Holy Cows and Wild Silk

washing cows near Alleppey, Kerala, India

Image via Wikipedia

Today I came across two wonderful & inspiring stories. Though seemingly un-correlated, they had the common thread of sustainability, running through them.

The first concerned our Holy Cow, and in particular the tiny Vechur cow, native to Kerala. It is the world’s smallest cattle breed  – a full-grown cow stands only 90 com high ! It nevertheless yields up to 3 litres of milk a day and requires very little by way of feed or maintenance.

In an article in the Hindu, P Sainath explains how several native breeds of Bos Indicus (native Indian cattle) have been driven to near extinction by the misplaced enthusiasm to promote cross-bred cattle. In Kerala, the Livestock Improvement Act of 1961, gave the licensing officer the power to order castration of bulls of native species. A farmer ordered to do so had to comply within 30 days. An amended act in 1968 mandated fines and imprisonment for those who failed to comply. No surprise then, that by 2000, the Vechur was on the FAO’s “Critical maintained Breeds List” (to qualify the number of breeding females is less than 100; or the number of breeding males is less than 5; or the overall count is 120 and falling)

Dr Sosamma Iype, retired Professor from the Kerala Agricultural University (KAU), led the drive to save the Vechur. In 1988, she started a search for Vechur survivors; found and bought 8 animals, and saved the breed from certain extinction. The Vechur Conservation trust she founded in 1998, now promotes the cause of not just the Vechur but other Kerala breeds of cattle, goats, pigs and ducks !

Says Chandran Master, a former English teacher who has devoted his life to preserving indigenous cattle breeds, on the official mind-set on cattle “The cow for them is just a milk production machine. Their view has no room for the composition and quality of milk. Much less for the role of cattle in agriculture and in a farmer’s life. None at all for the impact on the environment, diversity or community” 

The second story is that of Rashmi Bharti, who today received the Janki Devi Bajaj Award, for the best woman rural entrepreneur of 2011.

In 1997, along with her husband, Rashmi set up a Voluntary organization called Avani in a remote part of the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand. Started as a chapter of Bunker Roy‘s Barefoot college of Tillonia, Avani now covers 101 villages helping villagers to make a respectable living, while continuing to stay in their villages. 

In 2005 Avani founded Earthcraft – a cooperative venture that now works under the management of local villagers, to produce among other things, exquisite silk fabrics and garments from wild silks. Silk cocoons are collected in the wild, from local plant species – Eri, Tussar and Muga. The silk is mostly hand spun and produced from pierced cocoons after the moth has escaped and hence qualifies as ahimsa or non violent silk.

Their products have been showcased at the Ethical fashion show in Paris, and are recognised as a green brand : hand spun, hand-woven, naturally dyed, zero waste, entirely organic, and fair price ! They have succeeded through high quality, green products, that have their roots in the community but reach out to the modern and sophisticated customer.

Avani and Earthcraft  have empowered women in these remote Kumaoni villages by making them economically self-reliant. It has become possible for families to live together for the first time in many generations. Lack of opportunities, in the past, had forced mass migrations of the men away from the villages, in search of work. The way of life of these hard-working people and their traditional skills in spinning, dyeing and weaving textiles were slowly but surely becoming as extinct as the Vechur cow.

The words of Chandran Master, when he describes the manner in which our official policies have treated the Holy cow, have a sad resonance in our attitude towards the traditional way of life in our villages. The popular belief in intellectual circles is that urbanisation is both inevitable and desirable.

My Lok Sabha campaign in 2009, took me through every alley of the slums, and chawls of South Mumbai. It gave me an insight into the desperate lack of dignity that our cities impose on the hard working migrants who come here seeking their livelihood. Since then I have questioned if this is the future we want for our people.

Rashmi’s work in making Kumaon’s villages self-sustaining, gives one hope that an alternative reality may be possible.

While accepting her award Rashmi compared EarthCrafts products to the hill women who produced them as being “steady, tough and beautiful !”

I can think of no better words to describe these two remarkable ladies – Dr Sosamma Iype, and Rashmi Bharti. With more women like them, not just our Holy Cows and Wild Silks, but our country itself would have a chance at a better future !


6 thoughts on “Holy Cows and Wild Silk

  1. Pingback: Holy Cows and Wild Silk | Meera’s Musings « dilipdave

  2. I think it is difficult to achieve village sustainability with cows like Vechur. If villages to be sustainable they need the most productive breeds of animals. 3 litre is less than a tenth of milk produced by an award winning Gir cow which produced 32 litre a day. No surprise, even Brazilians use Gir cows. Unfortunately, Vechur with 3 litre a day has little chance of survival.

    • It is probably the input : output ratio that needs to be judged rather than the absolute number of litres of milk. As I travel through India I am also learning that other by profucts have considerable value eg the urine of ” desi ” cows forms the base for a very effective bio pesticide that is being sold for Rs 35 per litre. Interestingly cows in Assam give on average only one litre of milk a day.

  3. Yes the Vechur conservation and its present sustainability is a real success story. The Initiation of vechur project was probably the first of its kind in India. This triggered the conservation movement for native livestock in India

    • Thanks George. Presently in Gujarat, where the Rabari community swear by the Gir cow – not just its milk and hardiness but also the antiseptic qualities of its urine and dung. The urine is in fact being successfully used as the base for a natural, Eco friendly and apparently highly effective bio pesticide

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