October 13, 2003

 

 

India, Delhi Bent On Eliminating Cows Off Their City

 

Cows are seen as a distinguishing element of Delhi in the way that cafes define Paris, or bicycles Beijing. Whether munching on garbage, dozing at traffic intersections or striding through shopping centers, they are an integral part of the city's landscape.

 

However, a change might be about to occur. With the urban cow population approaching 40,000 and traffic congestion growing critical, Delhi has decided to spruce up its image and get rid of the cows. Since the beginning of the month, teams of cow catchers have been out on the streets, with the goal of relocating all of them outside the city within a year.

 

It is difficult and dangerous work. Because cows are sacred in Hindu mythology, they can't be whacked or prodded into trucks; they must be coaxed and cajoled. A stubborn cow will be left behind, because it is against the law to hit a cow or treat it any way that might be construed as cruel, said Rakesh Solanki, the supervisor of one of the teams, as he headed out for a day's work.

 

The city employs only 70 cow catchers, and it can take Solanki's five-man team up to an hour of pushing and persuading to capture just a single cow. Delhi cows have horns and are notoriously bad tempered; all the men on the team carry scars from cow attacks.

 

Some cows have learned to recognize the cow truck and flee at the sight of it, galloping wildly away into the oncoming traffic. At the end of a morning's work, Solanki's team had captured just one elderly, mangy cow that was too feeble to resist.

 

Previous efforts to clear the streets have foundered on the reluctance of cows and the lack of resources on the part of the city. "It is impossible to catch all of the cows in Delhi," he said.

 

This time, however, the authorities insist they are serious. The municipality has ordered 12 specially designed trucks equipped with hydraulic trolleys that will gently elevate each cow into the truck, easing the trauma of the experience. They will be ready and deployed within the next two months, said M.S. Sharma, Delhi's chief veterinarian surgeon.

 

"It will all be very smooth, both for cows and for humans," Sharma said. "A year from now there will be no cows in Delhi."

 

If the campaign succeeds, it will transform the face of a city that has forever shared its space with cows.

 

The urban sprawl that constitutes modern day Delhi, old and new, was once a series of small villages, and as recently as 20 years ago, there was enough grazing land to support a large bovine population. Because of the cows' holy status, Delhi residents have traditionally welcomed them, and in many homes it is customary to give the first chapati baked in the day to a passing cow.

 

As the city has grown, however, urban life has become more and more unpleasant both for cows and for the people who live among them. Cow droppings spread disease, and it is reported that there is a continuous rise in the number of cow-related traffic accidents.

 

Most of these city-born cows have owners who are too poor to afford cattle feed and let them wander to forage for themselves. Others have been abandoned because their milk dried up on their unhealthy city diet of human garbage and plastic bags.

 

Studies have shown that the average Delhi cow has around 200 plastic bags in its stomach, consumed when the cows gobble down garbage, Sharma said. Unlike goats or dogs, cows can't distinguish between plastic and food because they ruminate, or "chew" their food, not in their mouths but in the first of their four stomachs.