Like a person that has fallen in love, the more time I spend in India, the more I see India for its beauty and not its flaws – and there is so much beauty. But there are sights that jar me back to harsh reality and one of those is seeing a cow eat trash.
This happened nearly every morning I left my house in Mysore to walk to the medical clinic where I volunteered – Jag Therapy. Just a stone’s throw away from my house was a ditch filled with a sprawling pile of trash on an empty lot. Here I would often see a cow, and sometimes its cohorts, the cattle egret and crow, perusing the neighborhood effluvia. It was frustrating to witness, not merely because of the welfare problems present when cattle eat trash, including plastic bags, but more so because there was a neighborhood dumpster located a block away.
Depending on the way you define trash, you could say that cattle have a long history eating trash in India. Cows have always been fed kitchen scraps, often presented as a religious offering in the mornings. When I visited Varanasi, a city that may have the densest population of cattle in India, one of my guides’ wives, Mrs. Gupta told me that the first chapatti (flat bread) of the day is offered to the cows as a blessing of prosperity, and the last goes to the dogs to appease the ghost world which dogs are associated with. But these offerings are often made in vegetable and fruit scraps, the ubiquitous bi products of traditional Hindu vegetarian cooking.
In Varanasi, a city full of devout Hindus, the loose cattle make their rounds, routinely collecting their offerings. Mrs. Gupta said that every morning a cow came into her courtyard and mooed, a signal that she should come down and deposit her kitchen scraps at the cow’s feet. In an ideal world, this is a beautiful system. No food goes to waste and what would be garbage is turned into valuable manure to be used for cooking fuel, fertilizer, and in some cases building material, household cleaner, or medicine.
But we live in a far from ideal world. The introduction of plastic to India, in particular, plastic bags, has transformed India’s landscape from one in which a scrap heap became a benign compost pile, into a one where your gaze always can spot a plastic bag or chewing tobacco wrapper no matter where you are in the city or the countryside. This is far from a mere aesthetic offence. Plastic is being consumed by feral cattle which forage for food in trash heaps. When people conceal their food waste within plastic trash bags cattle consume the plastic along with the food. If a cow eats enough plastic bags their digestion suffers when the bags collect in their rumen (the cow’s stomachs) or the intestines causing the cattle to die of impaction or starvation – both painful ways to die. The Karuna Society, an animal welfare society in Andhra Pradesh, removed 40 kgs (88 pounds!) of plastic from a cow they autopsied. Just think of the thousands of tons of plastic that are being carried in the bellies of cattle all over India. This is a poor life for the cattle that have bestowed so many blessings on humanity – especially in India. And a striking symbol for the dark side of an increasingly modern India.
Plastic not only affects the wellbeing of cattle, but also the people who consume milk from cattle who are allowed to roam free during the day and return to their owners in the evenings, or feral cattle, especially males that end up as meat whether legally, in the two states that allow slaughter and sale of beef, or in the illegal meat trade. Polymers in plastic are a carcinogen (a cancer causing agent) when consumed in animals or humans and ingesting milk or meat from cattle that have ingested plastic, sometimes in astounding quantities, is extremely harmful for human health. The blog “Clear Impression” sited two scientific studies done on the level of toxins that people living near dumps in Southeast Asia are exposed to. One study connected drinking cows milk from cows feeding at the dump with exposure to dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals known to science. One of the studies reported: “Our results suggest that residents living near the dumping site in India have been exposed to relatively high levels of these contaminants, possibly through intake of bovine milk . . . It is anticipated that pollution from dioxin related compounds may further increase and that residue levels in human breast milk may increase in the future because even now the sources of these contaminants are not regulated at all.” Another study that sampled breast milk from mothers living around dump sites in Chennai and Kolkata found dioxins at levels hundreds of times higher than the limit set by the World Health Organization. Whether or not you are a vegetarian, this is a compelling argument to be careful about consuming cattle products in India. As Dr. Kadaba Jagadish, the doctor I worked for at Jag Therapy in Mysore, advises to know the cows that produce the milk you use and what they eat. His own cattle eat rice hay, kitchen scraps, and are watched by the man who tends them when they are let out to graze in the neighborhood.
This problem is widely recognized, but the solutions do not appear to be easily forthcoming. Some states, like Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi is located, have banned some plastic bags, only allowing plastic bags of a certain thickness (measured in microns). These thicker plastic bags are harder for cattle to eat and more valuable to ragpickers – a caste of people in India who collect garbage for reuse or recycling. Yet the law is either ignored or difficult to enforce. Officials either don’t measure the bags or accept bribes to allow vendors to continue using the illegal bags. Bribing officials is a ubiquitous practice throughout India and makes changing some public policies next to impossible. Also, I have not seen any scientific studies done to measure whether or not cattle do not eat these thicker plastic bags and if this law would indeed benefit the welfare of street cattle. So it remains up to individuals and non-profits to minimize their use of plastic or prevent cattle from eating it.
When I lived in Mysore we fed all our fruit and vegetable scraps to our friends’ cows. If it wasn’t convenient to feed their cows, I would place fruit and vegetable scraps directly on the ground so that any cows who wandered by could access the food with no danger of eating plastic. When I had some house guests stay with me, I gave them the house rules about trash removal – it is best to put food waste on the ground, but if you put it in a plastic bag, don’t tie the top of the bag, which allows the cows to forage through the trash without chewing through the plastic. My friend Samagra told me that he had never considered the problems that cattle face when they forage through the trash heap. He asked me to make a poster that would educate people to dispose of their trash in a cow friendly manner and told me that if I made a poster he would distribute it in hostels and ashrams throughout his travels. Here is the poster I made:
This was the best I could do with my limited artistic and technological abilities. I encourage you to print a copy of this poster and hang it up in a public place. I challenge you to make your own poster and put it up wherever you think the most people will see it. Since I only know a few words in Hindi or Kanada and am completely illiterate in all the other numerous languages spoken in India, I request that you write a poster in your native language. If you make a poster send me a copy of it and I will post it on my blog. When I am in India, I will hang these posters in public places. The government is unwilling or unable to protect India’s large cow population (and our public health), but in our own small way you and I can make a difference for Gaumata (the divine mother cow). Minimize your use of plastic, keep food waste separate from plastic bags, and educate others to do the same. We will all benefit from it.