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India's move to give cows ID cards seen as poll gimmick

Ruling BJP appeals to Hindu faith but critics see it as diversionary tactic ahead of next year's poll

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi

Published: March 02, 2018 08:19 AM GMT

Updated: May 21, 2021 11:01 AM GMT

India's move to give cows ID cards seen as poll gimmick

Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is shown feeding cows at an animal shelter in the state capital of Lucknow in this March 31, 2017 file photo. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also runs the federal government-allotted fund to provide identity cards to cows. (Photo by IANS)

Cows in India may soon have electronic identity cards as the government has allocated US$32 million for the project but civic groups are dismissing it as a tactic to deflect attention away from more pressing issues ahead of the elections next year.

The federal budget of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) allocated 2 billion rupees from its Pashu Sanjivni (animal panacea) program in early February to provide unique identification numbers and health cards to milk-producing animals.

The program falls under the National Mission on Bovine Productivity. This was launched in November 2016, two years after the government came to power amid calls to better protect cows, which are revered under Hinduism.

Local media have reported that 40 million cows will be granted identification numbers at an initial cost of 500 million rupees.

Other programs include an artificial insemination drive to improve cattle breeds with the aim of "upgrading" the nation's cattle population.

"The government is trying to divert attention from the burning issues the country is facing," said Praveen Mishra, a Gujarat-based rights activist.

He said businesses and financial institutions are repeatedly reporting losses, unemployment is surging and the price of essential commodities is rising rapidly each month.

"And [yet] the government continues to speak about cows," he said.

This photo taken on Oct. 29, 2017 shows Indian Hindus performing a cremation next to cows on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. The Ganges is considered by Hindus to be an auspicious place to be cremated. (Photo by Noemi Cassanelli/AFP)

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The number of jobless in the country hit 18.3 million in 2017 but will increase to 18.6 million in 2018 and 18.9 million next year, according to a report by the International Labor Organization in January.

Moreover, a whopping 77 percent of Indian workers will be engaged in "informal" employment by 2019, it said, as levels of working poverty remain sky high.

When asked in a recent televised interview for his opinion about the surging level of unemployment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi replied that even those who sell fried snacks on the roadside should be proud to have a job.

"Cows have become more important than humans for the government," commented Ajay Kumar, an activist for Dalit Rights in New Delhi.

Most pro-Hindu organizations enjoy the support of the BJP and believe that protecting the sanctity of cows plays an important role in safeguarding their religion. It is illegal to slaughter cows in 24 out of 29 Indian states.

The budgetary allocation for cows "is certainly an election gimmick," Kumar said, noting the BJP will be seeking a second term when the national elections are held in May of next year.

"They are trying to set an agenda" by polarizing people along what critics regard as trivial issues associated with religion, he said.

This is a last-ditch effort to rally supporters as the BJP leadership has failed to fulfill its promises of economic growth and job creation, he added.

A driver pets a cow walking along a road in New Delhi in this July 20, 2017 file photo. Revered by most Indians, cows are at the center of political battles and 'lynch mob' attacks, but they are being abandoned in growing numbers and turned away by shelters that cannot cope. Authorities in Uttar Pradesh are now thinking of building cow shelters in prisons. (Photo by Dominique Faget/AFP)


Kumar said more symbolic and emotive issues will be raised in the run-up to the poll "so people forget about the economic disasters and only focus on the religious issues."

John Chelladurai, dean of the Gandhi Research Foundation, told ucanews.com the ban on cow slaughter actually works against farmers.

Collectively it deprives them of 250 billion rupees (US$4 billion) in annual income and leads to 20 million cows being abandoned each year, he said

But Pavan Pandit, chairman of the Gau Raksha Dal (cow protection organization) said the animals are integral to Indian society and must not be killed.

"There are already 5,000 shelters nationwide to take care of ageing and injured cows," he said.  

At least 28 people, half of them Muslims, have been killed and 124 injured due to violent incidents or disputes related to cows in the last seven years, according to content analysis website IndiaSpend.

At least 50 percent of the attacks were based on rumors that certain businesses were carrying beef and transporting cows for slaughter.

For Pravin Prakash, a researcher from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, much of the violence has been directed at Muslims and Dalits in marginalized sections of Indian society.

"This has led to increased cynicism towards the Modi administration's commitment to the Indian ideal of secularism," he added.

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