Plastic Pollution Is Killing India’s Sacred Cows

By Chaitra Cheruku

I grew up in the city of Hyderabad in southern India, one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. My favorite memories are of my yearly visits to my village in the remote area of Karimnagar, a small district in the state of Telangana, to celebrate its myriad festivals. I cherish each of these, but the most memorable is the harvest festival of Sankranti. Celebrating the first harvest of the year, we pray and we thank nature.

This festival is celebrated for three days, and the last day is dedicated to the cattle that play a major role in the lives of farmers. Waking up early in the morning and offering our prayers to the cattle was how our day started. The cow and bull are considered sacred for Hindus; they represent the symbol of dharma (the eternal law of the cosmos).

Cattle also represent prosperity and abundance in the Indian community. They are the farmers’ backbone. They substitute for human or mechanical labor on the farms, provide nourishing milk, their dung is used as fuel, and their urine is a powerful organic pesticide. So it is not strange that we worship them, and slaughtering them is considered a moral and legal crime.

Today in this changing world, their neglect is almost astonishing. Globalization has forced farmers to give up on traditional farming practices, and the prominence of these animals has diminished. The festivities moved to the cities, and idols of the animals replaced the actual ones, to be more convenient for people. But things changed so gradually that no one noticed when they started following just the rituals without their actual purpose. Now, these animals are left on the roads to fend for themselves.

The open garbage system in India is a huge menace to the well-being of stray animals. I have seen stray cows and bulls on the roads, chewing on something from the open garbage bins and looking for anything edible to survive. My uncle was even in an accident when his car struck one of these stray cows, a common occurrence.

The plight of these animals has become a major concern to society. They are discarded, and then people discard waste in plastic bags, and the animals searching for food consume the plastic, along with the leftover food materials. The plastic gets accumulated in their rumens and becomes hard. These animals look healthy, but that is just an illusion — they often die a slow and a painful death due to starvation.

Occupy for Animals, and Help Animals India (a PPC member organization), both work to raise awareness about the violence against and neglect of these animals. A thought-provoking article on the 5 Gyres blog introduced me to The Plastic Cow Project. They work with multiple strategies to fight for the rights of animals. I was dismayed by the facts mentioned in their particular report. I learned Hindu temples often harbor elephants to perform ceremonial events for deities. These animals are neglected too, and feed on the plastic waste discarded outside the temple. Recently an elephant was found dead, with 750 kg of plastic inside its stomach, according to The Plastic Cow Project.

Related: Plastic Kills… Just Ask the Cows

It is appalling that such incidents are not met with a sense of urgency as they should be. These events, though brought into the public eye, are often ignored.

I believe this apathy to the suffering of the once-revered animals is due to the lack of awareness among people regarding proper plastic disposal systems. The total plastic waste that is collected and recycled is estimated to be 9205 tonnes per day; 6137 tonnes remained uncollected and littered in 2015, according to a report by the environment ministry.

These numbers depict the huge amount of plastic waste generated, and the lack of knowledge among people about trying to recycle it. During my middle school, I was introduced to the National Green Corps (NGC), a government initiative to promote awareness about environmental issues. As an NGC cadet, I participated in several awareness campaigns about waste management. The awareness campaigns about plastic disposal are often neglected by the masses as it is considered a First World problem. People argue that there are much more serious issues to be tackled, like poverty, food scarcity, illiteracy and economic stability, in developing nations. But it is important that people understand the relationship between these issues and plastic waste, and how it will affect generations to come.

The government of India has banned plastic carry bags below 50 microns, and has come up with stringent waste-responsibility laws in the new plastic waste management rules. This has resulted in stores charging extra money for plastic carry bags in order to encourage customers to bring their own shopping bags. However, these measures haven’t resulted in the significant impact that India really needs.

The real change can only be brought about when consumers are made aware of the amount of plastic entering the environment every day and how their refusal to buy or use plastic products is the ultimate solution. A new law to govern the handling of electronic waste by bringing the producers of electronic goods under “extended producer responsibility” sounds promising. However, the law should be imposed on not just electronic companies, but companies producing plastic carry bags, water bottles and any single-use plastic products. This will ensure that there is a proper take-back mechanism and that the waste is reduced considerably.

Help the cows of India:  Help Animals India |  The Plastic Cow Project  |  Karuna Society for Animals and Nature  |  Occupy Animals India  |  People For Cattle in India

I have seen my country in its simplest form, connected with nature and treating all living creatures as sacred beings. It affects me profoundly to see the changes that plastic waste has brought, and it goes against all the beliefs I grew up with. We lived a better life before the advent of plastic, and I believe we still can give up plastic and try to restore the past glory of these animals.

They have sacrificed their lives for our well-being, and it is only fair that we do our part in saving them.

Chaitra Cheruku is a graduate student in engineering management at Duke University, was a founding member of Bachpan Bachao in India, which helps children in need get an education, and a summer intern at Plastic Pollution Coalition.

Top photo: Sharath via Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

16 responses to “Plastic Pollution Is Killing India’s Sacred Cows”

  1. Bharati says:

    Agreed completely. Refuse plastic products and if some still enter your home, give them carefully to ragpickers for recycling.

  2. Saritha shripati says:

    Well-done chaitra I am saritha n I also belong to Karimnagar good n brief narration on harmful use of plastic

  3. says:

    We can convert waste plastic into fuel. one of the sustainable option of waste plastic.

  4. says:

    at least we should pack waste food material in waste paper then we save animals from plastic pollution and we must segregate pins, glass pieces, razor blades from out throwing material to avoid harm of animals please take awareness to people

  5. says:

    at least we must pack waste food material in waste paper to save animals and must segregate pins,glass pieces,used razor blades from out throwing material to avoid harm of animals please aware people

  6. says:

    at least we must pack waste food material in waste paper to save animals from plastic polluion

  7. says:

    I am so much concerned because its a really big issue. Feeling heartbroken today beacuse a calf is suffering from severe pain and illness as it swallowed polythene bags. The calf did not had mother so i used to feed him daily as he regularly used to visit me for food. I feel helpless for him and just thinking now it’ll nomore come to me and ask for food… He’s so small and now taking his last breath, may god help him .

  8. says:

    IS there any machine or medical instrument made to detect plastic in animals stomach?

    Any way to understand if animal has consumed plastic bags without doing surgery ?

  9. says:

    Sadly its not really suistainable and have various side effects such as very high cost to build and operate, too high cost of produced energy, its not adress problem of city littering because its not stimulating waste reduction nor create deposit system for bottles, and most important it is not Waste-to-Energy fairly, cause its generate far less energy that may be saved by recycling and not production the same thing from raw material and finally its displace far better methods that are obviosly better (waste reduction and recycling)

    Waste problem is too difficult and there is no "magic incinerator-desintegrator"
    Better read about some more complex solutions that involves first of all most cheap and safe methods. Some of them are use reusable bags, reusable bottles, containers, create hygienic zero-waste distribution that is paying for themself by saving on packaging and recycle most needed plastic

    Sources with many more analasys and arguementation

    About air pollution from incineration

    And two different stories,including%20cancer%20and%20heart%20disease.

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