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.

Jayanta Dey/Reuters
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.

Move over Bengal tiger.

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.

Many experts think the way forward is a new generation of technology, not reverting to older practices.

"Would these sort of cow-based technologies address the issues of food security? To my mind, I don't think so," says Srinivas Rao, CEO of the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia based in New Delhi, a public-private partnership working on sustainable farming. "You need the best science available to produce more from that land."

His group has received funding from The Gates Foundation, USAID, and the World Bank for "conservation agriculture" which aims to minimize damage to soil and farming inputs, especially chemicals. Some of these techniques include laser land leveling, which cuts down on water usage, and zero tillage, a method of saving labor and soil nutrients by not plowing.

For Mr. Rao, the downside of the Green Revolution wasn't the use of chemicals, but overuse.

"What has happened in most places where the Green Revolution was successful is greed got the better of the farmers and they began to use the fertilizers much beyond recommended doses," he says. "That's why this movement is coming about that fertilizers are damaging the land."

One of the fathers of the Green Revolution in India, M.S. Swaminathan, is now promoting an "Evergreen Revolution" that aims to mix traditional methods like cow-based farming with judicious uses of chemicals and genetically modified crops.

The many benefits of the cow

While some scientists can see room for the traditional techniques of cow-based farming, the cow movement may be less accommodating to the advances of science.

At the final cow rally in New Delhi on Sunday, some 5,000 attendees came to gawk at the gathered signatures, listen to speakers, and shop. Vendors offered an array of products all made from processed cow urine, including Ayurvedic medicines, soap, lip balm, aftershave, toilet cleaner, cloth whitener, and two flavors of sugary-urine beverage. ("Just add ice and water and it's ready to drink.")

Volunteer Hari Om takes visitors through educational displays. "To save the nation," reads one wall board, farmers should stop using "poisonous pesticides" and hybrid varieties of seeds. Another goal: "Phase out mechanization from the farming sector."

Mr. Om, an English teacher living the city life in Delhi, shows people around a model rural village. He points out a dung-fired stove and a thatched hut, things that on trips back to his family village he has seen phased out in favor of natural gas cookers and concrete homes. Many urban Indians maintain ties to ancestral lands and mix nostalgia for a simpler life with modern environmental concerns.

“We have developed so much," says Om. "There is globalization. And by the excess use of science and technology there is global warming. If you want to beat global warming, you must use old traditional methods.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.