India Cow Killer Bagged, but Deaths Continue : Krulwich Wonders... A few years ago, urban cows in Lucknow, India, began starving to death. They had plenty of garbage to graze on, but were getting skinnier. An inspection of sick cows revealed the problem, and a solution soon followed. So why are the cows still dying?
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India Cow Killer Bagged, but Deaths Continue

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India Cow Killer Bagged, but Deaths Continue

India Cow Killer Bagged, but Deaths Continue

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Now for a murder mystery. The victims in this case are not humans, but they are revered by many humans. The weapon: Well, the weapon is an ordinary, usually non-lethal object. And the perpetrator: Well, that's the fascinating part. Our correspondent Robert Krulwich tells the tale from India.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Everybody tells you this, but when you see it with your own eyes, it's so weird. In almost any city in India, you can go to the busiest intersection with cabs and cars, sedans, rickshaws, people rushing about, and there right in the middle of a six-lane thoroughfare, looking like she's in an alfalfa field, you will see cow - or sometimes several cows.

Dr. SUNIL PANDEY (Environmental Researcher): Every city, they have a sort of cattle population.

KRULWICH: And these city cows, says Sunil Pandey, and environmental researcher in Delhi, they have owners who take them from a shed in the morning and then leave in the city street.

It's so strange to imagine sending your cow out into the middle of a highway for - to have lunch.

Dr. PANDEY: Yes. This is true.

KRULWICH: And the reason, of course, is that cows are revered in India. They are, say the Hindus, the mother of us all. So you can never ever eat a cow or kill a cow.

Mr. SUBHASH MISHRA (Journalist): Not at all. It is totally banned. Cow slaughter is totally banned in India.

KRULWICH: Which is why - says journalist Subhash Mishra - it was such a shock to discover that city cows were suddenly and mysteriously dying all over India. The story began in 2000, in the city of Lucknow, where a police chief - a religious Hindu - reported a surprising increase in street cow deaths.

Mr. MISHRA: Fifteen to 20 cows in a month in the city of Lucknow.

KRULWICH: Oh, really?

Mr. MISHRA: No - exactly.

KRULWICH: And there was - that hadn't happened before. Or at least not...

Mr. MISHRA: That had not happened.

KRULWICH: So the police chief ordered a bunch of very sick cows who were near death to be taken to the hospital.

Mr. MISHRA: There, they were operated upon.

KRULWICH: Did they open the tummy of the cow?

Mr. MISHRA: Yeah. Exactly.

KRULWICH: And when they looked inside to see what was going on, what they found were plastic bags.

Mr. MISHRA: Many bags. Many bags.

KRULWICH: Like - how - like a dozen? Or 12, 15?

Mr. MISHRA: More than 50, 60 bags.

KRULWICH: Sixty bags?

Mr. MISHRA: Yeah, exactly.

KRULWICH: Oh.

In some cows, they found pounds and pounds of plastic. So apparently, what was happening is so many plastic bags were being thrown onto the streets, and then the cows would come along...

Unidentified Man: They search for the food, right?

KRULWICH: Right. And then this grocer says they'd see a bag maybe with a little bit of mango filling.

Unidentified Man: They'd see the food inside.

KRULWICH: Right. And they'd want the mango.

Unidentified Man: So they're so much hungry, they are too much hungry...

KRULWICH: So instead of just eating the mango, they would eat the bag, too. And if a cow eats bag after bag after bag after bag, the plastic blocks up its stomach, and the cows stop. Now in a Hindu country, killing cows - even with trash - is a national scandal.

Mr. LEON MORANIS(ph) (Teacher): It was. Yeah. I mean, the cow in India, having the image that it does...

KRULWICH: Led to a wide movement to ban plastic bags, says teacher Leon Moranis. That so frightened the plastic industry in India, they quickly came up with an alternate solution. Why not, instead of banning plastic, let's make plastic thicker? Not that the cow would know.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible). They don't know what is in good quality and what is bad quality.

KRULWICH: Right. But the people who recycle the trash, they would know the difference. And there is a group of garbage collectors in India called rag pickers.

Mr. MORANIS: They are normally young children.

KRULWICH: And they look through garbage, and they sell the valuable stuff.

Mr. MORANIS: And it's normally sold by weight, and that's how they make a living.

KRULWICH: So if plastic bags weighed more, rag pickers would make more money picking bags off the street, and that's why India's parliament passed a law that bans only very, very skinny plastic bags. The cutoff point is 20 microns. Any plastic bag 20 microns or less, banned. There's only one problem.

Do you know what a micron is or looks like?

Mr. MORANIS: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORANIS: I have no clue.

KRULWICH: Neither do I. And I go to college, Leon went to college. A lot of people in India can't read or write, so maybe what they did was put a picture of a smiling cow or something on the good bags that says this is an okay bag. So to find out, we went to the corner groceries and we looked.

Can you see anything?

Mr. MORANIS: No.

KRULWICH: Anything yet?

(Soundbite of bags rustling)

Mr. MORANIS: Not at all.

KRULWICH: There's no label. There's nothing.

So why not put a label on these things? I asked plastics expert Sunil Pandey.

Dr. PANDEY: Yeah. That makes life easier, but somehow, I mean, in the rules, this is not mentioned, that the bag should also be labeled.

KRULWICH: And while the law did say that police should get some kind of micron detector to enforce the rules...

Dr. PANDEY: Because of lack of funding, lack of finances, this was not done.

KRULWICH: So instead, grocers make the rules in India. This grocer, Yashgupta Disai(ph), says other groceries in the neighborhood, they sell skinny, plastic - he calls them palatines(ph).

Mr. YASHGUPTA DISAI (Grocer): Those are cheap quality palatines.

KRULWICH: Oh, is this a better quality?

Mr. DISAI: This is better quality. That's were they took the...

KRULWICH: Cow resistant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DISAI: That's we carry - keep the best quality (unintelligible), so that it doesn't...

KRULWICH: This is the best quality? It's not the best - look at this.

I took a bag, and it was so thin, I said to Leon, you know, anybody could poke a hole in this.

You want to see me?

Mr. MORANIS: Go ahead. Hold it in your thumb here.

KRULWICH: Ready?

Mr. MORANIS: Yeah.

KRULWICH: And set...

(Soundbite of tearing)

KRULWICH: Easy.

Mr. MORANIS: You went through it.

KRULWICH: Right through it.

And though it is still against the law to make very thin plastic bags, it turns out, according Sunil Pandey's researchers...

Dr. PANDEY: To our surprise, we found that those bags are still manufactured.

KRULWICH: So they still make them, and they still sell them, and there are more of them.

Mr. MORANIS: No one really cares anymore. Everything's given to you in plastics. Yeah.

KRULWICH: Which gets us back, finally, to our cows. After eight years, when you inquire at the goshallas(ph), India has retirement homes for cows.

Mr. MISHRA: These huge (unintelligible) is for old cows.

KRULWICH: And old cows live with other old cows?

Mr. MISHRA: Yeah.

KRULWICH: And when journalist Subhash Mishra asked how many cows are dying these days in Lucknow, he was told...

Mr. MISHRA: Number has gone up as compared eight, 10 years back. Cows are still dying in the urban areas. They are still eating our plastic bags, because they are depending on our garbage.

KRULWICH: So what exactly has been accomplished here? The plastic industry made a law and then ignored it.

Mr. MISHRA: Yeah.

KRULWICH: People got upset, but then they lost interest.

Mr. MISHRA: Yeah.

KRULWICH: And then the cows keep dying.

Mr. MISHRA: Yeah.

KRULWICH: So...

Mr. MISHRA: Well, but...

KRULWICH: I don't know if anything's happened.

Mr. MISHRA: Well, that's, I mean, that's pretty much the case in India. Let's be honest about it. There's a little bit of (unintelligible) in the beginning, and then...

KRULWICH: And then like everywhere else in the world, you discover that what people say, that's one thing, but what they do, that's often a very different thing.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News.

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