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It’s a matter of faith

Sunil Singh runs arguably the biggest shelter for abandoned cows — shri Mata ji Gaushala — in the world. He gives insights on what it means to take care of cows and not politicise her to cash in on votes

Sunil Singh claims he runs the biggest cow shelter in the world where sacred bovines are provided for well past their prime. The numbers keep growing. Currently, there are 55,000 cows, calves and bulls in Jai Mata Gaushala, located on the hills of Barsana in Mathura district, just a three-hour drive from Delhi. Only about 2,000 cows or 5% of them give milk.

The folklore goes Ramesh Baba, a young man from an affluent family, became a hermit and settled down here on the hill of Barsana some 30 years ago, which was then a forest infested with poisonous snakes. He started taking care of stray cows. The gaushala expanded in years to come, as many like-minded people joined.

Since Baba is keeping indifferent health, one of his key aides, Sunil Singh, who joined the gaushala when he was a teenager, now runs the show along with some other dedicated workers.

His imposing personality, bulging eyes on the round bearded face, doesn’t betray his affable manners. Singh is from an affluent agriculturalist family with big landholding and lives in a neighbouring village. So dedicated he is to the cause of cows, for him they are demi-gods. He vowed celibacy to live the life of an ascetic. He has been instrumental in making Shri Mata Ji Gaushala a big success.

A man with a vision who claims to have no political ambition, he is not averse to taking help of people in power towards his life’s objective of ensuring kindness to cows. About politicians, he dismissively says, “They do lip service.” Irrespective of which party is in power, the treatment meted out to cows is deplorable.

Sunil considers the cow a potent religious symbol. He’s critical of the government and also cow vigilantes who kill innocent people in the name of cow protection. Seated in his office located on the top of Barsana hill, an empty room with a tiled wall, a large window that fills the room with sunlight, he talks like a demagogue. “Love for cow is reflected in how you take care of the sacred animal” he explains in Hindi.

He explains the situation. The number of abandoned cows on the street is growing and all they get to feed is discarded vegetable waste and plastic, which invariably leads to a  painful death. Farmers are not happy because stray cattle enter their farms and destroy crops. Sunil recounts a recent incident where a car hit a cow, and no one came to her rescue for days. When she was shifted to the gaushala, her open wound was covered with maggots.

Also, unpredictable bulls injure people on the street. And sometimes when two bulls take on each other in the middle of the street, traffic congestion can last for hours.

At the gaushala, everything is on a large scale. Big machines churn and mix fodder for thousands of cows. Fodder is transported via big tractor-trolly twice a day, including vegetables and sugarcane. Earthmovers are deployed to clear piles of cowdung. To be able to run a facility as big as this that extends for acres requires political patronage.

The Akhilesh Yadav government wasn’t very obliging, though his government didn’t create hurdles either. Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has paid many visits and recently made a contribution of Rs 1 crore, confirms Singh.

But there are restrictions on the land that can be granted to the gaushala because of the objection of a local revenue official a few years ago. Only proactive help from the district administration can help sort things out. That’s not forthcoming despite assurances from the chief minister himself. “Had this land issue been sorted earlier, and we didn’t have to deal with the red tape, we would be taking care of more than a hundred thousand cows.” Singh is clearly not happy.

The gaushala is run on generous aid that comes from all over the world. A new enclosure is being built to hold 30,000 cows. In the new campus, a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital is being built only for cows “at the cost of Rs 25 crore,” says Ganesh, 30.

His real name is Pradeep and he is a key aide of Sunil Singh. They are from the same village and consider each other as brothers. Ganesh takes us around the sprawling campus. From atop the hill perspective changes, herds of cows look like a big, dense ant colony crawling on dusty terrain.

Singh had implored the local district administration that with such a large facility available, he should be allowed to take care of abandoned cows in the region — around 100 sq km. He’s not happy that some of the neighbouring villages have been given permission to build and run cow shelters. There’s money involved. The government pays Rs 30 per day per cow for upkeep, which according to Singh is grossly inadequate. He gets paid for about 2,000 cows under this government scheme.

Many of the gaushalas that have come up show bogus numbers to make money in the name of the cow. There are government gaushalas as well. “Go and have a look there and see how cows are kept,” says Sunil, pointing to the stark contrast. He’s not happy that cow is a political tool to cash in votes.

He has the muscle power that’s imperative to run a facility of this size and scope. Cows get stolen every now and then, sometimes two or three a day, both Hindus and Muslims being culprits. Due to Barsana’s location not far from the Rajasthan border, a dead cow is worth Rs 1,500. His presence is a deterrent to the miscreants.

He talks openly and relies on practical wisdom and traditional practices when it comes to taking care of cows. He doesn’t agree that all scientific innovation and genetic manipulation that makes cows into milk vending machines is good. He’s not a supporter of the hybrid breeds of cows collectively referred to in this part of the world as ‘Jersey’. “A desi gai (local cow) gives only two litres of milk every day but has medicinal qualities and is much better than 30 litres of milk by genetically manipulated cows,” he says.

“If you can digest cow’s yellow milk she gives soon after delivery of a calf, is an indication of good health. If the yellow milk causes an adverse reaction, like indigestion or vomit, it is indicative of health issues,” says Sunil. It’s a litmus test of good health, according to him. He ridicules revered veterinary scientists for not being able to milk a cow. “Farmers are scientists blessed with traditional knowledge,” he says, drawing a distinction.

And what keeps him going? A city dweller finds it difficult to fathom that a man can dedicate his life to the upkeep of the abandoned cows. He smiles, and collects his thoughts to say, “Ramesh Baba told me when I was very young that if all the money collected for upkeep of cows is spent on them, there will never be a shortage.” Those words became a mantra for him, and Sunil cannot imagine doing anything else but taking care of cows with religious fervour.

“It’s a matter of faith,” he says in Hindi. “Faith has the power to keep you going against all odds. Service to cow is service to god.”