Punjab Gaushala Mahasangh, a group representing 472 gaushalas, has threatened to let loose all of their 3.5 lakh cows on the streets.
If they actually act on this threat, Punjab will face an unprecedented traffic nightmare, and many lives would be lost.
Punjab has a huge abandoned cow problem, more acute in some districts than in others. It’s directly related to the state’s otherwise-glorious reputation as the highest milk-producer in the country. Punjab is home to a whopping 18-20 lakh cows. Once unproductive – that is, when they stop yielding milk – the cows are left on the streets by dairy farmers to fend for themselves.
The only solution (apart from the crude suggestion that they be sent for slaughter) is to keep them in gaushalas or cow shelters. Punjab has some 512 private gaushalas housing an estimated 3.8 lakh cows. The extent of the (growing) abandoned cow problem in the state can be gauged from the fact that 20 years ago, the number of such gaushalas was just 100. Even the current 512 are packed to capacity, sheltering four times the number of cows already roaming the streets. They are run by trusts or with help from donors.
For the first time, these trusts are turning rebels. They are holding frequent protests against the Amarinder Singh-led Congress government. Three weeks ago, Punjab Gaushala Mahasangh, a group representing 472 gaushalas, threatened to let loose all of their 3.5 lakh cows on the streets. If they actually act on this threat, Punjab will face an unprecedented traffic nightmare, and many lives would be lost.
This is because in one of their first decisions taken after assuming power, the Congress government stopped the facility of free electricity to these gaushalas, introduced by the previous Parkash Singh Badal-led Akali-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Mahasangh head Ramesh Gupta told Swarajya that this was about the only assistance they were getting from the government. The gaushalas have been handed power bills amounting to Rs 7.2 crore.
Their anger stems from the fact that the new government, on the other hand, has been duly collecting a cow cess from residents imposed by the previous government.
This is how the cow cess is charged: Rs 1,000 on the purchase of a four-wheeler, Rs 200 on the purchase of a two-wheeler, Rs 100 on an oil tanker, Rs 10 per bottle of Indian-made foreign liquor, Rs 5 per bottle on Punjab medium liquor, Re 1 per cement bag, Rs 1,000 on the booking of an air-conditioned (AC) hall, Rs 500 on the booking of a non-AC hall, and 2 paise per unit on electricity consumption.
This adds up to more than Rs 70 crore a year, says Kimti Lal Bhagat, who was chairman of Punjab Gau Sewa Commission (PGSC) until last month (he has not been replaced yet). “But for practical purposes, this comes up to about Rs 25 crore a year as many civic bodies do a poor job of cess collection. A lot of it is not charged, thanks to incomplete paperwork,” said Bhagat, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue. Only last week, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) showed that excise officials in Hoshiarpur, Mohali, and Jalandhar have not charged the cow cess on liquor for two years, which would have amounted to Rs 9.72 crore.
Bhagat told Swarajya that the annual cow cess from power bills alone exceeds Rs 8 crore. “Out of 160 civic bodies in Punjab, 141 passed resolutions for imposing the cess on power consumption. It must be around Rs 8-8.15 crore. The least they should do is waive off power bills and restore free power. But I have been told by officials that a large part of the money collected has already been used for other works.”
Gupta said gaushalas have also been asked to pay for the duration for which they were promised free power. “The government is being highly unfair,” he said. “If they can waive off farmer loans running into tens of crores, why can’t they do it for our power bills? It’s just seven crores!” he said.
But if not to these gaushalas, then where is the cow cess going? Bhagat says this money did not come to the gaushalas even in the past. “The SAD-BJP government made a great show of being cow lovers, but did little,” he said.
Bhagat suspects misuse of the cow cess. “The last government spent Rs 35 crore to build a cattle pond in each of the 22 districts, with a capacity of 2,000-2,500 cows each. My guess is that not even 35 per cent of this grant was actually spent on the cattle ponds.”
Some months ago, Bhagat wrote to the State Vigilance Bureau to probe the alleged bungling of funds in building sheds and other infrastructure at gaushalas in Nawanshahr, Rupnagar, Tarn Taran, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur, and Gurdaspur districts. The probe is on.
“Even now, most of the cess revenue is diverted to these government cattle ponds and the funds are misused,” said Bhagat.
“But the new government is much more insensitive to the issue of cows,” he said.
Bhagat says this “apathy” comes from political rivalry. “They [Amarinder Singh government] want to undo what the previous government enforced. Otherwise seven crores is a paltry amount for them,” he said.
He added that a bigger problem is that the new Chief Minister is “inaccessible”. “We haven’t yet been given any opportunity to meet [Singh]. He remains inaccessible. At least the previous government heard us,” Bhagat said.
Swarajya tried to talk to municipal corporation officials in Ludhiana and Jalandhar, but they told us that their job was only to collect the tax. We tried talking to the Local Bodies Minister, Navjot Singh Sidhu, but his mobile phone was switched off.
Meanwhile, the agitated gaushala trusts say the government is taking advantage of their religious sentiments.
Vinay Singal is a Ludhiana-based businessman who heads one Krishna Balram Gaushala Trust that operates a cow shelter in Dullon Khurd for around 500 cows. He said the trustees do it because they hold gau sewa (cow service) in high esteem, but the government exploits this sentiment. “We do gau sewa as part of our religious ethos. We try to bring as many stray cows as we can so they live with dignity. We run gaushalas like old-age homes for cows. But what if we don’t? The stray cattle would become a nightmare for the civic bodies and cause frequent traffic snarls. They wouldn’t be able to handle it,” he said.
“But we get nothing in return,” he added.
Statistics support Singal’s remark. In 2016, stray animals contributed to 1.23 per cent of all road accidents in India, but this figure was as high as 5-7 per cent in Punjab. An estimated 100 people die on Punjab roads every day, thanks to this menace. As per the data released last year by the Road Transport and Highways Ministry, the figure is increasing – the number of road accidents due to stray cattle rose by 38 per cent in Punjab in 2016, compared with 2015, while lives lost increased by 43.7 per cent.
Singal also told us of the costs involved in running a gaushala. “We spend about Rs 1.15 crore a year,” he said.
The maximum, Rs 70 lakh, is used in fodder. Some 20 lakh goes in paying the staff, and power bill comes up to about Rs 5 lakh a year.
“It is this small amount that we have requested to be waived off,” he said.
Pawan Goel, a trustee, said, “Some months ago, we were asked by the government to fill a form listing our needs. We asked for space so we can grow our own fodder and cut down on that expense. But far from it, they have taken away the only assistance provided to us.”