Traffic and the Sacred Cow in India

Due to the multiple benefits from cattle, there are varying beliefs about cattle in societies and religions. In some regions, especially Nepal and some states in India, the slaughter of cattle is prohibited and their meat may be taboo. Cattle are considered sacred in world religions such as Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism and others. Religions in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, Ancient Israel and Ancient Rome held similar beliefs.

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Due to millions of sauntering cows, it is likely that India has the world’s greatest number of moving road impediments, and little sits between these roaming dangers and the many people on the country’s roads.

Hollywood and Bollywood depictions of India routinely feature comical transport situations involving tok-toks, assorted quadrupeds and buses packed like freeze-dried coffee.

While there is truth in humor, mounds of corpses from India’s road accidents are devastating, not at all funny.

The Indian government’s estimate of 130,000 traffic-related deaths per year makes the country a near-world leader in road fatalities, just behind China, but the World Health Organization (WHO) puts the figure closer to 231,000—a number equal to the population of Orlando, Fla.

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Hindus consider cows sacred animals, and their slaughter is banned throughout most of India. Cows are frequently allowed to wander where they please, even in cities, where Indians tend to view them much the way Americans and Europeans regard pigeons — an unpleasant but intractable part of the urban landscape.

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To remedy the cows in the streets predicament, ‘Cow Catchers’ are used to remove cattle from the cities.

It’s becoming a routine ritual on the crowded, colorful streets of Delhi, India: A small team of men surrounds a wandering cow, attempting to coax it on to a waiting truck for a trip to a suburban reserve. But the cow catchers need to be careful: To India’s millions of Hindus, the cow is a holy animal that cannot be harmed.

The tender treatment is just one example of our complicated relationship with cows — a historic partnership detailed by NATURE’s Holy Cow. From a source of meat and milk to a provider of labor and religious inspiration, cows often play a central role in modern life.

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Today, in heavily Hindu nations like India and Nepal, milk continues to hold a central place in religious rituals. And in honor of their exalted status, cows often roam free. Indeed, in some places, it is considered good luck to give one a snack, a bit of bread, or fruit before breakfast. On the other hand, a citizen can be sent to jail for killing or injuring a cow.

But as cities have grown more crowded, cow-friendly policies have posed problems. Delhi’s 13 million residents, for instance, share the streets with an estimated 40,000 cows — leading to some complaints. One is that the grazing cows spread trash as they rip open garbage bags in search of tasty morsels. Another is that they dangerously snarl traffic.

“What is the greatest traffic hazard in Delhi today? Cows,” Bibek Debroy, a columnist for India’s Financial Express, wrote in a pointed 2003 essay. “As our national animal, the tiger may be close to extinction. But the cow is very much around and many soon become our new national animal.”

To solve the problem, Debroy offered one tongue-in-cheek solution. “Let them have reflectors and, if not license plates, at least identity cards. Only genuine Delhi cows should be eligible for social security and other benefits.”

City officials, meanwhile, have adopted a different approach: the cow catchers. Under pressure to reduce cow populations, Delhi has hired nearly 100 of the urban cowboys, who are charged with catching and shipping cows outside the city limits, sometimes to special reserves where the animals are cared for.

But the work isn’t easy. And it can be downright dangerous. The cows often sport sharp horns, and life on the street has made them savvy and sometimes ornery. Some can recognize the sound of the transport trucks and perform a kind of bovine ballet to avoid the catchers. Still, city leaders say they won’t give up until the vast majority of the cows have been moved. Skeptics note that some of the animals return to their home turfs within days of being moved.

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