INDIA: Biometric identity cards, shelters for stray cows, what for wasted children?

The government of India recently informed the Supreme Court that it has formed a Committee for looking into ways to stop the smuggling of cattle–cows in particular. It is headed by the Joint Secretary of the Home Ministry. The government had taken this step in response to a 2015 Public Interest Litigation seeking the Supreme Court’s intervention on the issue. Government also informed the Supreme Court that it is planning to establish shelter homes. In every single district in India, each home would have the capacity to shelter at least 500 cows ensuring that abandoned cows are taken care of.

There is nothing legally wrong in any of this. The protection of cows and stopping their slaughter is enshrined in the directive principles of the Indian constitution. For the uninitiated, the Article 48 of Indian constitution reads-

“Article 48: Organisation of agriculture and animal husbandry.—The State shall endeavour to organise agriculture and animal husbandry on modern and scientific lines and shall, in particular, take steps for preserving and improving the breeds, and prohibiting the slaughter, of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle.”

Yet, the proposal does raise lot of serious questions in a country that has 38.4 percent of its children stunted, 21 percent of its children under 5 years wasted and another 7.4 percent severely wasted because of lack of food. This is the government’s own figures in the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 4, 2015-16. Further, the questions are not merely moral in nature. It makes one contemplate if such a country can really afford to protect cows most often abandoned by their own owners after they stop giving milk.

It also raises questions regarding the constitutional obligation of the Government of India as well as state Governments. The constitution enshrines the Right to Life with dignity as a fundamental right of every Indian. Now one would definitely not need a rocket scientist to know that stunted children and those wasted for lack of food cannot have a life with dignity in any meaningful way. Can the government keep ignoring the fundamental rights of children while setting up cow shelters? The answer is not very difficult.

And this is not only about children. The proposal also makes one think of thousands of farmer suicides in India every year and the ongoing litigation over them. The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly, and rightly, slammed the government over the seriousness and urgency of the issue. It had once bitterly rebuked the authorities reminding them that the droughts and the suicides were not about ‘cattle’ but they continue ignoring the issue.

Ironically, the Government seems to be all-serious about ‘cattle’ and not citizens. Even more ironically, the Supreme Court seems to have missed the point altogether. If the Court had not, it would have remembered that the same government showing this seriousness for cows has not bothered to do much about the farm suicides. The learned Justices have termed it “a sensitive matter of larger public interest and human rights which covers the entire country”. The court then directed the authorities to draft a national policy to deal with the disaster. Particular focus was to be put on compensating framers in cases of crop failure and indebtedness – two recurring reasons pushing farmers to take the extreme step of self annihilation. That was in January.

At least 600 farmers have committed suicide in just two states since. The Government has not bothered to start consultation with the stake holders i.e. farmers, local governments, state governments (as agriculture is a state subject) and banks. The Supreme Court and the Government should have remembered the malnourished children and the farmer’s self- immolations when they proposed the biometric identity cards and shelter homes for cows. It might have reminded them that it is not merely about the cattle.

Or is it, perhaps.