Where Have All the Cows Gone?

The village of Chopta marks the beginning of the back-breaking trek up to the temple of Tungnath in the Garhwal Himalaya. At a wayside shop, a pilgrim bargains with the owner for a kilogram of ghee, trying to bring down the price from IRs 60 to a more affordable IRs 40. But the shopkeeper will have none of it. "Just take what you can at my price. Ghee is precious now. If not you, there will be others."

Ghee, clarified butter, used to be cheap and plentiful just five years ago. The pilgrim does not understand that a complex web of factors – new roads, tourism, "development" – have contributed to ghee´s price rise. The same is true for other milk products.

The rolling green alpine pastures around Chopta, known as bugyals, used to provide excellent grazing grounds for local mountain cows. The bugyals are still there, but the bovines no longer come to chew the cud under the shadow of Chaukhamba Peak. The Uttar Pradesh government has banned seasonal migration by nomadic Gujjars, who used to be the mainstay of the area´s dairy supplies. The villagers of Chopta are now expected to take loans under one of the many "anti-poverty" programmes run from Lucknow and buy crossbred Jersey or Freisan heifers, which would have to be stall-fed.

God and Government

The shopkeeper at Chopta is commiserating with the pilgrim: "This is how it goes in kaliyug, bhaisaheb. What God gives with one hand, he takes with the other." Substitute "government" for "god" and you have a fairly accurate description of the nutcracker that today's hill people find themselves in. The "environmentalist" sitting in the plains – both in and out of government – cannot see the people but the trees. He decrees programmes that cause havoc among the populace in the distant hills. An increasingly common term among the people of Chopta is "pet par laat mara" – it is like being kicked in the stomach.

A series of new forest regulations passed by the Central Government in New Delhi, severely curtails the right of Garhwal´s villagers to gather minor forest produce, such as honey, tubers and wild fruits, which are used to supplement the nutritionally poor diets of this region. The forests are now the exclusive property of the Forest Department, which sees the woodlands as a money-making resource, to be auctioned off to the highest bidder for timber value.

As a substitute for honey and herbs, the Garhwali can now waste his money on urban junk food, such as noodles and biscuits, completing the cycle of alienation from his natural environment.

The influx of tourists has led to a further shift in the local diet, from the indigenous mandua grain to wheat. The local staple is now considered of low-status, even though it has a higher caloric value than wheat flour, and is said to generate more body heat – an important consideration in this alpine region. Mandua is held in such low esteem that villagers are embarassed to even talk about why they do not grow it anymore.

Milk or Milk Powder?

Back to milk talk. At Kund, which is a cluster of houses where the road crosses the Mandakini river on its way to Gauri Kund, two types of tea are available – one with powder milk, the other with real milk. The tea with milk costs twice as much and is bought only by the pilgrim-tourists. The villagers can afford only powdered milk.

Earlier, milk was readily available in the valleys of Garhwal, providing protein to the largely vegetarian hill peasants. But the milk flow has now been diverted to the main highways where it is downed by the multiplying pilgrim-tourists. The more efficiently the government sells tourist packages to Garhwali shrines, the more the people of Garhwal will shift from milk to milk powder.

For centuries, the traditional method of handling surplus milk had been to concentrate it into khoya or make ghee, both of which found a ready market among the halwai sweet-shops of Garhwal´s towns. The "developers" – bureaucrats and commercial contractors – were quite unhappy with this state of affairs, for it offered little scope for constructing roads, cement buildings and modern dairy plants. Now, what was required was an "income-generating activity." So, Indian and Western bureaucrats fly between New Delhi and foreign capitals to produce feasibility reports to bring development to this corner of Garhwal.

A herd of crossbreds is marshalled and a fodder producing machine is bought to feed the Jersey cow´s hefty appetite. A veterinary doctor is posted at a "center of excellence" in the hills. A dairy plant using imported machinery is set up to convert milk into products that find no use in the hill kitchens.

Before long, the vet decides that he has to leave for the sake of his children´s education. The engineer exits soon after the doctor. The bureaucrat, of course, has been long gone and is flogging, yet another project to eager donors. The contractor has had his laugh, all the way to the bank. The villager has less milk than he started out with. Out there, somewhere on a hillside in Garhwal, stands a monument to maldevelopment – a Jersey cow. The villager smokes his beedi and stares at this relic, and wonders and waits for the day when his herd of mountain cows will be back to full strength.

Rajiv Tiwari is a Delhi-based journalist who writes about the people and the environment of Indian Himalaya.

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