Cows are a touchy topic in India these days but never before has our cow worship been tainted with xenophobia. All cows are not holy anymore — only native Indian breeds count. A legislator from the northern state of Haryana dubbed foreign bulls ‘characterless’ a few weeks ago. Apparently, they molest morally sound native cows and even buffaloes out on the street.
Three decades ago, these same foreign breeds were much in demand. Poor villagers borrowed money at extortionate rates to bring home a straight-backed Jersey hybrid cow with dreams of becoming milk millionaires. And before that, for a very long time, foreign breeds of cattle had been fulfilling the nutritional needs of millions in India with milk powder.
Mark the despair in these two voices heard in Parliament on March 29, 1967:
Niren Ghosh, communist MP from West Bengal: “There is dearth of milk powder supply in West Bengal. As a result, the entire milk supply scheme is going to collapse next month, and the children and the mothers are not going to get milk.”
S Chandrasekhar, minister of health and family planning: “I know, sir…all the available supplies are being directed to Bihar because of the drought situation…even in Bihar, since the supplies are limited, they are being directed for the use of vulnerable groups of population like nursing mothers and infants and young children.”
Milk powder was a big deal in India after Independence in 1947 as the annual per capita milk availability was only 46kg when even Pakistan averaged 82kg of milk per person.
Desperate times called for desperate measures. On December 21, 1955 Parliament was informed that Central Food Technological Institute in Mysore had developed a groundnut-based milk substitute. “It has a high food value and it is only slightly inferior to cow’s or buffalo’s milk. Its cost will be a third or fourth of that of cow’s milk,” said then minister for natural resources K D Malaviya.
But real succor arrived in the form of milk powder from faraway countries like USA, New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Poland, Canada, France, UK and West Germany. Was it made from the milk of holy Indian cattle reared on foreign pastures. No, we could all very well digest the milk of Jerseys and Holstein Friesians without any moral or spiritual consequences back in those days.
India bought milk powder abroad in huge quantities. The milk powder import bill for 1966–67 was Rs 123.7 million at an average rate of about Rs 1.5 per kg. That’s roughly 82,500 tonnes.
At the same time, various charities and aid agencies like UNICEF, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief also imported many thousands of tonnes of milk powder to feed malnourished children and women. There was also direct aid from foreign governments.
In 1959, for instance, the health ministry received 7,529 tonnes of milk powder in foreign aid while the food ministry got 816 tonnes. UNICEF provided another 13,789 tonnes of milk powder for feeding programmes aimed at expectant mothers, pre-school and school children.
Our legislators were also less fussy about the milk of ‘characterless’ cows those days. When Savitri Devi Nigam, Congress MP from Uttar Pradesh, asked on April 11, 1960: “Is it a fact that lakhs and lakhs of underfed children are being fed by the various agencies with this milk powder?”, then deputy minister of food and agriculture A M Thomas replied graciously, “It is so.”