Jallikattu’s back, but can it revive our native cattle breeds?

MBA turned cattle-conservationist and organic farmer Raja Marthandan talks about how the revocation of the Jallikattu ban could help indigenous cattle breeds.

It’s been just over a month since the Jallikattu protests on Marina, and the issue has faded from the headlines. The sport is being held, albeit under certain regulations and with some changes, but there are some questions that still linger.

One of the primary reasons cited by the educated, city-bred protester against the ban on Jallikattu had been the undesirable implications for native cattle breeds and the indirect impact on the milk we consume. But can the resumption of a sport really revive the native cattle industry and is it enough incentive for farmers to turn away from foreign or hybrid cow breeds?

These are some of the questions that led us to Raja Marthandan, an MBA from XLRI, whose primary occupation today is cattle conservation and organic farming. As he discusses his work in his native district of Sivagangai, in his Shudh Farms in Thiruporur and a 4-month-old farm in Vengadamangalam in Chennai, Marthandan busts quite a few myths and explains why he staunchly supports the revocation of the ban on Jallikattu.

How did you get into farming and cattle conservation after MBA?

My father and grandfather were into farming two decades ago in Sivagangai, where I hail from. It was not the main source of income as we had other businesses too. But that’s how I know farming.

I got into full-time farming through Chennai Trekking Club’s Ainthinai group. I was one of the core members of the group, a few of us wanted to do something more and we agreed to get into farming and started four farms— in Thiruporur, Pondicherry, Thiruvarur and Pavunjur. Others wanted to follow Nalla Keerai, an NGO, but I refrained as I felt that their model would not be suitable for my farm.

Cows have been a part of my life since my childhood days and so I decided to bring in cattle in our Thiruporur farm. I have been raising bulls since my first year of college. The objective for starting the farm was to showcase the native Indian breeds as a viable alternative to Holstein Friesians (HF) and Jersey breeds.

Tell us a bit about your farm and the main activities on it. Which are the breeds that you rear?

Initially, we planned to have a farm with multiple components, for instance, rear cows for both cow dung and milk, goats for meat and hens for eggs and also grow long-term and short-term crops. Going by the plan, I first brought in the cows and started farming.

There was a high demand for milk in the market when compared to vegetables. Milk has taken precedence over the veggies in my farm as the differences between the milk that cows give and the milk off store shelves can be easily perceived. But when it comes to vegetables, you just have to trust that they are organic as the differences cannot be felt immediately.

Coming to activities, cattle conservation is our main activity. I rear three breeds belonging to two categories – Indian native breeds from the north western part of the country, Kankrej and Gir from Gujarat, as well as the Tamil Nadu breed.

Kankrej and Gir from Gujarat, one of the oldest and most well-acclaimed Indian breeds, being raised and conserved in the city. Pic: Bhavani A P

Kankrej is the oldest breed of India and is 2500 years old and is said to have been around since the days of the Indus Valley civilization. It is from Kankrej that other cow breeds came into existence. It gives 8-10 litres of milk, is very tough to control and is used for toiling. Gir is one of the premium dairy breeds in India, which is also known for its popularity in Brazil. The third breed is Pulikulam which is native to our own state.

Pulikulam breeds are widely used in Jallikattu and generally they are maintained in herds, untied and made to rest in the open sun which is why they are so aggressive. The male cattle are sold and are reared for Jallikattu or for pulling the carts or for organic farming where their dung would be used as manure.

The ban on Jallikattu had directly affected the rearers of this breed. The sale of such native breeds came down and they were being sent to slaughter houses for a lower price. However, the situation isn’t the same post-ordinance. New born calves are being pre-booked for good price.

When the rearers started selling off the calves in the wake of the ban, I decided to conserve the Pulikulam breeds and started forming one mega herd. The idea was simple – to get the best of the cows from the Pulikulam herd which were up for sale and form one herd with 500 cows and maintain a genetic reservoir with good breeding policies. This is one of our most important activities now.

What is your take on the Jallikattu ban that was imposed? Has there been any change in the way Jallikattu had been held in the past compared to how it is now?

Here is my take on the ban. Let’s say the so-called Animal Welfare Board had merits in their argument. If someone wants to correct a mistake, there are two things to be done – preventing the mistake from happening again and rehabilitating those who have already suffered. In this case, it is the native breeds that fell prey. But what rehabilitation measures have the animal welfare activists taken? Zero. Are they really concerned about the bull? No.

Someone on Facebook commented, “Congrats, you’ve stopped Jallikattu. How are you going to rehabilitate these bulls?” to which the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) replied, “We do not have any rehabilitation plans for these bulls because they will cease to exist in the future.”

It is not there on Facebook any more, because the FIAPO deleted their response but we have the screenshot. Then, what is the reason for the ban? They are short-sighted and do not understand how Jallikattu is one small cog in the bigger wheel.

There is not much requirement for manure in the market even in the case of organic farming. Tractors have replaced bullock carts. The bulls are mostly used in Jallikattu and other similar sports; if the government bans the sports from happening, they will not have a reason to exist and they will be sent to slaughter houses.

As far as the sport is concerned, there used to be three versions in the past, namely, Vadi Manju virattu/Jallikattu, Vaeli Manju virattu (open space) and Vadam (Rope). In Vadi Manju Virattu, the bull is released from a closed space (Vadi Vaasal) and the bull tries to dislodge the player within the boundary line, if it cannot, the player becomes the winner.

In the second style, Vaeli Manju Virattu, the player would chase the bull in the open space and in Vadam style, the bull would be tied and the rope would be buried underground; then a group of 7-10 players would be given 20 minutes to subdue the bull.

Now, after the regulations, only Vadi Manju virattu  takes place and the other two are side-lined. The important side effect of Jallikattu in those versions was the free run as the bulls would come from far off villages to play. It ends up mating with local cows during the free run. It was a great opportunity to diversify their genes which has been stopped now. I feel this should have been considered while imposing the regulations.

The ban may be misplaced, but are you actually convinced that there is no cruelty to the animals? Don’t you feel that Jallikattu events should be regulated to ensure that there are no animal cruelty or human casualties?

Yes, I’m completely convinced that there is no cruelty caused to the animals. We see the cows and bulls as individual beings with distinct characteristics. If the rearer, as claimed by animal welfare organizations, makes the bull consume alcohol, or rubs chilli powder on it, the bull would be disoriented and would be defeated. Which owner would want his bull to lose? All these are misconceptions.

Testing the bull and participants to check if they are intoxicated and setting an age for the bull to participate in the sport are good regulations that have been implemented. I think these are enough.

One of the reasons that the informed citizen was so vocal about the Jallikattu ban was because it would add to the already growing decimation of native breeds. But surely there are also other reasons behind the gradual disappearance of native cattle breeds. What are these? And can we, who reside in the cities, do anything about it?

Raja Marthandan with his victorious Komban, a breed from Pulikulam, Pic: Bhavani A P

The lack of grazing land is the first and foremost reason for the decimation of native breeds. Most of our breeds were reared to be very thrifty and it could withstand drought, famine and other such conditions. In ancient days, we had the system of having a certain ratio of farming lands to grazing lands depending on the water availability.

If the citizens are so worried about the disappearance of the breeds, they should not buy plots that were previously grazing lands. We can never have a large number of cattle in the future because we simply don’t have enough grazing lands.

In the earlier times, there was also this process called penning of cattle where the cattle would be made to rest in the fields during the night, so that their dung would settle in the soil and the land would get naturally fertilized, which is not the practice any longer. Sports such as Jallikattu can ensure that we have a sustainable population of these cattle, even if much smaller.

There are many theories about the effects of hybrid milk on our health – could you explain this to our readers?

There are two species in cattle—Bos indicus and Bos taurus. The former breed is native to India and have humps and the latter is European and hump-less. Bos taurus gives A1 milk and Bos indicus gives A2. The primary difference is the presence of histidine peptide in A2 and opioid in A1. The substance that is got on breaking down opioid is linked to diseases such as obesity, lactogen intolerance and diabetes.

Bos taurus is meant for temperate zones which are much cooler and once they come to our tropical zone, they suffer from heat stress, which would inevitably affect their health. They would seem to be fine but how much ever you feed them they will always remain thin and sick internally. How could something coming from a sick animal be good and healthy? This is basic logic.

Is it true that the native breeds yield lesser than cross-breed cows? If that is the case, how do you think cow-rearers can be incentivised to not succumb to the temptation?

In India, the breeds can be differentiated into milch and draught, and in other countries it is milch and beef. While calculating milk yielding capacity, Europeans leave out the breeds that are meant for beef but in India, we consider the total population and arrive at milking capacity.

For instance, let’s say a man has 100 cows and 10 of them give 10 litres each and the remaining 90 give 1 litre each, so the total yield is 190 litres. We would say that the 100 cows yield 190 litres, which is not correct, as those 90 cows come under draught breeds. Indian milch breeds yield 8-10 litres per day which is a good amount. Rare Kankrej cows give more than 15 litres per day.

A century ago HF and Jersey breeds were at the level at which our Gir breed is today, ther potential to yield more milk was achieved through consistent breeding. It is only because of the constant efforts of scientists in the native country (Germany and Ireland, respectively) that HF and Jersey gained global repute.

The hybrid cows in our village also yield the same amount of milk that our Indian breeds give and in a few places, the hybrid’s yield is ‘up to 15 litres’ which means it will not yield 15 litres all the time but 8-10 litres on average. There are several factors such as feed input, heat stress etc. and when the temperature goes up, the amount of milk automatically comes down.

Liquid cash is the only problem with our local cow rearers, they never have enough cash in hands during times of emergency. Thus, they end up believing all these falsities spread by those with vested interests. The only solution to this would be debunking of myths such as the above, and awareness of long-term effects and benefits of rearing native cattle.

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