Only army can take this cow vow

The defence ministry has ordered the shutdown of 39 military farms across India, initiating what should have been described as a reform to bury a Raj-era relic.

By G.S. Mudur
  • Published 7.08.17
A Frieswal cow

New Delhi, Aug. 6: The defence ministry has ordered the shutdown of 39 military farms across India, initiating what should have been described as a reform to bury a Raj-era relic.

But there's a catch that makes the decision audacious, if not downright reckless, in contemporary India: the farms house elite cross-bred cows that produce the country's highest milk yields.

The closure move has triggered consternation among sections of livestock scientists who worry about the fate of nearly 20,000 cattle heads.

The ministry, in a note on July 20, had cited a decision by the Cabinet Committee on Security and asked the army to "take steps" to close within three months the military farms that house milch cattle and provide milk and dairy products to the armed forces.

Representatives of a union feel the order may have been motivated by a belief that given the growth of the private milk and dairy industry in the country, there may be no need for military farms. They also speculate that corruption cases that have occasionally popped up in military farms may have contributed to the closure decision.

The hovering axe, which follows nearly four years of deliberations within the ministry, has also stirred concerns among members of the All India Federation of Defence Workers who say they are worried about more than 2,500 staff members assigned duties on the farms.

A vestige of the British-rule era, the military farms began operations in Allahabad in 1889 and are now located in Ambala (Haryana), Bengdubi (north Bengal), Jhansi, Kanpur, Lucknow, Meerut, Pimpri (Maharashtra), Panagarh (Bengal) and Ranchi among other cantonments.

Federation representatives say it is ironical that the shutdown decision which puts a question mark on the future of India's most superior cows, measured through milk yields, has come from the Narendra Modi government which is battling allegations of encouraging cow vigilantism.

Scientists with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) view the closure decision as a threat to its three-decade collaborative effort with military farms to develop through cross-breeding efforts the high-yielding Frieswal - a mix of Holstein-Friesian cows from the Netherlands and India's native Sahiwal.

"The Frieswals also serve as a source of superior germplasm for farmers across the country," said a senior ICAR scientist. "We don't know what will happen to an estimated 20,000 Frieswal cattle when the military farms shut down - no other organization in the country has the capacity to absorb or look after them."

The ICAR uses its stations in Ludhiana, Pantnagar, Pune, and Thrissur to distribute Frieswal germplasm for the benefit of farmers across India. Young bulls born to Frieswal cows provide a source of semen that is used to propagate superior germplasm across India and help sustain milk yields.

A Frieswal cow on average yields about 3,600 litres of milk per lactation in contrast to the national average yield of less than 2,000 litres. Selected Frieswals on military farms deliver 7,000 litres per lactation. Scientists are worried the closure of the farms will lead to loss of the yield gains made through cross-breeding.

A defence ministry spokesperson said the army would for now not comment on the closure order.

Two ICAR scientists from its animal sciences division said the defence ministry has called a meeting this week to discuss strategies to preserve the Frieswal. "Certainly, no one wants to lose this elite animal, and we're hoping to work something out," one scientist told The Telegraph.

The ICAR lacks the land or resources to maintain the cows on its own. It is unclear how the military farms might get rid of the animals. Even if they are given off free to farmers, livestock scientists say, the gains achieved from cross-breeding will be quickly lost.

"These cows need special nutrition and management, our farmers cannot look after them, their productivity will decline," a scientist said. The ICAR is hoping to convince the ministry to retain at least a small number of farms to maintain the Frieswal cattle. "We believe we can continue the project with just 10 farms," a scientist said.

However, some livestock scientists also point out that buffaloes contribute to a large proportion of the milk produced across the country. "It is difficult right now to predict the impact of the loss of Frieswal on milk production -- if at all that happens over some time," a scientist at an ICAR cattle research station said.

The federation has sought a meeting with defence ministry officials to discuss the order. "We plan to oppose this again," said M.B. Singh, the federation's general secretary. The federation had in 2013 written to then defence minister A.K. Antony not to shut the farms, highlighting the services that the farms were providing to the armed forces.

Mukesh Singh, deputy general secretary of the federation, said it is "disappointing" that the government does not appear to be concerned about thousands of India's top cows.