Cows Get Photo IDs in India

You can’t make this stuff up.

Authorities say crime syndicates find it easy to tamper with branding or tattooing of the cattle—hence the idea for photo identity cards which should be difficult to falsify.

Valid for two years, each laminated cattle ID card displays the picture of the animal and its owner. It also carries vital information about the animal, such as its colour, height, sex and length of horns.

It carries the owner’s name and address and sometimes other details about the animal—like one “horn missing” or “half tail lost”.

Does anyone really think this will improve security?

Posted on September 6, 2007 at 1:51 PM42 Comments


stacy September 6, 2007 2:36 PM

I would like to see the guidelines for those ID photos.

  • Neutral background
  • facing the camera directly
  • no smiling
  • no glasses
  • no hats


Marcos September 6, 2007 2:39 PM

That will make it easier to reclaim the cows.

It is a big problem that most of the world solves with fences. Maybe at India they need some alternative.

Devan September 6, 2007 3:05 PM

Normally, Indian farmers uses some sort of disfigurement (clipping the ears), branding/tattoos (colors, marks) or similar to verify ownership.

Also, the following facts interfere with possible solutions:
* Cows are “sacred” and hence can’t be harmed.
* Farmers that own cows don’t have access to grazing land.
* Farmers let cows roam the streets and eat what they please (garbage).
* This works because cows are sacred and harming/hindering the cows carries the risk of sparking Hindu-Muslim riots (not joking!).

Anon-y-mouse September 6, 2007 3:23 PM

My guess is that someone connected to the government has a photo id business and are doing some “marketing by fiat”…

Sri September 6, 2007 4:05 PM

Well, cows aren’t “sacred” as much as deeply respected.

They need — essentially — an audit control mechanism that also won’t dishonor the animal.

Instead of poking fun, how would you solve the problem?

MathFox September 6, 2007 4:14 PM

The Netherlands had a “cow id” where a sketch was made of the black and white (or brown and white) areas of the cow. Farmers handed the ID as “proof of ownership” when they sold a cow.

A photo ID (both left and right sides of the cow) would have worked too, but the system originated before durable photographs were made.

One More Anonymous Smartalec September 6, 2007 4:20 PM

You had to know this was coming…
Badges?! Cows don’t need no stinking badges!!

sparky September 6, 2007 4:48 PM

@alice: So what if the cow forgets to carry its ID card or has its wallet stolen? 🙂

Cows are just really big leather wallets anyway, right?

CBB Shill September 6, 2007 5:27 PM

easy to tamper with branding or tattooing … difficult to falsify photo identity cards

As recently as one year ago, this assertion may have sounded ridiculous.

But now, thanks to the recent market introduction of the Canon Bubblejet for Bovines 2000, it’s been udderly trivial to brand and tatoo your cows. Just herd your cattle into the front-loading livestock tray, press “Start”, and the CBB2000 immediately begins the process. Applies color tatoos at 6 bovines per minute, black and white at 10 bpm.

Eric Norman September 6, 2007 6:25 PM

Have you ever seen a cattle breeder’s magazine? Every photograph of a cow also includes a picture of its udder. They’re not doing something right over there. Or do they really mean bulls?

Sameer September 6, 2007 7:27 PM

I think Vijay Mukhi’s comments from the cyber cafe surveillance are million times more laughable than this story. As several other commenters have pointed out, before dismissing the approach totally, it’s important to recognize the cultural aspects and the social conditions (e.g. financial resources of cow owner or lack thereof, law and order or lack thereof, power relations between the various stakeholders etc.) Those who have been to India (or at least have read something about it) would recoginze that these aspects are quite different when compared with Western norms and culture. For example, one needs to take into account that a large percentage of farmers are illiterate. Unlike in the US, where illieteracy means “very little education”, in India this means that they cannot read or write and have to use thumb prints as signature (even when banking). Pictures does not require literacy.

I do not mean to suggest that the proposed approach is good or that nothing better is possible. I merely wish to encourage an analysis of the story that weaves in the social and cultural aspects that act as constraints for possible solutions. This would make it easier to evaluate the merits or shortcomings of this particular approach more accurately.

Jess September 6, 2007 9:30 PM

Attention culturally-sensitive types: RTFA.

This program isn’t intended to prevent theft. It is intended to prevent cattle owners from selling their stock for export to Bangladesh. The motivation for such a program is certainly unique to India, but that doesn’t mean it’s not ridiculous. Cattle in India are not property as we would think of the concept, and that’s why they live like stray dogs (yes I’ve been there and seen this).

Sameer September 6, 2007 10:29 PM


I did read the article. Regardless of the motivation of the program, being cognizant of socio-cultural aspects is important when analyzing any system from an unfamiliar context.

I want to clarify that my comments were meant to provide some general examples (not necessarily specific to the article) of differences. Such differences are often neglected by those who lack the context.

jay September 6, 2007 10:54 PM

omg…privacy of animals are lost! I have heard about the Rfid..but no such thing as photo ID.India is going over the top i guess

Cow Rangan September 6, 2007 10:55 PM

I don’t get the security here.

Unless you create a death certificate system (overseen by the equivalent of a cow death registrar), the cattle owner can claim the cow died if asked to account for his cows.

If the border security force audit a large group of cows and demand seeing ID cards from the ‘owner’, and the theory is that this helps prevent cow smuggling, the smuggling market would decentralize its supply chain. If the security force is not able to prevent cows from crossing the border, they won’t achieve much.

Jess September 6, 2007 11:39 PM

@Cow Rangan

I’ll speculate on the intent here: perhaps the authorities want to be able to trace each cow in the area (including those they recover at the Bangladeshi border) back to its responsible party (I hesitate to say “owner”). Presumably if there is a penalty associated with having one’s cattle caught during exportation, the unfortunate farmers will not only not sell their cattle but will actively defend them from rustlers.

I’m not saying this will work. It won’t be good for the cattle’s health, either: since cattle that can’t be easily sold are worth less, farmers will put fewer resources into maintaining them.

And to be clear, I don’t find Indians to be any sillier than, say, Americans. There is a direct analogy between these “pro-cow” efforts and the recent “pro-horse” laws passed by the US Congress, which have made it more difficult to export horses for human consumption. These have had the predictable effects on pricing at the lower end of the horse market, and that has had the predictable effects on the health and well-being of less-valuable horses.

Ian September 7, 2007 1:40 AM

If the cards have magnetic stripes the cows should be able to swipe themselves in and out of their own pastures.

Derob September 7, 2007 2:35 AM

Huh, what’s all the fuss about? Sketching cows is actually a very old means of identifying them? This is nothing new and will probably indeed improve the existing system. Here in Europe every cow has a big plastic numbered yellow RFID mark stapled through each ear… I am sure they would prefer an ID card.

J.D. Abolins September 7, 2007 8:02 AM

Only a photo ID? What about “bio-moo-trics” such as hoofprints, iris scans, ear vein patterns, etc.?

(Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun opportunity.)

derf September 7, 2007 2:00 PM

Maybe a brand of the MD5 hash of the cow’s attributes merged with the attributes of the true owner?

Nandkumar September 8, 2007 10:18 AM

I enjoyed reading the bovine jokes on this story.

However, way back in 1991, I spent one year supervising the policing in an area on the Indo-Bangladesh border, and, from my personal experience, I think that, at the concept level, the idea may not be as preposterous as it has been labelled.

The border districts in West Bengal have a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims. Overt cattle trade may create religious tensions and therefore the smugglers operate during the night. They distribute and park the herds in the stables of their partners till a favorable time to cross the border, which is not fenced and easy to negotiate. There is a possibility that this parking and nocturnal movement may be reduced by using photo-IDs, by putting the onus of proving legitimacy of the ownership on the carrier. If the cost of the operations can be raised, it is a gain enough.

How the concept is implemented is another matter though.

Professor Ashok Rathore March 22, 2008 5:54 AM

Cost factor in ID for the cows will b eprohibitive and not practical. Also who is going to scan and monitor the ownership of these stray animls?

Dr Bobbobson of the Boxford Universety June 26, 2008 9:26 PM

The cows are working for the goverment thats why Mc Donelds is trying so hard to kill as meny as possible

the gov is using cows as moblie camras evry thing the cow sees the gov sees and cows have the best vision in the world becas of the goverments experements

so eat cows and sheep but not cocoroches they are hear to help us they have flown 20 lightyears just to help you.

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