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Why India has 5 million stray cows roaming the country

Annie Gowen/The Washington Post

In India, more than 5.2 million stray cows roam sidewalks in major cities, block traffic in small villages and destroy fields.

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In one state alone, there are more than 1 million cows on the loose. That’s about the population of Dallas.

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Why is this happening? The answer has to do with religion. Cows are revered as sacred in Hinduism, practiced by nearly 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion people. Many states already prohibit cow slaughter.

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In recent years, state governments run by the party of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi have tightened laws to protect cows, making it harder for farmers to sell for slaughter cattle that are no longer giving milk.

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Violent "cow vigilantes" roam the roads, often working with police to allegedly extort money from cattle traders. Several cattle traders have been lynched by angry mobs.

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Farmers are increasingly turning unproductive cows loose because they can't afford to feed them, leaving marauding herds that demolish crops.

Enrico Fabian for the Washington Post

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Cows have even attacked people.

The Times of India

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India's 1,800 recognized cow shelters are overflowing with cattle, where volunteers often struggle to keep them healthy and fed. At one large shelter, 8,000 animals died in a seven-month span.

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Modi's government poured $41 million into cow sheds between 2014 and 2016. State governments are trying to control the problem by tracking cows with identity numbers on ear tags and imposing special cow taxes on liquor buyers.

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Economists say the ongoing crisis is disrupting the critical cycle of India’s livestock economy and putting the country’s already-stressed farmers at greater risk.

Swati Gupta contributed to this report.

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