up volunteers for the petition.

But Mr. Khrisnamoorthy emphasizes that politicians have been kept off the stages at nearly 500 rallies held so far.

Green Revolution’s dark side

The movement has support among farmer advocacy groups and some Indian scientists, suggesting the reappraisal of the Green Revolution has wide resonance here.

"The Green Revolution is not for the farmers," says Yudhvir Singh, head of the Indian Farmers Union. "The only winners were the companies making the pesticides and the chemicals."

As Mr. Singh tells it, the new techniques required farmers to spend more money up front. Many took out formal loans for the first time to pay for chemical fertilizers and pesticides, higher-yield seeds, and tractors. The farmers did get higher yields. But over time crop prices tumbled, and farmers found they needed to buy ever more chemicals to keep the crops strong. Farmers fell behind on loans, leading to an epidemic of suicides.

According to the latest Ministry of Agriculture statistics, more than 43 million out of the 89 million farm households in India are in debt. "If the Green Revolution was so good, why are they in debt?" asks Singh.

The way out for India's farmers, say Singh and Khrisnamoothy, is to go back to simpler techniques that are more sustainable economically and environmentally. Four of every five Indian farms are less than five acres – small enough for cows to provide much of the farming inputs cheaply.

Low-tech, low yield

Most farming in India, however, is moving in the opposite direction, despite a fast-expanding organic farming sector and growing concerns about soil exhaustion. Chemical fertilizer use in India rose 30 percent from 2000 to 2006, though pesticide use fell 13 percent. The number of cattle in India peaked around 1992 at 205 million but fell to 185 million in 2003.