Across Punjab, cattle traders are complaining of an organised extortion racket operated by gau rakshaks running their business to the ground.
A cattle-breeder for three decades, of village Chimna in Jagraon, Amarjeet Singh Deol says he recently paid Rs 2 lakh to a “Hindu Shiv Sena leader” to ensure their trucks weren’t stopped by any gau rakshak on any route across Punjab.
Deol says the rates are fixed — Rs 200 per cow, or Rs 2,000 per truck (10 cows in a truck). Lately, there is another offer, of a lump sum payment of Rs 3.80 lakh, “valid for six months”, which trucker unions come together and pay, he says. Once the payment is made, their truck registration numbers are passed along to ensure smooth passage.
Despite all that, Deol feels it’s a losing battle. With prices of cattle falling from an average of Rs 1 lakh per head to Rs 50,000-60,000, he is slowly shifting from cattle trading to dairy farming.
Daljit Singh, president of the Progressive Dairy Farmers Association of Punjab, says complaining to police is pointless. “We are afraid that if a complaint is made, whatever trade is left will also stop as the entire machinery is working in favour of these gau rakshaks. In fact, new trade rules are an intentional step to let these gau rakshaks flourish in Punjab.”
Since the Gau Sewa Commission was formed in Punjab in January 2015, offices of deputy commissioners (DCs) issue no objection certificates for permits to transport cattle, in a three-step procedure. Earlier, one document from the Animal Husbandry Department was enough.
Despite assurances of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal of ‘instant’ NOCs, this makes getting permits in Punjab a long-drawn process, in comparison to even neighbouring Haryana. This has also hurt business in Punjab, traders say, apart from allowing gau rakshaks to flourish.
The Sunday Express accessed data from DC offices in three districts having the largest cattle mandis in Punjab — Jagraon and Khanna mandis (Ludhiana), Killianwali (Muktsar) and Bathinda. Ludhiana DC Ravi Bhagat said they had issued six cattle transport permits since last year, while the number stood at zero for Muktsar and Bathinda districts.
That is a huge gap given that more than three lakh cattle are estimated to move out of Punjab annually.
Traders say ‘Shiv Sena’ and ‘Gau Raksha Dal leaders’ have men doing recces at mandis to identify well-off traders who have trucks leaving on a daily basis. “They communicate us the place and time, and their men come and collect the money,” says a trader.
“I cannot explain in words what we have gone through in the last two years. I had to send 18 cows to Chhattisgarh. For a month, I kept visiting the DC’s office to get an NOC. Finally, when the order was on the verge of cancellation, I decided to send them without any documents. My one truck was stopped by gau rakshaks at Sirsa in Haryana. The driver and helper were brutally beaten, and my top-quality milching cows worth lakhs were sent to a gaushala. I spent Rs 50,000 to get the employees bailed out and to get the cows released,” Deol says.
Fuming at the gau rakshaks, he adds, “They call themselves protectors of cows but don’t even know how to take care of them. My four cows died of a parasite infection after a few days at their gaushala.”
Ludhiana Police Commissioner J S Aulakh says no one has approached them for help. Promising to take action in case they did, he says, “Some traders discussed the issue with me but I am yet to get a written complaint.”
Another trader, Amarinder Singh, says his orders from outside the country too are suffering. “We had received an order to supply 10,000 high-quality breeds to Nepal and another order from Bangladesh. Their officials visited Punjab. For a month, they kept visiting the DC’s office, without any progress, and both the orders were cancelled,” he says.
Incidentally, Gujarat, home to the largest milk cooperative, Amul, is the leading buyer of cattle from Punjab. “Even as each trader is incurring a loss of Rs 12-20 lakh annually, most of our orders are from Gujarat,” says a breeder.
In Punjab, an application for cattle trading permit is moved to the DC’s office, which marks it to the Animal Husbandry Department, police and Animal Welfare Board of India (AWBI). A trader says an AWBI representative has to do physical inspection, and “does not arrive for days”.
Denying this, Ashwani Bhardwaj, Deputy Director, Animal Husbandry, Ludhiana, says, “We do not take more than a day to issue NOC to cattle traders.”
Punjab Shiv Sena president Rajiv Tandon too admits the extortion racket in the name of the cow, and claims the party’s name is being misused. “We know that our rivals are extorting money in the name of gau sewa. Police should book them. The real gau sewaks raid dairy farms where cows are starving. Extortionists target trucks to make money,” he says.
Points out a breeder, “Gau rakshaks do not even know what an NOC is. They target trucks even with NOCs. It is the Sikh drivers and migrant labourers who are beaten. A truck is not stopped if the owner is in it. We prefer moving through hidden routes.”
Questioning this professed love for cows too, a trader from Jagraon, requesting anonymity, says the gau rakshaks don’t really care what happens to the cows as long as they are paid. “Even if a truck carrying skinny, weak, non-milching cows which are actually being taken for slaughtering pays them, they will let it go.”
In Haryana where it is easier to get NOCs too, the gau rakshaks wield enough clout. Dr Ashok Mantru, Deputy Director of the Animal Husbandry Department, Panchkula, says, “Our department issues health certificates that declare animals are fit and thus are being sold for milk. Due to the increasing gau rakshak threats, we tell traders that it is at their own risk that they are transporting the cattle.”
Satish Kumar, 54, president of the Gau Raksha Dal from Rajpura of Patiala, has been running the cow protection group with the tagline ‘Let’s love cows’ since 35 years. His is among the name that pops up most often as traders talk of their trucks being targeted on the Ludhiana-Rajpura-Delhi Highway.
Sporting an orange turban and red tilak, and carrying a gun, Kumar boasts of saving more than 2.5 lakh cows and registering over 2,000 FIRs against “cow butchers”. He also asserts that due to his efforts, the Gau Raksha Dal now has a presence in 22 states.
Claiming that traders find it difficult to get NOCs as they “transport cattle for slaughter, not milk”, he says the allegations against him don’t bother him. “I wield a weapon and will continue to do so till cow slaughtering stops in India. I will pick up a weapon for my gau mata. These dairy farmers are the root cause of increasing stray cattle because they abandon them… (Saving cows) is the only mission for which God has sent me on this planet.”