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Caring for the cows

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PERSISTENCE PAYS Lalitha Ramakrishnan
PERSISTENCE PAYS Lalitha Ramakrishnan

She loves animals. Meet Lalitha Ramakrishnan who runs a shelter for abandoned cows in Ottivakkam

The drive takes nearly three hours. The LUV turns off the main road at Gooduvancheri, to cover 14 km of potholes. The last 2 km is a winding mud track. The driver obviously has a sharp mental compass. So does Lalitha Ramakrishnan, who makes the journey twice a week to be with her beloved cows at her Goshala in Ottivakkam.Her story sedates the mounting backache. During her years with Inner Wheel (1998 - 2003), Mr. Natesan of Govardhan Trust suggested that she start a shelter for domestic animals on the piece of land she had. He said she could count on Dr. Muralidharan to keep the animals healthy. She could hire local women who lived off the reserve forest nearby. "I agreed because I love animals," said Lalitha. The first occupants came from Sankara Matam, Govardhan Trust and Sadhana Rao. These were post-milch cattle that would have ended in a slaughterhouse. "My first problem was finding them food," Lalitha said. "And it still is." The Animal Welfare Board allocates Rs.10 per cow per day, but this is hard to come by. After five years, with 105 cows and a dozen stray dogs on roll, her worries have multiplied.

Managing the shelter

She buys cow's mix at a government outlet and tops it with 150 bags of rice bran a month. The cows go grazing in the vast open tracts and return to have their rice kanji. Fresh grass is bought at the Koyambedu sewage plant. "On the way to the Goshala I spotted this pappad-making unit. I approached them for the bits left behind after the appalam rounds are made. I add that to the kanji." For water, she dug a well and bored three more. "Electricity supply is erratic. I manage because a philanthropist donated an oil pump."The cattle took to the nutritious food and loving care. And gave back the only thing they could. Large amounts of dung. A small tank was enough to generate the gobar gas the caretaker family needed. "I looked at the swelling mound and wondered if I could turn it into cash." She took the Sultan of vermi-culture Dr. Ismail to her Govardhan and with his help, built 20 composting pits. She learned to make vermi-wash, panchakavyam and an effective herbal pesticide. She put up a couple of basic sheds and bought weighing and sealing machines. Weeks later, she began to harvest Bhooshakti, her brand of natural manure. "It all sounds simple when I recount it," she said. "But every step was painful - learning the method, getting permission, raising funds, finding workers to help with the process and keeping accounts. I need hands to turn the dung till it is ready for composting." But she kept on, spurred by the thought that the sale of worm-produced manure would ensure food for her cattle. A trip to Ottivakkam is mandatory for friends and visiting relatives. Everyone is welcome to endorse food bills or buy manure. She talks relentlessly of its benefits. "It enriches the soil and helps grow clean food. It increases the shelf life of the produce. Buyers always come back for more, whether for golf courses or to grow watermelons. You buy this manure, you help in the upkeep of abandoned cows." Inevitably, she was drawn into the lives of the villagers. She helped upgrade the government school, constructed toilets for boys and girls and bought vessels for cooking the mid-day meal. "My husband and the Rotary Club stand by me. My employed son and student daughter do what they can." At the Goshala, she checks if the pits are watered, the cows are fed, the manure bags are sealed. She will deliver them on her way back. "I'm always making do," she smiled. "What do you need if you want to do good?" I asked her as I got off. "Persistence," she answered.GEETA PADMANABHAN

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