India Cow Killer Bagged, but Deaths Continue

A cow eating garbage.

A cow eating garbage on the streets of New Delhi. Leon Morenas hide caption

itoggle caption Leon Morenas

Cows in India's cities have been suffering from a strange malady.

Back in 2000, a senior police official in Lucknow, India, announced that cows in his city were mysteriously dying of some kind of new wasting disease. No one could explain why, but normally healthy cows were being released, as usual, into the city's streets to graze on garbage. Yet they were getting skinnier and weaker, and then dying of what appeared to be starvation.

They were eating and yet they were starving, said the police official. He wondered why.

A Look Inside

A group of very ill cows was taken to a local veterinary hospital, anaesthetized and surgically examined. It turned out, says Indian journalist Subhash Mishra, that inside their stomachs was an extraordinary number of plastic bags. "More than 50, 60 bags," per cow, he recalls.

Thin plastic garbage bags are a recent innovation in India, where trash collection is still haphazard. Cows were apparently eating fruit and vegetable garbage tucked into plastic.

A diagram of a cow's four stomachs.

A diagram of a cow's four stomachs. Alice Kreit and Jessica Goldstein/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Alice Kreit and Jessica Goldstein/NPR

The bags, state authorities said, were gathering in the cows' stomachs — cows have four — to the point that food could no longer be absorbed and digested. In some of the sample cows, there were pounds of plastic engorged in their stomachs.

The Solution?

In a Hindu country, cows are sacred animals; whatever causes harm to a cow must be stopped. So in Lucknow, a movement to ban plastic bags began. The movement caught on. A bill was proposed in India's parliament. The plastics industry, naturally alarmed, proposed an alternate solution: Instead of banning plastic bags, why not require better, thicker plastic bags?

Thicker plastic bags weigh more and are more valuable to ragpickers — a caste of people in India who collect garbage.

A law was passed. But the plastics industry ignored the law and continued to make thin bags.

A cow near a garbage bin in India.

A cow eyes a garbage bin in New Delhi. Jessica Goldstein/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jessica Goldstein/NPR

Around the country, stories were told of government officials and police officers trying to enforce the thicker bag rule, by going through stores with an instrument that weighed the thickness of plastic bags in microns. The ruling deemed that any bag 20 microns or less was banned. But how could shopkeepers distinguish a 20-micron bag from a 21-micron bag?

In the end, plastic makers continue to make thin bags, shopkeepers continue to use them, and cows continue to die from eating them.

And so, like everywhere else in the world, you discover that what people say is one thing — but what they do is often something different.

Audio story written by Robert Krulwich, produced by Jessica Goldstein.

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