While growing up in a high caste Hindu family near Kathmandu in the 1960s, Ram Bahadur Neupane could see how important cows were to his family.
Like other households in Namobuddha, a village on the outskirts of Kathmandu valley, his family depended on cows for milk and oxen to plough land. They would worship cows during Hindu festivals like Gai Tihar, Gaijatra and Govardhan Puja. No ritual would be complete without cows; even the urine and dung of cows were considered sacred and essential for religious rituals.
Decades later, Neupane, now 57, says it made him sad to see the animals suffer in the streets of Kathmandu in recent decades. Every day, he would see hundreds of stray cows abandoned by their owners. Some of them would be dying from road accidents, injured or lying sick in the street. Most of the time, he would try to help them by finding doctors to give them treatment or shelter.
"I decided to dedicate myself full time to their case when I realised that it was a much bigger problem than I thought, and I needed to do something because nobody else was doing anything," Neupane said.
Neupane, a former government employee, now runs an organisation that rescues injured and sick cows, and provides necessary treatment and even shelter for the vulnerable ones. With the help of volunteers, Neupane rescues smaller calves in his motorcycle, while using a four-wheeler to rescue big cows.
"We don't have a vehicle for that. That's why I still rescue calves with motorcycles or walk them to the shelter if it's found nearby," he says. Neupane adds that the organisation gets help from donors if it needs a vehicle to carry a big cow.
Neupane's organisation currently has around 200 cows in two sheds built with his savings and the support of the government and non-governmental organisations. Every calf has a Nepali name: Kali, Gajalu, Kamadhenu, Krishna, Gau Mata, Nandu and so on.
They sometimes give pregnant cows to poor farmers if they promise not to abandon it once it stops giving milk.
"Farmers only want cows. The oxen remain with us," he says.
In recent years, stray cows have emerged as a major problem across Nepal, including the capital, Kathmandu. Exact data is hard to come by, but estimates suggest that there are around 10,000 stray cows in Kathmandu valley alone.
"Around eight to 10 cows get killed in road accidents or due to dog bites in Kathmandu each day," says Neupane, adding that even many of the rescued cattle die prematurely due to poor health caused by eating plastic and lack of water.
One main reason behind the rise of abandoned cows is Nepal's gradual shift from an agrarian to a remittance-based economy. Since the political change of 1990, more than five million people have been approved to work abroad except India, where no work approval is required, according to Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment.
The period also saw remittances fuel mass migration from villages to cities and people giving up agriculture. Farmers usually abandon old cows and small male calves, while keeping younger cows with them.
The criminalisation of cow slaughtering is another factor contributing to the rise of stray cows. The cow is considered a sacred animal in Hinduism, as many Hindus worship it as the reincarnation of goddess Laxmi, the deity of wealth and prosperity.
Hindu rituals are incomplete without cows, and even its milk, urine and dung are considered sacred. Patanjali, India's Ayurvedic Pharma Giant, sells 5,000l of cow urine every day.
In Nepal, one could face up to 12 years in prison for "knowingly killing" cows and oxen, according to the Civil Code. Right groups have called on the government to scrap the provision, arguing that it is against the spirit of secularism. Many people in Nepal, including Buddhists and some low caste Hindus, eat beef.
Unlike Kathmandu, Nepal's southern lowland bordering the Indian provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are deluged with stray Indian cows crossing the porous border. There are around one million street cows in Uttar Pradesh alone, according to media reports.
Since it came to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi government has taken various measures to restrict the trade of cows for slaughtering, while emboldening Hindu fundamentalists who have long called for a wholesale ban on cow slaughtering.
Moreover, several parts of northern India have seen a rise in cow vigilantism – a phenomenon wherein the self-described cow protectors punish or even lynch people for trading cows or eating beef.
The influx of stray cows from India has created a crisis in bordering towns, with local bodies struggling to manage the animals.
Neupane says that it's a shame that cows, which are also the national animal, are receiving such bad treatment from the government and people in a Hindu-majority country. He feels the problem will remain unless the government brings concrete plans with ample resources.
"What good is worshipping the animal while you are turning blind eyes to the plights of so many cows dying on the street?" he says.
Neupane wants to spend the rest of his time in the service of street cattle. "No animal – cows, dogs or cats, should die on the street. This planet belongs to them as much as it belongs to us," he says. – dpa
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