Resorting to milk powder imports and banning export of dairy products is something that comes most naturally to our babus, who seem least concerned about the well being of the dairy sector.

We have all read or heard how, in the past, India was a land flowing with milk and honey.

The country, after all, had some of the best breeds, both of cattle (Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Gir, Kankrej, Tharparkar and Ongole) and buffalo (Murrah, Nili-Ravi, Jaffarabadi, Mehsana and Banni), besides also the best cattle breeders in the world.

Moreover, we had tropical weather, reasonably good monsoon, and both rainfed as well as perennial rivers flowing through fertile land mass — all conducive for dairy farming.

Yet, when we became independent in 1947, milk was scarce and beyond our means. What went wrong? For an answer, we need to look at history in a different light, going back to the advent of the British era. That was when a trend of urbanisation around major sea ports such as Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, and also the national capital of Delhi gathered momentum.

Destroying genetic wealth

The ever increasing population in these centres generated rising demand for milk, resulting in the setting up of tabelas and khattals — enclosures where cows and buffaloes were reared for milk. Even today, one can, while taking a local train from the north to south of Mumbai, spot a large number of these enclosures alongside the tracks.

The tabela owners, always keen to maximise short-term profits, would bring the best of the high yielding animals from the hinterlands along with their young calves. Once the milk flow was established — which is all that interested them — they would wean away the calf within a week or so and send it for slaughtering.

The animals in-milk, too, would be reared for a few lactation cycles, before being disposed of to the slaughter house as well. The empty slots in the tabela would, then, be filled with the next lot of cattle from the hinterland.

But each time the tabela owners sent the calves for slaughtering, they were also destroying our best genetic stock without appreciating that the ‘calf’ is a future cow. This process went on, unchecked for more than a century and not just in Mumbai but in all metros. Over time, it translated into the country losing its best genetic pedigree and being left with milch animals with dismal productivity.

Amul’s advent

This state of affairs — where milk was being produced and consumed in urban India, with government schemes also doing the same — changed with Amul coming into existence in 1946. This was a cooperative owned by farmers producing milk from animals reared in their natural rural environment itself and not brought for eventual slaughtering in the city tabelas.

As the Amul model grew — providing market access and remunerative prices to farmers along with services such as veterinary care, balanced cattle feed supply, artificial insemination and progeny-tested frozen semen — milk production and animal productivity started going up.

For the first time in about 200 years, someone was also trying to stop and reverse the depletion of our precious animal genetic wealth.

Between the mid-1970s and the 1990s, the dairy cooperative movement spread to more than 200 districts of India, with milk production growing at 4 to 5 per cent per annum, from 20 million tonnes (mt) to the current levels of 120 mt. India emerged as the world’s largest milk producer and per capita consumption, too, rose to almost the global average.

If milk production could increase six-fold in less than 40 years, what makes our bureaucrats, sitting in their plush air-conditioned offices in New Delhi, doubt our ability to achieve an output of 200 mt by 2020? It sometimes raises doubts about their real intent: Resorting to milk powder imports and banning export of dairy products is something that comes most naturally to our babus!

Crude protein export

Doubling India’s production over the next 10 years is surely achievable, with better road connectivity, power supply and faster communication infrastructure, and more educated milk producers.

But that requires strategic initiatives in raising milk productivity, where our national institutions have grossly failed.

We have lost valuable time, failing to master modern technologies for dairy cattle genetic upgradation that have been successfully applied in the US, New Zealand, Europe and even Israel, China and Brazil. What would take decades through earlier technologies such as progeny testing can be achieved at much less time and cost today using advanced genetic engineering tools.

It is high time a special mission is created to spearhead deployment of genetic engineering tools for supply of pre-sexed, high pedigree frozen embryos and semen of proven bulls from our indigenous breeds such as the Gir, Kankrej, Sahiwal and Murrah.

Also, we need to revisit the policy of exporting millions of tonnes of soya, cotton-seed and rape-seed meal, all of which contain 30-40 per cent high-quality crude protein. If these are fed to our cows, buffaloes or poultry, they would be converted into highly digestible protein that our children and women need most.

It is often argued that export of meal brings in valuable foreign exchange, but the reality is that most of it gets spent again on import of pulses! Now, I am not anti-globalisation or liberalisation, but exporting crude protein and importing pulse protein just doesn't make sense.

At affordable prices

My point is, we must make our fodder and feed resources at an affordable rate for our animals first, which is what the Government earlier did by imposing a 20 per cent levy on export of protein meal.

Reinstating this will not affect our oilseed farmers, who are hurt more by the country importing massive volumes of edible oil at negligible import duty.

If well-managed, the next couple of decades can become a golden era for India’s milk production and cattle productivity gains, especially with a young population growing hand-in-hand and powering a market for milk and value-added dairy products. Meeting this demand by importing is an unsustainable proposition.

If we want our countrymen to be strong, tall, healthy, smart, and to live for 100 years, we need more milk at affordable prices. Not right-for-food or rural employment guarantee schemes!

(The author is former Managing Director of Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation. blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on July 10, 2012)
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