Blues and moos: Indian state launches cow ambulance service
The scheme is intended to prevent the animals from being smuggled to neighbouring Bangladesh or to the few Indian states where slaughtering cows is permitted.
In a country where poorer people often have to carry their injured relatives to hospital, the launch of a new private ambulance service in India was cheered by some politicians.
But these new ambulances, equipped with sirens and a doctor on board, will exclusively serve injured cows, in the latest of a series of high-profile schemes to improve the wellbeing of the animals, which are revered by most Hindus.
The first five ambulances were launched last week by Keshav Prasad Maurya, the deputy chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state. They are funded by the Gau Vansh Raksha trust, an NGO that already operates a network of gau shalas, a kind of nursing home for old or abandoned cows that might otherwise be slaughtered.
“In India we have the mythology that we have three mothers,” said Sugandh Kumar, vice-president of the trust. “One that has given birth to us, one that nourishes us to adulthood – which is the earth – and one whose milk has made us strong, the cow, and it is this last one that we are working on.”
He said the ambulance service had received about 200 calls and was able to attend to about 25 cows a day.
For the past 20 years the trust has been running a similar low-cost ambulance service for rickshaw pullers and rural labourers, and it added cow welfare to its agenda in the past two years.
Sanjay Rai,chief trustee, said he had been interested in helping to protect cows for nearly a decade but had lacked financial resources to establish an ambulance service. “And there was no support from the government side,” he said.
The new state administration of Yogi Adityanath, a hardline Hindu revivalist, has been more encouraging and had allocated the ambulance service a toll-free number, he said. “On a verbal basis they support us, but for financial support they have not started anything yet,” Rai said.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, won office in 2014 campaigning for a national ban on cow slaughter, and under his tenure there has been a surge in projects to improve the animal’s welfare.
In April the national home ministry outlined plans to assign each one of India’s approximately 190 million cows a unique identification number. The scheme is intended to prevent the animals from being smuggled to neighbouring Bangladesh or to the few Indian states where slaughtering cows is permitted.
The ministry is also exploring the possibility of setting up a national network of gau shalas to house the stray cattle who wander Indian streets and fields – estimated by the more recent livestock census to number around 5.3 million.
The other side of the growing zeal to protect cows is increasing violence against those perceived to be harming them. In Rajasthan last month a dairy farmer, Pehlu Khan, was attacked by a mob and died from his injuries after being caught transporting cattle.
Khan’s family say he had a legal license to purchase the cows and intended to use them for milking, but state ministers labelled him a cow smuggler and rationalised the attack, saying both he and his murderers were at fault.
This week two Muslim men including a teenager were killed in Assam after they were suspected of trying to rustle cows. A man in Bihar was blinded in one eye after being attacked for beeping at a cow blocking his path.
Movements to protect the cow first became prominent in India in the late 19th century, accompanying a growing political consciousness among Hindus. The issue has frequently been a trigger for tension with India’s sizeable Muslim minority, and has become increasingly charged since Modi’s election in 2014.
Most Hindus eschew beef, but the meat is consumed by some in the country’s south, by many of India’s religious minorities, and by traditionally poorer castes who regard the animal as a cheap source of protein.
Critics of Modi and the broader Hindu nationalist movement argue the threat to cows is overblown and that the animal’s welfare is being used to whip up anti-Islamic sentiment among the Hindu majority.
Last year Modi criticised the bands of gau raksha, or cow protectors, that had sprung up across north India since his election. Often armed, the gangs inspect transport trucks along major highways and smuggling routes, and are frequently involved in violence.
Police are often accused of tacitly supporting the vigilantes and one state, Haryana, announced plans last year to license some of the groups.
Last month Gujarat state raised the sentence for cow slaughter to life imprisonment, one of a raft of states to increase the severity of punishments for crimes against cows in recent years. The chief minister of Chhattisgarh said in April that anyone caught killing cows in his state could be hanged.
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