The Burden of Beasts: Debating the Energetics of the Sacred Cow in Postcolonial India
In the first decades after India’s independence, a heated debate erupted over the energetics of the sacred cow. Economists lamented the Hindu prohibition on cow slaughter: in contravention of economic rationality, even the most decrepit of beasts was allowed to wander through fields guzzling scarce fodder. The state regarded the growing bovine population as a national liability, while gender scholars decried the exhausting labor women devoted to gathering dung as a literalization of Western feminist complaints about household “shit-work.” Anthropologists countered by pointing to the animals’ social efficiency, arguing that cattle were “thermal and chemical factories” converting wasteland into useful energy for humans. At stake in the debate was the opaque character of an energy regime in which 95.5 percent of rural household energy consumption remained outside modern commercial infrastructures (or so guesstimated India’s first large-scale survey in 1965). This talk explores how the postcolonial Indian state attempted to render the Cattle Question legible in energetic terms. This attempt created new possibilities for policy interventions, from improved bullock carts to village power plants running on gobar (cow dung) gas. Knowledge of off-grid social worlds remained very far from complete, though, and this realization generate deep anxieties. By the 1970s, international organizations sounded the alarm about “the other energy crisis” created by rising non-commercial energy extraction across the postcolonial world. My project aims to chart how “traditional” organic energy systems emerged as an object of governance in India, opening up a new avenue in the environmental history of the global South.
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