'Why has cows eating plastic become so important only before the Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh elections?'
At a time when cow vigilantes have resorted to violence across the country to protect their 'gau mata,' Prime Minister Narendra Modi told an audience last fortnight that those who want to serve the animal should work towards stopping cows from eating plastic.
The PM's message was clear: Want to save the cow? Then ban the use of plastic for garbage disposal and stop the open dumping of daily waste.
Rediff.com's Syed Firdaus Ashraf spoke to Kunal Vohra, below left, the director of a 2012 documentary, Plastic Cow , which highlights the ill-effects plastic consumption has on animals.
How did you come up with the idea for your documentary Plastic Cow?
I am not an animal rights activist, but I make films about social issues. I was in touch with a gentleman called Philip who is of Indian origin and based in Australia. Our idea was to make a film on the effects firecrackers have on our pets.
That film didn't work out, but a few months later, he put me in touch with Clementien Pauws, president, Karuna Society for Animals and Nature. She is the one who brought up this issue.
She invited me and a Delhi journalist and Rukmini Sekhar, an animal right activist. Clementien called us to Karuna and told us we need to see how they operate and take out plastic waste from cows.
During one such surgery, we saw 40 kilograms of plastic being taken out from a single cow. That's when we decided to make the documentary.
Why do cows eat plastic?
One of the things I realised during the making of the film was that none of the cows we see on the streets of India are stray. They all are owned by someone, but in many cases, these are illegal dairies.
They run these dairies, but are not willing to spend on the food for cows and as it is there is no green grass in the cities.
Thirty years ago, there was green grass and pastures, but now there is none to be found anywhere. So these dairy owners let cows loose on the roads and they eat whatever they find there.
Do these owners abandon the cows when they are productive and give milk? Or do they abandon cows only when they grow old?
Many a time, milk-giving cows are abandoned too. The only food the cow gets to eat in the city is from garbage bins.
What happens most of the times is that humans tend to throw their waste in knotted plastic bags. As the cows are unable to open the bag, they eat the entire packet, which leads them to eating plastic.
Can you explain how plastic enters the cow's digestive system and why it does not get digested?
For anything to be eliminated from the body, it needs to be broken down by the digestive system. Unlike ours, the digestive system of a cow in complex. They have four stomachs. Whatever they consume has to go through the first stomach, then second to the third and fourth stomach to get eliminated.
This is where the problem arises. Nothing on earth can disintegrate a plastic bag. The plastic bag does not disintegrate as it gets stuck in the first, second, third or fourth stomach. It never gets out of the body and that is the problem.
Don't cow owners who supply milk in the cities have enough money to provide their cows with fodder?
They have the money. One tends to maintain what leads you to getting richer, however, some of the owners don't do it. For instance, you won't see buffaloes on the roads, because they are more expensive than cows.
Buffaloes provide more milk and are more productive than cows. Most people drink buffalo milk. What you and I consume is buffalo milk and not cow milk.
Cows are not that expensive to buy and sell purely in business terms. There are some dairy owners who do not let out their cows, but it is not business friendly to keep feeding the cow all the time at least that is how they look at it.
How many kilos of plastic are found in the cows' stomachs on an average?
I have seen 53 kilos of plastic in a cow stomach. In the Karuna society they found one bull with 62 kilos of plastic. However, that bull did not survive.
It is not just cows. Even elephants, monkeys and albatrosses eat plastic.
There was a lady in Chennai who told me she found 80 kg of plastic in one elephant ('s stomach). This is a global problem. All kind of animals eat plastic.
What do we need to do as a society to solve this problem?
We need to know how to manage our waste. A vegetable vendor near my house sells his stuff to me in a plastic bag though I regularly take a cloth bag with me. He tells me if he does not sell in plastic bags, the customers will go to another vendor.
People want five plastic bags for five different vegetables and it is very cheap to produce plastic bags.
Do we need to fight the plastic lobby to protect cows from eating plastic?
Exactly. The plastic lobby is strong. It is not only the plastic lobby, but also our garbage needs to be managed better. There has to be segregation of our garbage.
There has to be bio-degradable baskets and non-bio degradable baskets. Right now, we are mixing everything.
What was your reaction to Prime Minister Modi's statements that cows are dying due to plastic?
Natak (drama). I have only that word. Modi's statement on cows dying due to plastic is natak.
If you read Siddharth Vardarajan's article (external link), he wrote that the prime minister does not mention where he organised that camp, when he organised that camp he spoke of.
The PM's statement of finding two buckets of waste from a cow sounds suspiciously like from our film.
Why has this matter become so important only before the Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh elections?
If Modi is so bothered about cows eating plastic, why does he not shut down the plastic companies?
Why does the prime minister not ensure that there is a better garbage disposal and collection method?
Do you think Modi should take steps to protect cows from consuming plastic?
If he is sincere about it, then he should do an analysis. He should not bring up these issues before elections. A lot of people think he is sincere, but I have my doubts.
Nothing in history suggests that he is serious about it. He started with the 'Pink Revolution' speech and all this cow vigilantism business started after his speeches.