Noida: As Atul Yadav sets up his food cart in the sweltering morning heat, flies are not the only guests feasting on garbage dumped on the side of a road in Noida's Barola village.
Cows lumber through the dirt, trying to bite through polythene covers hoping to munch on rotten vegetables or kitchen refuse.
In the process, many ingest the entire package plastic bags, rotten food and garbage. Veterinarians say that over time, there is a huge build-up of plastic in their stomachs, along with other indigestible inorganic materials.
The result - A drastic reduction in their milk production ability, and in many cases death.
While self-styled cow protection groups, calling themselves "Gau rakshaks", have indulged in widespread vigilantism under the garb of protection of cattle, there has been little effort to save cattle from the real threat to their survival urban garbage, open dumps and apathy of cow owners.
"After a post-mortem I did of a cow that we had admitted, we found almost 100 kg of plastic in its system. What people do while throwing out garbage is that they put vegetable peels, dirt, etc in a plastic cover and then throw it," said Vineet Arora, the treatment head at Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi.
Virtually no household segregates organic waste from plastic and glass, he said. Plastic utensils, covers and even razors mix with vegetable and fruit peels and leftover food, he said.
Atul, the vendor, said that apathy and poverty have made sure that these benign bovines are doomed to a very poor way of life.
"We see this happen everyday, and no one even bothers to clean the mess or take care of the cows. The authorities do not care and people who own cows are not able to," Atul said.
In one nook of Barola located in Noida's Sector 49, commuters waiting for auto-rickshaws jostle for space with cows and calves foraging through the garbage dump for something edible.
"These animals come here every day and eat whatever can be found. It is difficult to have a shop with so much garbage lying around and with so many animals roaming the area. You can see even now the cows are searching for food because they have not had much to eat," Charan Singh, a 32-year-old food
vendor said, gesturing to the cows staring glumly at the dump that is their daily food stop.
Most of the cows are owned by dairy farmers who let their animals loose in the city streets to look for free food instead of feeding them.
"The ones who ingest plastic are not able to eat proper food after that. They can consume only one or two kilos of fodder. The plastic in a cow's system affects the milk, they are not able to produce milk properly, and because of all the
dirt in its system, it is not good milk," SPCA official Arora said.
As their milk producing capacity declines, they are abandoned by their owners who have no further use for the dry cows.
Rescuers do not have the exact number of deaths caused by consumption of plastic and other toxic material, as most go unreported.
"Many owners do not admit their animals until it is too late or they simply abandon them because it is easier," says Arvind Shukla, a veterinary surgeon.
Gaushalas in and around Noida have been taking in cattle maimed in road accidents or those that have fallen ill due to diseases, or rescued from negligent dairy farm owners and slaughterhouses.
"People leave their cattle to roam around on the streets after feeding them once in the morning, because they cannot afford to feed them throughout the day. At the gaushala, we feed them fodder and have a constant supply of water which the cows on the roads do not get," said Monu, a caretaker at the Shri Radha Krishan Mandir Goshala in Mayur Vihar in eastern New Delhi.
"Cows that eat plastic, and do not eat healthy food, are not able to give milk. They die quickly as they are undernourished and vulnerable to diseases which is why people abandon them on the roads," the indignant caretaker said.
Traffic comes to a standstill in Sector 76 as cows walk up the wrong side of the road to get back to their home, a small farm located in-between posh residences here.
"We try to feed them as much as we can, but what to do to feed ourselves and our animals," said Devi whose family owns cattle and farms on the plot of land
located between towering buildings.
A ban on plastic items and restricted use by people, recently implemented in Madhya Pradesh, has found backing among animal protectionists and the gaushala caretakers.
A complete ban on such items along with responsible disposal of inorganic waste is necessary to protect animals on the street who rely on dustbins for food, a gaushala worker said.
"We should implement a blanket ban on plastic. People should take care to not throw plastic items used in households on the road along with food items, and we should restrict plastic use," said Gopal Agarwal, president of a charitable trust that runs the Sree Ji Gau Sadan in Noida, and is also a member of National Executive of BJP and part of its Central Economics Policy Formulation group.
Agarwal also called for the setting up of treatment facilities for cows, which are currently non-existent.
"Proper treatment facilities for cattle with such injuries need to be opened to provide better treatment. At present, there are no such centres to treat injured cattle," he said.
Activists say gau rakshaks should focus on these stray cattle rather than vigilantism in the name of religion that has led to a string of deadly attacks in recent months, mostly on Muslims who dominate the cattle meat business.
The latest attack occurred in Assam's Nagaon district on April 30 when two suspected cattle thieves were beaten to death by a mob. Two people have been detained in connection with the lynching.
A few weeks earlier, a 55-year-old man was lynched for alleged cow smuggling in Rajasthan's Alwar district.
Other prominent attacks include the infamous Dadri lynching of 2015 in which a man was killed for allegedly storing beef in his fridge that turned out not to be beef, the flogging of a Dalit youth allegedly by a group of cow vigilantes in Una in Gujarat last year, and the closure of a hotel in Jaipur over allegations that beef was discarded in the vicinity by an employee.
"These people (gau rakshaks), they just set out wearing their headbands and target people, especially Muslims and the poor. I have myself not seen them taking care of cows. They are playing with the sentiments of the people. It is a way for them to get publicity and earn money," Naresh Kadyan, chairman, People for Animals Haryana, said.
"Slaughter has nothing to do with religion ... There has been a tsunami of these so-called activists popping up around the country. What they do is just a way of stirring tensions and taking the focus away from the real matter," he said.
"Nothing will happen until the use of plastic is made a cognisable offence. The mounds of garbage piling up everywhere resemble the Himalayas," he said.