THE VILLAGE OF KANNAPURAM lies in western Tamil Nadu, along a highway that runs across the middle of the state, from Coimbatore to Tiruchirappalli. For most of the year, it is a largely anonymous place. But for a week or so each spring, anyone passing by cannot help but take notice of it.
On the morning of 10 April, I visited a sprawling complex of temporary shanties stretching along either side of the broad, smooth highway. By 10.30 am, it was scorching hot. Hundreds of men sat in slivers of shade—under their shacks, beneath scrawny trees, beside a water lorry—with their dhotis or lungis hoicked up and towels fashioned into turbans. The only women, besides me, were a few running food stalls. All around stood thousands of cattle—drinking water, chewing cud and sending flies packing with their flicking tails. Almost all of them were of the Kangayam breed, which is indigenous to western Tamil Nadu, with soaring humps, sweeping horns and hides of black, white and gray.
I had arrived on a busy Sunday, the third day of Kannapuram’s annual cattle fair—which locals claim has been running for over a millennium. Buyers arrived, in lorries and even in luxury cars, some with money tucked into their underpants. They circled the animals in small groups, peered into their mouths to determine their ages by counting teeth, and took sellers aside to ask about prices. Mostly, the sellers shook their heads, sighed, and settled back down to wait. Whenever a deal was made, buyer and seller sat under a shack and counted cash.
Sales were sluggish. Chellamuthu Palaniswamy, a regular trader at Kannapuram, told me that typically, by about this stage of the fair, 60 to 80 percent of the cattle would already have been sold off. This year, that was roughly the share that remained—totalling over 6,000 animals, according to one educated estimate I heard. The sellers had had an inkling that things would be bad, and had brought far fewer animals than they used to. One seller, Pappanan Naicker—or Cellphone Naicker, as he’s better known—told me there were only 40 animals at the fair from his village, near the city of Tiruppur, compared to the usual 300. Decades ago, he recalled, the fair featured anything from 50,000 to 100,000 cattle, and went on for two weeks. This year, it lasted eight days. In 2014, Cellphone Naicker said, the going price for a fine bullock was between Rs1.5 lakh and Rs2 lakh. Now, he rued as he stroked a handsome specimen, “that’s the asking price for a pair.”
RP Palanikumar, one of the fair organisers, told me that about 100,000 visitors were expected this year. In times past, farmers wanted bullocks to plough their fields and haul water up from deep wells, but with the mechanisation of agriculture—tractors to work the land, electric pumps to draw water—the demand for these work animals had dried up. Even so, he said, people had continued to buy bullocks to pull carts in rekla races, and breeders sought out the finest bulls to sire untamable champions for jallikattu—both traditional sports that involve indigenous breeds. Then, in May 2014, the Supreme Court banned rekla and jallikattu.
“They buy Kangayam cows, but not bulls and bullocks,” Alagusamy Govindaraj, a seller who had come 200 kilometres from his home in the town of Pudukkottai, told me. “One party from Pollachi said that they gave away all their bullocks. Without jallikattu and rekla, they don’t want them.”
HALF AN HOUR BY ROAD FROM KANNAPURAM, in the village of Kuttapalayam, is the Senaapathy Kangayam Cattle Research Foundation. It functions from a small, airy building tucked a short distance away from the village’s main road, in a compound that also includes a two-acre cattle shed, and a stately old building that is the ancestral home of Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, the foundation’s head.
A middle-aged literature graduate with a deep passion for livestock, Karthikeya divides his time between the foundation and a realty business in Coimbatore. I first met him in January 2015, when I travelled with him around western Tamil Nadu to meet keepers of indigenous cattle. That trip was the start of my instruction on indigenous breeds, and on their place in the rural economy.
According to the Indian government, the country has 190 million cattle (counted to exclude buffaloes)—more than the United States and the European Union put together. In 2013–14, the country’s total milk production was worth Rs407,396 crore, or over $60 billion, and its total beef production was worth Rs15,053 crore, or over $2 billion. Last year, India ranked first in the world in the export of beef (counting cow, bull and buffalo meat), selling 2.4 million tonnes of it.
These numbers suggest a healthy and booming cattle economy, but they tell only part of the story. The government’s latest cattle census, in 2012, threw up some worrying data. Since 2007, cattle numbers have fallen by 4 percent. The population of indigenous cattle—the 37 indigenous Indian breeds recognised by the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, belonging to the sub-species Bos indicus and characterised by humps on their backs—dipped 9 percent from 2007, to around 38 million, and that of indigenous bulls and bullocks a full 19 percent. The only numbers to rise were of “exotic” cattle—that is, animals of European descent—and of exotic-indigenous crossbreeds, which together shot up by 20 percent. Animals of the exotic Jersey breed and Jersey-indigenous crossbreeds together numbered 23.6 million—representing 12 percent of all the country’s cattle. In Tamil Nadu, the census counted 6.4 million exotic and crossbred animals, and only 2.5 million indigenous ones.
This April, Karthikeya continued my education. Switching between English and the Kongu dialect of Tamil typical of this part of the state, he told me that a census done today would paint an even more alarming picture of the situation of indigenous cattle. Take the Kangayam breed, one of the five recognised indigenous breeds of Tamil Nadu, alongside the Pulikulam, the Umblachery, the Bargur and the Alambadi. According to official figures, as late as 1996 there were nearly 500,000 of them, but in 2013 the population stood at about 190,000 animals. “Today,” Karthikeya said, “that’s down to about a lakh.”
Karthikeya, like everyone I spoke to in Kannapuram, was clear on when Tamil Nadu’s indigenous cattle numbers, already in decline, really began to nosedive. It started in mid 2014, after the Supreme Court banned rekla and jallikattu, finding that the sports violated laws against cruelty to animals. The ban on jallikattu especially hurt, since these bull-catching events, involving Kangayams and Pulikulams, were massively popular across rural Tamil Nadu, while rekla was always a relatively elite pursuit. The prices of Kangayam and Pulikulam bulls plummeted, and with them the last incentives for keeping these animals.
In years past, most agricultural households kept indigenous cows, which provided good manure, birthed calves, produced enough milk for household use and could be put to plough, making them a good financial proposition. Indigenous bullocks were also popular, for ploughing, as draught animals and for their manure. To create these animals, people paid well for stud bulls and their services, and this economy sustained many native breeds for centuries.
Without the need for plough or draught animals, that economic calculus changed. Cows became valued primarily for their milk, and this made exotic and crossbred cows, which are useless in and for the fields but are good milkers, particularly attractive. Purebred Jersey and Holstein Friesian cows, and crossbreeds of these and indigenous cattle, can produce a dozen litres of milk or more per day. Kangayam cows produce only about 3 litres of milk per day, and other indigenous breeds also have low milk yields. Indigenous cows are much cheaper to maintain—production costs in their case work out to roughly half of the Rs17 per litre of milk for exotic cows, which require particular feed and medicines, and also more hours of care—but their low productivity means they do not offer quick returns, at least in the present market.
Declining demand for indigenous cows and bullocks meant indigenous bulls no longer brought in the money they used to. Keeping male calves for beef or leather was impossible, since Tamil Nadu imposed strict regulations in 1958 banning the raising of cattle primarily for slaughter. This left only one thing that bulls were widely valued for: pride. And that pride was bound to the tradition of jallikattu.
In rural Tamil Nadu in particular, jallikattu has enormous cultural significance. The sport offered material prizes for champion bull-catchers and for the keepers and breeders of untameable bulls, but the real lure of it was always the chance of celebrity and prestige. The draw was strong enough for thousands of keepers to maintain indigenous bulls, even at great cost; by all accounts I heard, it takes at least Rs500 a day to care for and feed each one.
The ban on jallikattu, while seeking to protect Kangayam and Pulikulam bulls, has jeopardised the future of these animals—and with it the future of their entire breeds. Simply put, if the bulls of a breed disappear, then the collapse of the breed is only a matter of time, regardless of how many cows of the breed there might be.
Karthikeya is especially invested in making sure that Kangayams survive. “My great-grandfather’s brother, Rao Bahadur Nallathambi Sarkarai Mandradiar, is considered the chief architect of the Kangayam breed,” he told me. For five decades, until the late 1950s, Mandradiar almost single-handedly bred generation after generation of animals to fix and improve the defining Kangayam characteristics: the majestic hump, the black markings on the head, hump and shoulders, and the wide, curved horns. This work was extraordinary, not least because it was accomplished by just a single man and his herd.
To stem the breed’s decline, Karthikeyan’s foundation conducts research, organises cattle shows, works to raise awareness of the importance of indigenous cattle and liaises with government officials to promote helpful policies. It is also active in breeding Kangayams. The foundation’s most prized bull is Bulli, who greeted me by shaking his massive head and pawing the ground at the cattle shed in Kuttapalayam, where he lives with an aggressive younger bull and a harem of 57 cows. Bulli is 18 years old, and sires over 200 calves a year, including with cows belonging to independent breeders. The foundation does not charge for his services.
One result of the shrinking population of Kangayams, and of other indigenous breeds, is the loss of precious breeding stock. There are also numerous other far-reaching ecological and economic implications. Karthikeya spoke of “huge financial pressures when a farmer moves from a zero-maintenance indigenous breed to a high-maintenance exotic variety.” He explained that Kangayams, like many other indigenous cattle, require relatively little water, making them suited to dry areas such as this part of Tamil Nadu—the Kangayam region, from which the breed draws its name. They also range freely, feeding on what is normally considered poor pasture. The move towards exotic cattle means more and more land must be cleared and dedicated to raising pasture suitable for them, at a cost to biodiversity and water resources.
If you factor in the costs saved on grazing land with indigenous cows, Karthikeya argued, their “milk is priceless.” Yet there is constant pressure for farmers to switch away from indigenous breeds, often at the hands of the state. The pursuit of “a short-term gain in milk,” Karthikeya said, “has decimated many indigenous species.” This is true across large parts of India, where the problem is often aggravated by politically motivated bans on cattle slaughter, which further upset established cattle economies.
But such issues of economics and ecology have not featured prominently in the current debate around jallikattu. The legal case that led to the ban was filed by animal-rights groups, but these have not engaged with the people most affected by it, or done anything to mitigate the fallout, including the threat to indigenous cattle. The furious reactions to the ban in Tamil Nadu—there have been protests, television debates, even a viral music video calling on Tamils to defend jallikattu—and also the state government’s legal rebuttal, have defended jallikattu first as an integral part of Tamil culture, and only then as a component of the economy supporting indigenous cattle. The identity politics of jallikattu have also been played up by numerous political parties, which have showily opposed the ban in the hope of electoral gain. This includes Tamil Nadu’s ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, and the Bharatiya Janata Party in power at the centre.
The battle over jallikattu is far from over. The Tamil Nadu government has appealed the ban, and the case is still playing out in the Supreme Court. Whatever the outcome there, all indications are that the Tamil Nadu administration and the central government will look for ways to let the sport continue. Animal-rights activists seem equally determined to fight on.
Whichever side wins, the places that will be, and have been, most affected are the villages and small towns of Tamil Nadu. That is where I went to try and understand the full effects of the present ban, and to consider what future there might be, if any, for indigenous cattle breeds and the people who depend on them.
ONE AFTERNOON IN EARLY APRIL, Saravanan Kumar drove me to the town of Alanganallur, about half an hour north of Madurai. Before the ban, in 2014—just after Pongal, the annual Tamil harvest festival, when jallikattus are traditionally held—Alanganallur hosted one of the biggest jallikattus in Tamil Nadu.
The town was quiet that afternoon, but Saravanan described the atmosphere of the local jallikattu with great excitement. “Tens of thousands come—tourists, foreigners,” he said. “Cars stop two kilometres away. It is a great celebration.” At the deserted town square, he showed me the vaadi vaasal, a narrow brick enclosure with high walls, built to hold jallikattu bulls before they are released. It was painted red and white—traditional temple colours—and had a large picture of a charging bull painted on one side. Saravanan also pointed out a nearby house he used to rent to watch the event.
Bull-catching has existed in this region since at least the Sangam period, which lasted from the third century BCE to the fourth century CE, when it was already being referenced in Tamil poetry. In its contemporary form, the sport involves letting bulls loose, one by one, into a crowd of men, who try to grab their humps or horns and hang on as the animals either buck thrice, turn thrice, or run 15 metres. Men are rewarded for successfully “riding” bulls, and bull-keepers for fielding animals that defy bull-catchers’ efforts. Before 2014, keepers typically took their bulls to multiple jallikattus each season, and the renown of both keeper and animal increased with each “win.”
Saravanan is a contractor and builder, but bulls are his real passion. He keeps five of them, at a farm in Kolinjipatti village, near Madurai. When I visited, I met his two jallikattu bulls, both Pulikulams—Sevalai, or Red, and Kari, or Black—who constantly shook their heads and scratched their hooves against the ground in displays of aggression. I was also introduced to a Jersey-cross bull, twice as heavy as the sleek Pulikulams but, Saravanan said, “like a teddy bear.” The woman who cares for the bulls kept a respectful distance from the Pulikulams, but walked right up to the Jersey-cross bull, which happily ate hay straight from her hand.
Sevalai and Kari have run in numerous jallikattus, and have won Saravanan such things as a mixie, a fridge, a cot, a CD player, a fan. “Once, I got a goat kid,” he told me, laughing. But “the jallikattu prize is only pride. You get a bicycle—it costs Rs3,000. We spend so much more on the bull.” After each successful jallikattu, he used to take his bulls out on procession, with his prizes held high and a crowd dancing before the animals.
ANIMAL-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS have protested jallikattu for at least a decade, alleging that the sport exploits bulls’ natural fears as prey, and that bull-keepers and event organisers mistreat the animals to rile them up before releasing them into the arena. One of the first flashpoints in the anti-jallikattu campaign came in 2008, when the president of the international group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, was arrested in Coimbatore for symbolically blindfolding a public statue of Mohandas Gandhi and garlanding him with a sign that read “Reject Cruel Jallikattu.”
For Tamil political parties, defending jallikattu—and rekla, which animal-rights activists also opposed—quickly became a political obligation. “There are community votes at stake,” P Ramajayam, a political analyst with the Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy in Tiruchirappalli, told me. “Rekla is dominated by the Gounder community in the western districts, and jallikattu by the Thevars in the southern districts.” Between them, in their respective areas, the two communities influence electoral results in about 60 out of 234 state-assembly constituencies, Ramajayam explained. And with jallikattu’s popularity transcending any single community, defending it became particularly important.
To keep rural Tamil voters satisfied but also address the concerns of animal-rights activists, in 2009 the state government, then under the DMK, passed the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act. It required organisers to, among other things, erect double barricades around jallikattu arenas, register participating bulls with animal-husbandry officials, ensure the presence of animal-welfare officials and a district collector to monitor for cruelty, and submit video footage of every event for official scrutiny. Despite the additional demands and expenses, jallikattus went on, though their number decreased. In January 2009, there were over 300 of them. In 2014, even before the Supreme Court’s ban, that number had fallen to just 25.
In April 2011, PETA India approached the Supreme Court to argue that the Tamil Nadu Regulation of Jallikattu Act was not being followed, and that the state act did not align with national laws against cruelty to animals. That July, the environment ministry issued a notification adding bulls to an official list of animals that “shall not be exhibited or trained as performing animal.” This should have put an end to jallikattu, but Tamil Nadu continued to allow it. The Animal Welfare Board of India, a statutory body that promotes animal rights, approached the Supreme Court to challenge this state of affairs. The court ruled on the case in May 2014. The judgment was clear:
In a comprehensive investigation authorized by the Animal Welfare Board of India, investigators observed jallikattu events at venues in Avaniapuram, Palamedu and Alanganallur on the 14th, 15th and 16th of January 2013, respectively. During the course of the investigation, one bull died and many more were injured. Investigators observed that bulls were forced to participate and were deliberately taunted, tormented, mutilated, stabbed, beaten, chased and denied even their most basic needs, including food, water and sanitation. The findings of this investigation clearly show that bulls who are used in jallikattu are subjected to extreme cruelty and unmitigated suffering.
Among the most damning evidence submitted to the court was footage of the three events investigated. It showed bulls being beaten, prodded with sticks and sickles, having their tails pulled, twisted, bitten and sometimes broken, having irritants rubbed into their eyes and noses, and apparently being forced to drink alcohol. It also showed panicked bulls rampaging through crowded streets outside the arena, and causing themselves serious injuries.
Since such treatment violated the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, the court declared, “Bulls cannot be used as performing animals, either for the Jallikattu events or Bullock-cart Races in the State of Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra or elsewhere in the country.”
Tamil Nadu erupted in outrage, but the ban stood. There were no jallikattus in 2015. But on 7 January 2016, on the eve of Pongal and with a state election in Tamil Nadu due in May, the environment ministry, at the behest of the BJP government at the centre, issued a new notification that stated, “bulls may be continue to be exhibited or trained as a performing animal, at events such as Jallikattu in Tamil Nadu and bullock cart races in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana, Kerala and Gujarat.” This overruled the ministry’s 2011 notification, and was widely interpreted as a play for Tamil votes by the BJP.
There were celebrations across Tamil Nadu. Bulls were pampered, and their prices increased. Preparations for the 2016 jallikattu season began. But the jubilation fizzled out on 12 January, when the Supreme Court put a stay on the new notification. Again, no jallikattus took place.
Animal-rights groups challenged the notification, and the Tamil Nadu government responded by vehemently defending jallikattu on grounds of tradition. At a hearing held this July, the court dismissed the defence of the sport on the basis of tradition, noting that practices such as child marriage were also traditional until they were outlawed. The court’s final judgment was due in late August, but the Tamil Nadu government filed 500 additional pages of documents to try and bolster its position, and the case was adjourned.
To better understand the Tamil Nadu government’s position, I approached Gagandeep Singh Bedi, Tamil Nadu’s commissioner for agricultural production, who is also the secretary of the state’s department of animal husbandry, dairies and fisheries. Bedi referred me to the department’s latest annual policy note. In a section dedicated to the jallikattu issue, it states that “consistent efforts have been taken for last several months to denotify bull from the list of performing animals,” and says that Bedi “has held discussions with the officials of the MoEF”—the Ministry of Environment and Forests—“Government of India and Attorney General of India on the above mentioned issue.” It also describes repeated formal approaches from J Jayalalithaa, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking for action to lift the ban—including a request from early this January for an executive ordinance “to enable conduct of Jallikattu during 2016 Pongal festival.” A memorandum to the prime minister from August 2015, it says, suggested “the following measures which would eventually pave the way for conducting Jallikattu events in Tamil Nadu: Instruct the officials of Ministry of Environment and Forest, Government of India to denotify bull … as performing animals,” and amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960, “exempting Jallikattu along with other exemptions already provided in the Act.” The section concludes, “the Government of Tamil Nadu is taking all out efforts to resume this event.”
I also approached Shekhar Naphade, a senior advocate who is representing the Tamil Nadu government in the present case. The supplementary documents recently submitted to the court, he said, were “to substantiate its contention that steps [have been] taken to ensure that animals are not subjected to cruelty.” Naphade also told me that Tamil Nadu had put forward a defence of jallikattu on the grounds of preserving indigenous breeds as early as in 2014, when defending jallikattu before the Supreme Court. But, he said, the court had not considered this defence since the case in question dealt only with laws against animal cruelty.
Even among those on the Tamil Nadu government’s side, not everyone is impressed with its line of action. Srinivas Ratnasami is a practising lawyer in Chennai, and the chairman of the Biodiversity Conservation Council of India—a non-profit advocacy group founded this March to oppose the jallikattu ban, with support from Karthikeyan and several other defenders of the sport. Last month, he told me that the problem with the Tamil Nadu government’s approach “is that people who have no touch with ground reality are heard, and the ones who do have not been heard.” As he saw it, “The state always argued for retaining jallikattu as tradition and culture.” The emphasis from the start should instead have been “that this is a tradition that is intelligent,” with an “intersection of biological and cultural criterion.”
Srinivas suggested an option for the government. If the president of India were to give his assent to a state law permitting jallikattu, he said, “then, notwithstanding the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, it will be upheld within the state. … We even suggested that the state government pass a law and send it to president for assent, but Tamil Nadu is not willing to do it.”
The best way forward, Srinivas continued, is “amending the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. That way, you change the law which the Supreme Court used as the basis to declare jallikattu illegal. The central government wanted to table the amendments in the monsoon session of parliament ... but it was not done.”
The final hearing at the Supreme Court is now scheduled for 9 November. When I spoke to Srinivas, he had already given up the present case, defending the 2016 notification, as lost. The additional documentation recently filed by the Tamil Nadu government, he said, “is not going to make a difference now.”
FOR SARAVANAN, indigenous bulls represent, primarily, a matter of pride. But not all bull-keepers are affluent hobbyists like him. For many others, bulls are, besides a source of pride, a crucial source of livelihood. I visited some of these bull-keepers too, and found them despondent.
Soundaram Ramasamy is a bull-keeper in the village of Kathasamipalayam, near Tiruppur. I first met her in January 2015, when she showed me a certificate from an NGO recognising her as a “breed saviour” for her work with Kangayams. Back then, she had seven stud bulls. This April, she had 12.
Soundaram took me to see them, in a rented pasture a short walk from her house. She is one of the very few women doing such work anywhere in Tamil Nadu, and told me its hard for her to hire fields for her animals because “people ask why a woman should rear bulls.” Standing on spongy ground, beneath white acacia trees, I met some of Soundaram’s charges—Srinivasan, Singaravelan, Rajini. The only sound came from the rhythmic rise and fall of the bulls’ breathing. The animals seemed like giants beside Soundaram’s small frame, but they were meek and obedient before her. Rajini offered her his face to get it scratched.
I watched as a young bull serviced one of Soundaram’s cows. Two men—Soundaram’s husband and son—held the cow, while Soundaram guided the bull. He sniffed the cow’s rump and mounted her in one swift movement. The union was quick and powerful.
Besides charging for the stud services of her bulls, Soundaram’s main source of income is rearing and selling the animals. Recently, she complained, their worth had fallen drastically. “The calves we bought for Rs60,000 are now worth less than half the price.” The day before my visit, she said, she sold two bulls for Rs1.3 lakh. “Had there been rekla and jallikattu, they could have easily fetched Rs2 lakh.”
Soundaram told me that people in the Kangayam region used to buy cattle as an investment, in the same way that city folk buy stocks. P Rajasekhar, a businessman who presides over the Jallikattu Padhukappu Peravai, or Forum for the Preservation of Jallikattu, had walked me through how this worked when I visited his house near Madurai. “The events are free, the prizes are small and the expenses are far too great to be compensated by the grinder and mixie and bureau,” he said. “But, it is a way—perhaps the only way—for coolie labourers or landless women to make money. All they need to do is raise a male calf. If it shows potential—scratches the ground, shakes its head when a stranger approaches, tries to butt them—the animal’s value soars.” A rearer could earn ten times more from a promising male calf, he said, than from raising ten goats. But those days are gone. Now, Soundaram told me, “people don’t see a profit.”
In the village of Sennagarampatti, also near Madurai, I met K Selvarani. I arrived at her modest house at noon, and waited while she tended to Ramu, a 12-year-old Pulikulam bull tied just a few feet outside the entrance. She rubbed him down, patted his rump and gave him water and food. Only after she was sure the animal was comfortable and cool—it was a very warm day—did she settle down to chat.
Selvarani is a local celebrity. When she was announced as the owner of a bull about to be released at a jallikattu, I had been told, bull-catchers would often step aside, knowing that the animal about to emerge from the vaadi vaasal would be as fierce and strong as they come. On my visit, she told me proudly that she was the only woman in Madurai district to release bulls in the jallikattu arena.
Selvarani is a small farmer—she grows paddy in a one-acre plot—and a livestock-keeper. She bought her bull in 2008, for Rs105,000. “Just that day, my expenses to hire a vehicle and bring it home were Rs5,000,” she said. If jallikattu isn’t revived, she said, the animal will, at best, “fetch meat rate.”
Selvarani had been a picture of calm around Ramu, but now her anger came spilling out. “For three generations we have worshipped cattle,” she said. “You look after it like it’s your own child. … On Pongal, we serve them food on a plantain leaf, and only then do we eat.” A large number of her fellow villagers used to keep jallikattu bulls, but “there are maybe seven bulls now.” Since the ban, she said, “we haven’t been able to celebrate Pongal. It’s as if there has been a death in the family. We are grieving.”
In a distinctly Madurai dialect, Selvarani told me she was ready to go argue in the Supreme Court herself. “They want to insult us,” she said. “They want to mock the people from the southern districts who rear cattle.” She was adamant that she would defy the ban. “I have already announced it,’ she said softly. “If by next Pongal the games are not allowed, I will let loose a thousand bulls. Shoot me, jail me, but the bulls will be gathered in one spot, and released.”
“THERE ARE FEW SECTORS where governments have done greater damage than they have in cattle,” P Sainath, a veteran rural journalist, told me in an email interview in June. “Sturdy local species that took millennia to evolve have been decimated—by government order.” (Disclosure: I volunteer for the People’s Archive of Rural India, a rural journalism project headed by Sainath.)
One disastrous intervention began in 1978, in the Kalahandi district of Odisha. Government agencies launched a project to reduce poverty by boosting milk production—without heed for the fact that Kalahandi was already producing a surplus of milk. The plan was to replace the area’s indigenous cattle, of the Khariar breed, with crossbred animals that were expected to offer higher milk yields. This meant the mass castration of Khariar bulls, and the artificial insemination of Khariar cows with Jersey semen. The crossbred animals provided no extra milk and struggled to produce healthy calves, and the Khariar breed almost went extinct before conservationists stepped in to rescue it. Sainath wrote about the case, and was crucial in bringing it to national attention.
The ban on jallikattu is not directly comparable to the government project in Kalahandi, but in creating similar consequences—particularly a sharp decline in the number of indigenous bulls—it could well have a similar effect. And in Tamil Nadu, as in Kalahandi, the consequences of disrupting an economy that sustained indigenous cattle for centuries look set to outstrip anything that was foreseen.
“Indigenous breeds are very low-maintenance, and perfectly evolved to the weather and climate of their region,” Sainath said. “The exotic species brought in evolved to cope with the climate of Europe, including some of that continent’s colder regions. They actually suffer terribly in, say, the heat of Yavatmal, or elsewhere in India. They are far more prone to disease—some farmers joke that keeping these means having the vet almost always at your home.” Yet in many states, Sainath continued, “local breeds were treated as little better than vermin in the sixties, seventies and eighties. We now see the price of that madness unfold.”
He brought up another telling example—that of the Vechur breed in Kerala. In 1961, the state imposed the Kerala Livestock Improvement Act, which mandated castration for mature indigenous bulls so as to promote crossbred varieties. This severely depleted numerous indigenous breeds, including the Vechur—the world’s smallest breed of cattle.
Vechurs were saved by Sosamma Iype, who led a concerted breeding effort to revive their population. Iype retired as a professor of animal genetics and breeding, and is now a director of the Vechur Conservation Trust.
Looking back, Iype told me, the biggest challenge was that nobody thought it was necessary to conserve the breed. Her work flew in the face of state policy, and “was projected as a backward step in the forward movement of the country in milk production.” Gathering a sufficient number of cows and bulls was fiendishly difficult. Temple bulls were crucial, since they usually escaped castration. As of 2012, after decades of conservation work, there were 2,479 Vechur cattle in India—still the smallest population of any indigenous breed.
With the shift to more intensive farming, the poor are the first to lose their animals, Iype said. “They become poorer. High food production does not mean poverty alleviation. If the cattle, which are a part of the village ecology, are lost, it means the ecological balance is lost. Food security is lost. The whole economy is affected.”
“The most high-producing cow is not the most profitable cow,” Iype explained. “It depends on the input-output ratio. For some farmers an indigenous cow of Vechur or Kasargod breed in Kerala with an average 2kg milk production is sustainable compared to a crossbred cow. The dung and urine as fertilizers for soil are better in the case of native cattle. Concentrates are not generally fed to native cows and hence milk and other produce are, naturally, organic. … This system may be suitable only to a small sector of people, but let them do it instead of forcing crossbreds on them.”
Iype pointed out that many of India’s indigenous breeds are on the verge of disappearing. One example is the Alambadi breed, one of the five breeds native to Tamil Nadu. Yet still there is an official bias against them. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, according to the 2015–2016 policy note of the department of animal husbandry, dairies and fisheries, 178 of the 250 bulls in state-owned breeding centres are either Jersey or Jersey-cross. Only eight were of breeds indigenous to the state: four Kangayams, two Pulikulams, one Bargur and one Umbalachery. (The 2016–2017 policy note does not include a break-up of the number of breeding bulls.)
“The irony is Indian breeds like the Ongole, Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Kankrej, Gir, taken to other countries are performing very well as pure breeds,” Iype said. “It is due to the strict adoption of good breeding programmes. Brazil is exploiting Indian breeds on a large scale”—though primarily for beef, not milk.
The Indian problem is reflected globally. “There are thousands of breeds of cattle in the world,” Iype said. “But a handful, like Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys, Ayrshires, and Brown Swiss, are the top ones, with Holstein being the most popular. This breed has spread to 128 countries already.” Naturally, these breeds “are replacing the adapted indigenous cattle.”
This comes with consequences in terms of genetic variety. “In the case of world-dominating breeds,” Iype said, “one thing pointed out is the use of very low number of bulls.” This is particularly so with the rising use of artificial insemination, where frozen semen from a single bull can be used to impregnate thousands of cows. As a result, the calves are all half-brothers or half-sisters, “with high percentage of the same genes. This is not a healthy situation.”
A depleted genetic pool increases the risk of inbreeding down the line, which can lead to mutation and weakened resilience against disease. Diversity is essential, she said, since “if there is a high variation and the genetic makeup of the animals is different, there is scope of some animals not getting the disease.” She recalled an outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease in 1990 among exotic and crossbred cattle at the Kerala Agricultural University, where she used to teach. “It was devastating, but the Vechur cows housed in the nearby sheds were least affected.”
Iype predicted that as global temperatures rise, water levels drop and new diseases emerge, “a handful of breeds with a lot of homogeneity may not save us. We would require as many breeds and as much variation as possible, to make selection and also probably for evolving new breeds.” But, she lamented, India has not successfully created even a single new breed in its research institutions. “We lost the majority of good, pedigreed populations as reputed farms were bent upon crossbreeding and increasing milk production.”
Karthikeya made the same point when we spoke at his foundation. He had added that intra-species diversity is as important as inter-species diversity—and for that, too, you need a healthy population of bulls, not more offspring of the same small set of bulls.
Karthikeya also brought up the matter of germ plasm—living biological material, such as bull semen, which can be used for purposes of breeding and conservation. In India—like in other ancient societies in Asia and Africa—germ plasm has traditionally been held within communities. “Just because I work on Kangayam, I cannot claim to own the germ plasm for it,” he explained. But in many Western countries, he said, and in the globalised economy, this is not always so. There companies can own genes, and a small handful of multinationals spend millions of dollars on developing new strains of cattle, especially of Holstein Friesians, Jerseys and Swiss Browns.
This model of germ-plasm ownership, and the associated practice of artificial insemination, is gaining ground in India too. The British firm Genus, one of the world’s leading animal-genetics companies, said in its 2015 annual report that “Operating profit in India more than doubled, with continued growth in average selling prices as the mix of genomic semen increased. … A series of marketing campaigns has better positioned ABS as the largest international supplier and the only one with local production in India.” In June, the Economic Times reported that the national government “is in talks with the United States-based ABS Genus and Sexing Technologies” to further the use of “technology for sex-sorted semen which ensures only female bovines are born through assisted reproduction.”
Karthikeya worried that this will further accelerate the advent of crossbred animals and the decline of indigenous ones, and make the indigenous gene pool ever smaller.
KARTHIKEYA, SARAVANAN, SELVARANI, RAJASEKHAR, SRINIVAS —all of them, and many others I met in Tamil Nadu, told me that they just want jallikattus back, and are ready to obey any regulations on how to run them. But few are talking about how jallikattu might be brought in line with animal-welfare legislation. The case before the Supreme Court asks for a complete halt to the sport, and the animal-rights groups behind the case have made no indication of being open to compromises involving new safeguards.
But even with their professed readiness to follow safety regulations, nobody I spoke to would acknowledge animal cruelty at jallikattus—not even in the documented instances presented before the Supreme Court. Every time I mentioned the video evidence, I got some variation of the same answers: that the footage must be old, and shot prior to the regulations introduced by the Tamil Nadu government in 2009; that those instances were exceptions; or that the footage was staged. Everyone declared their love for their bulls, and insisted they would never let them be hurt.
Instead, people insisted there was a conspiracy—against villagers, against Tamils, against native breeds in favour of exotic ones. Karthikeya questioned how animal-rights activists managed to assemble “a huge legal team, with some of India’s most illustrious lawyers,” to represent them in the Supreme Court. The Animal Welfare Board of India and PETA have publicly stated that the lawyers representing them in the Supreme Court are working pro bono or at significantly discounted rates. Earlier this year, Karthikeya’s associates filed a Right to Information request for the AWBI’s finances with regard to the Supreme Court case. The organisation’s response showed expenses from February 2010 to February 2016 totalling Rs731,101, and stated, “The Board has not received any donation for the case expenditure.”
Rajasekhar, of the Jallikattu Padhukappu Peravai, told me that “there are animal lovers, activists and people with vivid imaginations, who say we apply chilli powder and feed alcohol to the bulls.” After the state government issued its 2009 guidelines, he said, “veterinary doctors check the bull for alcohol, they do a breathing test. They give a pre-event fitness certificate. And a post-event certificate.”
I spoke to a veterinarian in government service who supervised two jallikattus in western Tamil Nadu for three years—2012, 2013 and 2014. Speaking over the phone, and on condition of anonymity, he told me, “I think there was no cruelty.” His job “was to screen the animals and test them for doping. We did not perform blood tests there—there was no time—but we checked for foreign bodies, for irritants. We had a team of assistants who removed any flowers, powders, kumkum or lime from the animal.” A district collector and senior police official watched the events, and “were very alert. If there was more than one man riding a bull, the men were immediately disqualified. They were not allowed to catch the tail or legs, only the hump.”
Rajasekhar bemoaned the fact that “people who haven’t even seen the jallikattu once want it banned.” He had made multiple trips to the national capital to lobby against the ban. “Each trip costs Rs50,000,” he said. “This is a festival, a celebration of small farmers and ordinary people. Who among them can afford to go to Delhi?” He pleaded for a compromise. “Impose more rules, but let the games go on,” he said. “Tell us what to change, we will. We are ready for any conversation. Ready, ready, ready.”
The disconnect between animal-rights activists and the people most affected by the ban was palpable in the answers to my queries to the AWBI, and to the Indian branch of PETA, which is also party to the case in the Supreme Court. S Chinny Krishna, the vice chairman of the AWBI, told me over email that “the loss of a cattle economy is a myth.” As proof, he pointed me to an article in The Hindu on the April cattle fair in Kannapuram. This year, it said, “farmers/breeders are expecting a higher sales, despite the ban existing on Jallikattu.” Everything I saw and heard at the fair completely contradicted this.
“The same people who claim that they look after their fighting bulls ‘like their own children—or better’ threaten to send them to slaughter if jallikattu is banned,” Krishna wrote. “In any case, any bull that begins to lose fights repeatedly ends up with the butcher. So, do we think they should suffer in the jallikattu arena and then be sold for slaughter? As a proud Tamilian, all I can say is that my culture does not promote cruelty.”
I approached PETA India with questions as to whether the group had considered the full effects of the ban on rural livelihoods and indigenous breeds. Bhuvaneshwari Gupta, a campaign manager with PETA, replied, “On the issue of cattle, we advocate a vegan lifestyle. Vegans are vegetarians who do not consume dairy or any animal derived foods.”
When I corresponded with Anand Grover, a senior advocate representing PETA India in the Supreme Court, he responded that “as per the client-counsel agreement I can’t discuss the legal strategies” of the organisation. But he did comment on the Tamil Nadu government’s approach. Its “main averment,” he wrote, “is that, Jallikattu is a traditional act of bravery,” but “countless Tamilians are against Jallikattu and are saddened by those who call harming bulls Tamil ‘culture’.”
When asked about the shrinking population of indigenous cattle, Grover, citing figures from official veterinary institutions in Tamil Nadu, wrote that “the decline in the population of native breeds started well before the ban on Jallikattu, and the real reasons for decline in number are actually caused by factors such as changes in farmers’ choice and agricultural need, introduction of exotic germ plasm through cross-breeding programmes, conversion of farm lands into housing plots and shrinkage of grazing grounds. … Though Tamil Nadu has a well-documented Policy Note for conservation of native breeds, its implementation and effectiveness need to be evaluated.”
C Aryama Sundaram, a senior advocate representing the AWBI, turned down my requests for an interview.
SOME OF THE REPERCUSSIONS of the decline of the traditional cattle economy will take years to become fully apparent. The die-off of indigenous bulls, though, is already here.
Vikram Dorairaj is a volunteer at the Velliangiri Gaushala, a cattle refuge on the outskirts of Coimbatore. The gaushala is supported by Siva Ganesh, a successful textile businessman. After the jallikatu ban, the gaushala staff saw large numbers of indigenous bulls being sold to slaughterhouses. By Tamil Nadu law, bulls and bullocks that are over the age of ten, injured, diseased or unable to work or breed can be sent to slaughter after obtaining a “fit-for-slaughter” certificate. A team led by Vikram went around to buy up bulls from farmers and breeders, including poor labourers, who, with no profit in sight, could no longer afford to keep them.
People were desperate, Vikram said, and were willing to give up animals in their prime at very low prices. “If farmers were selling it for Rs15,000, we paid Rs20,000—and told them they can come anytime and visit their animal in the gaushala. … For the farmer, this was a good deal, far better than selling it to the butcher for Rs15,000.”
Vikram told me that the gaushala cost Rs30 crore to set up, and now houses about 1,900 cattle. Of these, as of May, 231 were past jallikattu champions. Each jalikattu bull was bought for Rs50,000. “No other gaushala will take them,” Vikram said, as “they are very hard to maintain.” At Velliangiri, there are veterinarians and caretakers who previously worked in jallikattu arenas.
“We are not looking at breeding the bulls,” Vikram explained. “And we are not against beef. What we recommend is: when you take it for slaughter, take it peacefully.” He explained that existing regulations on slaughter are routinely flouted. “Pregnant cows are routinely trafficked, because calf leather is very expensive. Also, instead of the recommended number—6 animals in a truck—30 are taken. Calf meat is in great demand. Just yesterday, a truck heaving with 22 calves, all three or four months old, was caught.” He showed me pictures on his phone.
Vikram was in favour of stronger enforcement of regulations, but was resigned to the fact that “you cannot police every slaughterhouse.” Even with all his sympathy for the animals, he did not see much point to having blanket bans on cattle slaughter or beef consumption. Each animal, he said, costs Rs100 a day to maintain. For jallikattu bulls, the sum was many times that. How, he wondered, could the government replicate this model of care for all animals past their economic use when there are 190 million cattle in the country?
MANY OF INDIA’S POLITICIANS AND POLICY-MAKERS seem not to have considered this problem. The large majority of Indian states have restrictions on cattle slaughter, with only eight—Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura and West Bengal—having none. Calls for a nationwide ban on cattle slaughter and beef consumption are getting louder.
Karthikeya’s position on this was clear: for indigenous breeds to be economically viable, any bans that choke business for bull-keepers must go. Strong male calves must promise a profit, and farmers and cattle rearers must be able to sell unproductive animals for slaughter to raise money to invest in young calves. Very few people can afford to keep cattle just for sentimental reasons. He saw the Hindutva activists railing against cattle slaughter and the animal-rights activists opposing sports involving cattle as being largely similar in their failure to understand this. Both lobbies, in arguing for the protection of cattle, are imperilling their future.
“There is no demand for bull calves,” Karthikeya said. “You saw that at Kannapuram, isn’t it? They are sold for low prices. It only benefits the beef industry.” It’s not just jallikattu and rekla in Tamil Nadu, he continued, “but bullock-cart races in Maharashtra, stone-pulling in Andhra. Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab, Harayana—all the places where there are very good Indian breeds were targeted.”
“This ideological insanity comes from people who know nothing of cows or their role in the rural economy,” Sainath told me. He described the effects of what he saw as official interference in the traditional cattle economy. “The cattle markets are in collapse. Farmers are not buying cattle as they do not know what they will do with them when they are non-productive. Farmers with cattle in badly drought-hit areas just have to stand by and watch their cows die—they can barely feed their families—as they can’t send them to the abattoir. The idea, of course, was to hurt the Muslim community. What happened is that everybody has taken a pasting. The Muslims, of course. Then the Maratha and other Hindu farmers stuck with cows they can’t sell. Other Backward Caste groups that deal at the cattle markets where prices have collapsed. Dalits in the Kolhapur chappal industry have been badly hit by the shortage of hides. Generally, it’s been a disaster all around.”
A strong and open beef industry could support indigenous cattle with incentives to keep the animals for more than just their milk, but the political climate is unlikely to allow one. The present dairy market, meanwhile, does little to encourage indigenous breeds. According to the National Dairy Development Board, in 1970 India had 178 million cattle, and produced 20 million tonnes of milk. By 2012, it had 190 million cattle, and produced 132 million tonnes of milk—a six-fold increase in production with only a small increase in the cattle population. This confirms what Iype told me: much of the productive gain is down to the replacement of indigenous cattle with exotic and interbred cattle, and the market incentives that drive that trend remain unchanged.
Karthikeya suggested one possible step forward—increasing the procurement price of indigenous cow milk. All indigenous Indian cattle—and buffaloes—give what is called A2 milk, with a different type of protein from the A1 milk typically produced by exotic breeds. Proponents of A2 milk claim it has health benefits over A1 milk, but this has not been fully proven. Still, in many countries, A2 milk is marketed as a premium product with higher prices—and global demand for it is growing. In India, however, government-stipulated procurement prices do not distinguish between A1 and A2 milk. In Tamil Nadu, official dairy schemes pay farmers between Rs24 and Rs28 per litre.
Some livestock-keepers in Tamil Nadu already independently market A2 milk straight to consumers at Rs100 a litre. In Karnataka, the state milk federation ran a pilot project last year to market A2 milk at higher prices. But not everyone is convinced that such efforts can translate into a viable market. Saravanan, for instance, was cynical. “In Chennai or Bengaluru, they will buy it even if it is differentially priced,” he said as we travelled to his farm. “If you go to him”—Saravanan pointed to an old man sitting by the road under a tree—“and tell him, ‘This is A2 milk, give me Rs70 for it,’ can you imagine what he will say?”
The Tamil Nadu government does invest some effort into promoting indigenous breeds. The 2015–2016 policy note from the state animal husbandry, dairies and fisheries department describes “efforts for conservation of native breeds like Pulikulam, Alambadi, Kangayam, Umblachery, and Bargur in their native tracts at a cost of Rs29 lakh by conducting cattle fairs / exhibitions and workshops and awarding prizes for best maintained animals.” The policy note published this year says a state university has received Rs1.37 crore to “develop and conserve” the Bargur breed. The department keeps cattle at eight farms in the state, and three of these produce semen straws, from both exotic and indigenous breeds, for artificial insemination. The latest note also mentions that the Tamil Nadu Co-operative Milk Producers’ Federation is selecting “elite” Kangayam cows and inseminating them, and rearing bulls for semen production.
But whatever encouragement such efforts might offer, without a market for indigenous cattle there is little reason for significant numbers of people to continue raising them. “If there is an economical gain,” Karthikeya assured me, “people will be ready to care for the animals. Have you heard of any NGOs working to conserve sheep or buffaloes? If there is a market, it takes care of itself.”
India, Karthikeya pointed out, is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, and passed a National Biodiversity Act in 2002. It also has a National Biodiversity Authority, headquartered in Chennai, under the environment ministry. “This body supports in-situ conservation and biocultural sports such as jallikattu and rekla,” Karthikeya said. “But a statutory body under the same ministry, the Animal Welfare Board of India, is messing things up. They’ve done nothing to save the breed from extinction. They call themselves ‘animal welfare,’ but I see them as ‘animal welfare’ of the city dogs. You can stop there. You need not poke your nose into the business of people who have been living with domesticated animals for six to seven thousand years. Let the NBAGR”—the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources—“the department of animal husbandry or the National Biodiversity Authority deal with this.”
He was adamant that something must be done. Otherwise, he predicted, ten years from now all of Tamil Nadu’s native breeds will be lost, or will exist only in zoos or museums. Then, he said, “we will only have Friesians and Jerseys.”