The economics of Faith

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The late Prof K N Raj, one of India’s most influential economists in the 1950s and 1960s, once said that the cow was the only multipurpose animal in the world, beating even the horse.

This was because a cow could produce milk, which is a consumer good; dung, which is an intermediate good; and be a capital good, ie, a natural tractor for the farms. Not just that, he added, it was also what in those days was called a ‘machine to produce machines’, that is, more cows.

Clearly, this multipurpose aspect of the cow was recognised by the ancient Hindus who bestowed on it a holy status. It was to be venerated as a mother.

But time and tide stand still for none, and over the latter half of the 20th century, the cow was replaced by mechanised traction and more than half of India’s population stopped drinking cow’s milk because it costs more. Most Indians now prefer buffalo milk, or, thanks to modern technology, reconstituted powdered milk. At the same time, the increased availability of kerosene and cooking gas has also reduced the cow’s economic importance.

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan
TCA Srinivasa Raghavan

But its religious and faith-related importance has proved harder to displace. And this is what is driving the BJP government’s efforts to ‘save’ the cow.

But save it from what? And for what? What happens when faith collides with economics? We will soon find out.

The basic issue is this: even if it manages to save the cow from slaughter, how will the government ensure that it doesn’t become a huge economic burden on the farmer when it grows old?

Harish Damodaran, an expert on India’s rural economy has this take: “A typical cow weighing about 300 kg requires 6–7 kg of paddy or wheat straw, 5 kg of green grass (jowar, berseem, sugarcane tops, etc) and 1–1.25 kg of concentrate mixtures (mainly mustard, groundnut or cottonseed cake) just for its daily body maintenance. If the animal is producing milk, it has to be fed another 400–500 g of concentrates for every 1 litre. Taking per kg costs at Rs 1.25–1.50 for green fodder, Rs 5–6 for straw and Rs 19–20 for concentrates, a farmer would spend upwards of Rs 60 daily just to keep the cow alive.”

That works out to Rs 1,800 per month, for just one cow. Most farmers have at least three. So they need Rs 5,400 per month, at the very minimum. This may not sound like a lot to urban people, but remember that the average net income per year per acre is just around Rs 25,000 — or Rs 2,000 per month.

“The cows that are past their prime after 5–6 lactations, and those with infertility or udder damage issues,” says Damodaran, “will be the last in line” for being fed. He goes on to say that male animals will receive even less priority.

So what is the farmer to do with these unproductive and economically un-remunerative animals? Clearly, the unrequited costs of the unproductive cattle are the main reason for the slaughter of cows.

Damodaran asks: “An average animal today, female or male, ceases to be “productive” to the farmer beyond 8–9 years, even if it can probably live for 14–15 years.”

Faith has no answer to this basic issue. Nor does it care. It just wants to stop cow slaughter, regardless of the economic issues involved. Indeed, even if cow sanctuaries are set up, you only have to multiply Rs 60 per day by 10 million cows to see the burden it would impose on the State governments.

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