Kolkata: The election machinery of Narendra Modi and the BJP has made a campaign plank of cow protection, but hundreds of bovine animals saved from smugglers face death and disease on the India-Bangladesh border in the absence of proper upkeep.
The cattle heads were seized by the Border Security Force (BSF), which guards the international border, when they were allegedly being smuggled to Bangladesh for possible slaughter.
According to official BSF records accessed by ThePrint, as many as 25,294 bovine animals, mostly cows, were seized at the border between 1 November 2018 and 31 July 2019 — an average of 2,800 a month.
Of these, 6,648 cattle heads were taken by two NGOs, while 7,445 were given to a local common shelter at villages (‘khor’ in local parlance). As of now, the outposts along the border are hosting 2,336 bovine animals, nearly 2,000 of them cows, after 711 died unattended.
BSF sources said the bovines sent to the khors generally enter the smuggling racket again, a process the force calls “recycling”.
“We have at least 2,500 to 3,000 cattle heads stranded at several BOPs (border outposts). The BSF takes care of them and feeds them,” said BSF South Bengal Frontier deputy inspector general S.S. Guleria.
“We are yet to get any financial assistance for this purpose separately. Everything is being managed by the force as of now. An NGO, Dhyan Foundation, is taking the cattle for care and maintenance,” he added.
Ill equipped to tend to the animals, the BSF has written to their brass in Delhi for funds, but is yet to get a response two months on. Amid this silence, the animals continue to wait for freedom from their oppressive living conditions.
Caught between two PCA Act & Customs Act
The roots of this standoff can be traced to the provisions of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PCA) Rules and the PCA Act, which govern how a seized animal is to be dealt with.
Until 2018, cattle heads seized from smugglers were auctioned by customs authorities as seizures at the border fell under the Customs Act. However, that year, the customs department cited a 2017 Supreme Court order, which “directed that the sale of cattle would be made in consonance with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Rules 2017”, to give up the responsibility.
Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, neither the customs department nor the BSF is authorised to carry out the auction.
In a letter dated 1 November 2018 to all zonal heads in the eastern and northeastern region, customs commissioner (RI&I) said the seizures and auctions fell under the mandate of state police. All the cattle seized, the letter added, should thus be handed over to West Bengal Police.
“The Supreme Court, in its order in August 2017, directed that the sale of cattle would be made in consonance with the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Rules 2017 (sic),” the letter said, “Customs officers are, however, not empowered under the provisions of the PCA rules or the PCA Act.”
The zonal chiefs were consequently directed “to discontinue auction of seized cattle so as to comply with the order of the apex court”.
With the customs department putting the onus of the auction on the state police, a senior West Bengal police officer told ThePrint that they could only accept cattle if the BSF also registered a case of smuggling with them.
“We can only take the cattle into our custody and auction them if the BSF lodges a case with us and hands over the smugglers to us,” the officer added. “They do in many cases, but in some cases smugglers run away and the BSF only manages to rescue the cattle. In these cases, we cannot take the cattle into our custody.”
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No funds for cattle upkeep
Tasked with cracking down on cattle smuggling, the BSF now finds itself in a quandary as it doesn’t have enough funds to ensure the bovines’ upkeep.
With dozens of cattle heads dying for want of proper care, the South Bengal Frontier of the BSF wrote to the Delhi-based brass of the paramilitary force for financial assistance of Rs 1.74 crore per month for the maintenance and care of the cattle on their watch.
The letter, accessed by ThePrint, was written on 30 May, but is yet to draw a response, a source in the BSF said.
“In the absence of any budgetary provisions, units are finding it difficult to maintain these cattle and they are dying in large numbers on a daily basis,” the letter said.
“As on date, 366 cattle heads have died. With the onset of monsoon in the near future, this condition is likely to deteriorate further and may result in even more deaths of seized cattle,” it added, “The miserable condition of the cattle has started affecting the health and morale of the troops stationed in these BOPs (border outposts). Commanders and also the frontier IG are finding it difficult to explain the factual position to the troops.”
“It is therefore requested to take up the matter with Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs (CBIC) to accept the cattle seized by the BSF and to dispose it off (sic) as per the direction of the Supreme Court dated August 4, 2017…” it said, “As on date, customs has declined to accept the cattle seized by BSF.”
According to the letter, the BSF had initially convinced two NGOs to undertake the care and maintenance of the seized cattle, but they were no longer taking in the animals. However, as DIG Guleria told ThePrint, one of them has since begun helping them again.
In the absence of any clear provision under any Act, it said, the force may stop impounding smuggled bovines.
According to a senior official of the force, the letter was forwarded to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees the BSF, for urgent intervention. A BSF source in Delhi also said that whatever communication they received was forwarded to the Home Ministry.
Meanwhile, the BSF finds itself in a catch-22 situation. Seizing cattle is the only way to stop them from being smuggled, but doing this is proving detrimental as well.
Apart from the animal deaths, there is the human toll: The BSF has lost a jawan in exchanges with armed smugglers, while 36 personnel sustained injuries, some of them grievously.
While the smugglers, mostly Bangladeshi nationals, are heavily armed, the BSF is strictly restricted from firing at the Indo-Bangladesh border because of New Delhi’s friendly relationship with Dhaka. All that the BSF can use is non-lethal weapon, and fire only in self-defence.
Political blame game
Asked about the precarious condition of the seized cows, West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh admitted that it was a serious crisis.
“I have been told about this. According to the SC direction, customs cannot auction seized cattle. So, it has become complicated,” he told ThePrint.
“Moreover, in some cases, the seized cattle are going back to the smugglers,” the MP said. “We know there is no mechanism in place to feed them and take care of them. I will personally talk to the Union home minister about this.”
A senior leader of the Trinamool Congress, meanwhile, said the condition of the cattle was symbolic of the BJP’s “hypocrisy”.
“The party always claims that they protect cows. In fact, in the name of cow protection, they are mercilessly killing people. And here at the border, hundreds of cows are dying without food,” the senior party leader said.
“Almost 10 months have passed since customs stopped the auction process. But the BJP government is yet to come up with a new mechanism… They are trying to shrug off responsibility and put the blame on the state government,” the leader added, “We do not have any financial provision for this. We can only take care of the cattle if the Centre gives us separate funds for this.”
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