Around five months after several reports of stray cattle menace came in from western Uttar Pradesh, the temporary cow shelters created by the state administration seem to have pushed the issue out of public attention.
You can also read this article in Hindi- जानें क्यों पश्चिमी उत्तर प्रदेश में आवारा पशु की समस्या चुनावी मुद्दा नहीं है
Near Bisada village in the Dadri area of Gautam Buddh Nagar district is a sprawling compound that says it is an 'asthayi gaushala' (temporary cow shelter). The caretaker informs that the facility came up less than two months ago after Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath directed all sub-district magistrates (SDMs) to ensure that all stray cows are put in shelters.
The caretaker informed Swarajya that it was private land and, in agreement with the local pradhans, has been converted into a temporary shelter for stray cows. He said it shelters around 300 bovines, and that all expenses of their upkeep are being provided for by the government.
In and around Bisada, villagers say the shelter has provided them much-needed relief.
However, nearly all residents in various villages of the Gautam Buddh Nagar district that this correspondent spoke to, denied that the stray cattle menace was a poll issue in the first place.
A pressing issue, yes, but an issue big enough to decide their votes, no.
Polling for the Gautam Buddh Nagar seat will be held in the first phase on April 11. The strongest candidate here, Bharatiya Janata Party's 59-year-old Mahesh Sharma (also a Union minister), is pitted against Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party-Rashtriya Lok Dal alliance's Satveer Naagar, who is 37. Congress has fielded Dr Arvind Singh Chauhan, 30, an ex-chancellor of the Noida International University which his family owns.
It was an incident in Mahawad village in January that put the spotlight on the problem of stray cattle in the district. Alarmed by the havoc created by the strays in their farms, villagers had called up a cow shelter in the nearby Ghaziabad city to take the animals. However, authorities at the shelter failed to turn up at the promised time. The farmers had already rounded up more than 70 animals by evening. Angry, they locked the herd in a primary school building. It was after the local police and the school management intervened that the farmers took the strays out of the school and released them in the open. The cattle again began to run amok in the fields, destroying crops.
In December and January, similar incidents were reported from several parts of the state, particularly in this agriculture-rich belt of western UP. Apart from Gautam Budh Nagar, farmers expressed their angst in districts such as Agra, Aligarh and Mathura.
It was amid such incidents that Chief Minister Adityanath had directed officials for a hurried solution by setting up temporary gaushalas wherever possible.
Three months on, it can be said that the menace has been curbed to quite an extent, allaying anger.
Suresh Rana, a farmer in Thakur-dominated Bisada, told Swarajya that the "quick solution" shows that Yogi gets work done.
However, he admitted that the temporary facility is a partial solution. He also had some criticism for the manner in which the solution was found. "Yogi and [Narendra] Modi have good intentions. But local officials fail them. This gaushala is a relief, but you can sense corruption here. There are acres and acres of government land available. But they still went for private land. Why?" he asks.
Rana, who is supporting the BJP, said that like in Bisada, temporary shelters have come up in Jarcha, Kudi Khera and Khandera villages of the Gautam Budh Nagar area and it has brought about major relief.
As per the state government, it has put a total of 326,701 cattle in 5,701 temporary cow shelters (like in Bisada) across UP in the last two months. This figure was revealed by Principal Secretary of Animal Husbandry Department S M Bobde to a prominent newspaper recently. To give a perspective, there were around 10 lakh stray cattle in Uttar Pradesh as per the 19th Live Stock Census of 2012. While their number must have increased by now, the number of cattle claimed to have been taken off the roads still seems significantly high.
Reactions across the state on Yogi’s handling of the stray cattle problem and its impact on upcoming polls seem to be mixed. Some farmers in Muzaffarnagar's Balahara village, who are supporting Ajit Singh — the biggest rival to BJP in the communally sensitive belt — told Swarajya that "stray cattle is a big problem here".
"Earlier, farmers used to sell them and get some money. Now, they are roaming the fields and destroying crops. We would be content if they weren’t getting slaughtered but that’s not the case. Butchers still steal them but they don’t have to even pay for them. Cattle eat our crops and the butchers are making a moolah,” they told Swarajya.
However, a newspaper has quoted farmers in Kasganj district saying the problem of stray cattle has "ended".
"Catching and putting the stray cattle into cow shelters has certainly ended problem of the herds of abandoned bovine trampling down the standing crops or causing traffic bottlenecks on roads in the area," a farmer named Mahesh Verma of Lakheempur village of Kasganj has been quoted as saying.
While Yogi’s response to the problem is debatable, what anyone can see is that the opposition, that came down heavily on him when stray cattle menace was being widely reported, is mum on the issue in the campaigning season. Opposition leaders had squarely blamed what they claimed was a surge in the stray cattle numbers on the ban on illegal slaughterhouses and tightening of cattle market rules, calling them “communal” decisions that hurt both the farmers and the slaughter industry, both Hindus and Muslims.
This correspondent, reporting on the issue in GB Nagar district in January, however, had reported that both the media and the opposition were presenting the problem with an alarm that didn’t quite match the mood on the ground. Most farmers had told this correspondent that they were happy with the crackdown on illegal meat industry and wanted more gaushalas, not slaughterhouses.
No wonder that with less than a week left for the polls, the alarm over the stray cattle menace has been missing from the election rhetoric.
Hare Ram Singh, a resident of Bisada, told Swarajya that the stray cattle menace was never a poll issue. "Stray cattle have always been roaming on the roads and in the fields," he said. "In fact we are happy that Yogi shut down illegal slaughterhouses."
Even those who will not be voting for the BJP, do not have the stray cattle issue on their mind. Vijay Kumar of village Bambawar, a staunch BSP supporter, said that he is against Modi as he is “dividing India into Hindus and Muslims”.
The GB Nagar constituency was carved out of the Khurja constituency in 2009. It has three assembly segments in Gautam Budh Nagar district (Noida, Dadri and Jewar) and two segments in Bulandshahr district (Khurja and Sikandrabad). Of its 23 lakh voters, 16 lakh live in rural areas, with Thakurs comprising the largest chunk at 4-4.5 lakh voters, followed by Brahmins at around 4 lakh, Gurjars at 3.5-4 lakh, Dalits at 3.5 lakh and Muslims also at 3.5 lakh. Overall, GB Nagar district is 84.6 per cent Hindu.
In Gurjar-dominated Mahawad, Manish Naagar told Swarajya that the Gurjars of the village have decided to vote for Modi. "Not Mahesh Sharma, but Modi," he emphasised. Like Naagar, several people in the area have put "rashtrawaad" (nationalism) above other immediate issues.
"Desh hai to sab hai. Desh hi nahi bachega to kya karenge (if nation survives, we survive. If nation doesn't exist, where will we go)," he said. Asked to explain, Naagar cited the recent Balakot airstrikes. "We entered into Pakistan and bombed them. We got our Abhinandan out safely. Earlier, we only got mangled remains of our soldiers," he said.
Asked if only Balakot strikes influenced his voting preference, Naagar said he had decided on Modi much earlier. "Anyone can see the development all around. Women have got gas cylinders and toilets. Families have got houses. We all have got roads and much better electricity supply. Inflation has come down," he said, and added, "lekin vote desh ki suraksha ke liye (but our vote is for national security)."
Like Naagar, the dominant mood among residents of several villages such as Bambawad, Mahawad, Dujana and Kudi Khera leans towards Modi. The reasons, mostly, are nationalism and development, in that order.
This is not to say that farmers in the area are relieved of the stray cattle woes. The four temporary gaushalas are simply not enough for the region. Villagers in Mahawad and Bambawad, for instance, said they still do not have any shelter within the five-kilometre radius. “The herd keeps moving from one place to another and farmers keep driving them away,” said Devendra Kumar Sharma of Bambawar.
Sharma, however, said he will vote for Modi no matter what. “I have six acres of farms. I say, that even if stray cattle eats up all my crops, I will still vote for Modi," he said.
Asked why, Sharma said it's because the problem is of the farmers' making themselves as they abandon non-milch cattle in the open, and because "Modi is securing India's future".