Waiting till the cows come home


The first thing one notices these days while travelling by road in the Tarai are hundreds of cattle blocking the East-West Highway, mainly at intersections like Atariya or Kohalpur.

The ‘cow emergency’ hit the headlines in September, when 24 cows were found dead below the highway in Surkhet and hundreds of others were wandering in the jungles. Police investigation revealed that the cattle were being transported from Nepalganj to Dailekh as part of an effort by the municipality to reduce the population of street livestock.

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What few people know is that dozens of cattle had died earlier this year when Sukla Phanta Municipality near Dhangadi spent Rs5.5 million to round up cattle and put them in shelters, where most of them died of starvation and lack of care.

There is no estimate of the number of cattle on the highways near border towns of the western Tarai, but on a recent trip reporters counted hundreds just on the stretch between Dhangadi and Atariya. Locals said there were a lot more street cattle previously, and the numbers had actually gone down.

Local officials said the main reason for the cattle crisis was the ban on beef in north Indian states, especially after the election of high priest and Hindu nationalist politician Yogi Adityanath as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2017. Media reports of lynchings by religious extremists of Muslim traders suspected to be transporting cows put a stop to the unofficial ‘export’ of cattle from Nepal to India.

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There used to be a thriving crossborder trade in aged oxen and cows that had stopped giving milk. But sensitivity about cow slaughter in India after the rise of the BJP, as well as the new border fence on the India-Bangladesh border, has meant that the cattle are abandoned on the streets.

Nepalganj Mayor Dhawal Rana thought he had solved the problem by finding communities in the mountains willing to take the cows, however the transporter contracted to take the cattle to Dailekh let the cattle loose in the jungle near Surkhet in September.

There are other factors at play: increased mechanisation of agriculture and the use of threshing machines, disc ploughs and the replacement of ox carts with tractors means that bulls are no longer in high demand in the Tarai.

“Ten years ago I sold my bulls for Rs50,000 — now there are no buyers. I can’t even pay someone to take the bulls away,” says Biru Ram Chaudhari of Lalitpur village of Kailali.

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The outmigration of Nepali youth to India, the Gulf and Malaysia has meant that agriculture in general has seen a downturn, and there are fewer households keeping water buffalos and cattle at home. The urban expansion of Dhangadi and Nepalganj municipalities has also forced households to abandon home dairies.

The stray cattle are now grazing in jungles by the highways, munching away at the undergrowth. Forests planted for flood control have also been affected. Sugarcane and paddy farmers have lost their entire crops as the cattle move through the fertile farms of the western Tarai.

Says local farmer Gayadin Chaudhari: “It used to be elephants and wild animals that destroyed our crops, now it is the cattle. In Mohanpur they lost 8 bigha (1.5 hectares) of sugarcane to stray cows.”

In Attariya, police say there has been an increase in highway accidents and fatalities because of collisions of vehicles with stray cows at night. They say the only solution is to tag cows so that they can be traced back to their owners, who will then be forced to be more responsible.

Kunda Dixit


Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).