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).

Warning: Graphic video by Animal Aid Unlimited, of 45 pounds of plastic and other garbage that had accumulated in the stomach of a bull.

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