Adivasis need alternative livelihood options, and there is nothing better than dairying.

With just half an acre of land, but six cross-bred cows and two heifers, Kaushikaben Jayantbhai Deshmukh earns her livelihood entirely from selling milk.

The 37-year-old, belonging to the Kokna adivasi tribal community, pours 1,650 litres every month on an average to the cooperative society at Karanjveri village in Dharampur taluka of Gujarat’s Valsad district.

At Rs 23 a litre, it works out to Rs 38,000. After spending about Rs 10,000 on cattlefeed and another Rs 3,000 to purchase dry/green fodder, she has Rs 25,000 left as ‘income’. Pretty decent compared with ten years back, when Kaushikaben and her husband barely eked out a living as farm labourers.

Today, on their meagre holding, the two grow paddy during monsoon — only for straw and meeting own rice needs — and jowar and bajra in rabi/winter, purely for giving fodder in 50-55 days. Milk is, thus, their sole source of cash income.

During the year ended March 2012, Kaushikaben sold a total of 19,786 litres and received Rs 4.47 lakh as payments. Both her children study, a son in class 10 and daughter in ninth. And it’s not an isolated story of tribal emancipation.

The Karanjveri milk cooperative’s 273 producer-members are all adivasis — three-fourths Kokna and the rest from the Dhodia tribe. Together, they grossed nearly Rs 1.6 crore, supplying over seven lakh litres to the society that is part of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation’s (Amul) Valsad dairy union.

Dairy debutants

Most are first-time milk producers. Like Paruben Chhotabhai Bhoye. A landless labourer selling 20 litres-plus daily from two cows and four heifers (two recently pregnant), her husband was previously a building construction worker in Valsad city.

Or Laljibhai Mahala, the Karanjveri society’s secretary. Fifteen years ago, he was a diamond polisher at Navsari, coming home once a month after earning Rs 500-600 from working 12 hours a day.

“Today, my 26-year-old son is a veterinary science graduate employed with the state animal husbandry department. My married daughter teaches at the Dharampur taluka panchayat school. Without milk, I would have been nowhere”, says Laljibhai.

Karanjveri is only one of the Valsad milk union’s 1,016 societies covering the three southern Gujarat districts of Valsad, Navsari and Dang. Out of their 1.16 lakh members, 74,433 (64 per cent) are adivasis.

“The share is higher if you take regularly pouring members. About 80 per cent of our milk comes now from adivasis”, reckons S.B. Singh, procurement manager at the Valsad union, which bought an average of 3.8 lakh litres daily in 2011-12.

At Rs 25 a litre — the average rate that producers got for both buffalo and cow milk — the union would have pumped in almost Rs 350 crore, 80 per cent of it (Rs 275 crore) accruing to adivasis!

Interestingly, when it started out in 1981, the Valsad union was buying milk from farmers mainly from the ‘forward’ Patidar, Desai (Anavil Brahmin) and Rajput communities, with a sprinkling of Koli Patels.

Today, the first lot has virtually stopped pouring. The Kolis — catogorised under ‘other backward classes’ — are still around, but the most active are the adivasis.

Symbolising the trend is Tarsadi village in Navsari taluka. It once had a Patidar-dominated milk society that has closed down, with the bulk of young community members migrating to the US, leaving only their old folks behind.

Likewise, there is the Gorgam society in Valsad taluka, headed by a Patidar despite 99 per cent of the pourers being adivasis.

A new tradition

To understand the transformational impact brought about by milk, one must, first and foremost, realise the absence of any organised milch animal rearing tradition among the adivasis.

Till a generation ago, the southern Gujarat tribals — whether Kokna, Dhodia, Bhil and Gamit or the even worse-off Varli, Kotwalia, Kolcha and Kathodi — drank black tea and weren’t averse to slaughtering cattle for meat.

Their source of livelihood was subsistence cultivation, cutting wood, collecting bamboo for basket-weaving, and gathering minor forest produce such as mahua flowers/seeds, timru (tendu) leaves or katha from acacia trees.

In more recent times, with their access to forest resources progressively curtailed, the adivasis in this belt have increasingly resorted to migratory employment — as construction and road building workers at Surat, Ankleshwar, Valsad, Vapi and Mumbai; diamond polishers and timber cutters at Surat and Navsari; labourers in cane fields near sugar mills around Surat or grape orchards across the Maharashtra border in Nashik, Dindori, Pimpalgaon and Niphad.

It is to them — people with little prior experience of milking animals, leave alone knowledge about feeding (what, how much and when) or recognising ‘heat’ (estrous) symptoms — that Amul unions like Valsad, Surat and Panchmahal have introduced modern animal husbandry concepts over the last few decades.

This has meant training them, for instance, in detecting heat signs: General excitability (jumping on other animals, mooing a lot), frequent urination, vulva swelling/reddening along with thick mucous discharge, reduced milk output, etc. A cow showing these has to be inseminated within 24 hours. Missing it means waiting for the next estrous after 20-21 days, leading to delayed pregnancy and, ultimately, income foregone.

Bypass advantage

The adivasi milk producers have, moreover, been made to technologically leapfrog.

That has entailed rearing high-yielding cross-breds and not native Dangi cattle; artificial insemination (AI) instead of ‘natural service’; stall feeding rather than open grazing; giving factory-made compounded cattlefeed and mineral mixture supplements; and vaccination.

In Dang — Gujarat’s most backward district with 94 per cent adivasi population — the Valsad union has, since 2001, set up 150 village societies having 8,500-odd producer-members.

There are 40 AI workers catering to just these societies. The workers, trained by the union and supplied semen from elite bulls, frozen at minus 190 degrees Celsius in liquid nitrogen tanks to ensure sperm viability, charge Rs 30-50 for a single AI dose.

For an idea of the scale of these operations, the Valsad union’s 250 AI workers in all conducted some 2.2 lakh inseminations last year.

Further, all animals above six months are administered vaccination against hemorrhagic septicemia, theileriosis and foot-and-mouth disease, in addition to mass de-worming before and after the monsoon.

Technology apart, there is also financial and marketing intervention. Every woman farmer-member is eligible for a Rs 25,000 loan from the Valsad union to purchase a cross-bred cow.

The loan, bearing 9 per cent interest, is repayable after three years. By then, the cow would have undergone three lactations, each yielding 2,500-3,000 litres.

The union has cumulatively loaned nearly Rs 70 crore — money it has sourced from nationalised banks — to over 36,000 producers.

The beauty here is that the milk from the cows financed also has a ready market in the union itself.

It explains the high 98.5 per cent recovery rate on these advances, in contrast to government cattle loan schemes devoid of any such assured marketing or buyback arrangements.

Cows in the making

Even more innovative is a scheme where the union provides Rs 10,000 worth of inputs — cattlefeed, mineral mixture, de-wormer, vaccination and veterinary support — for rearing of heifers till about 28 months before their first calving and lactation. It is only then that repayment, at 9 per cent interest, gets triggered.

Till now, about 40,000 heifers have been enrolled under this scheme, of which 12,000 are already in-milk.

Sumanben Rameshbhai Pawar, a landless Bhil woman from Chikatiya village of Dang’s Ahwa taluka, bought her first cow in 2009 against a loan from the Valsad union. That animal has calved thrice and is pregnant again.

The first of its three heifers calved six months ago and is already giving milk. The second is pregnant and will calve in four months, while the third is a 10-month-old growing heifer. All these are ‘registered’ animals.

Today, Sumanben sells 11-12 litres daily, fetching Rs 8,000 a month or Rs 3,000 after all cash expenses, including loan repayment. Her earnings will only go up as more animals lactate.

Before 2009, she and her husband jointly harvested cane near the Bardoli sugar factory, living there with their three children and returning with barely Rs 5,000 after working through the crushing season from November to March. They no longer migrate.

“We advise these farmers to keep three cows — one freshly calved giving 10-12 litres milk, the second 5-6 months pregnant producing only 3-4 litres, and the third about 8 months that has already gone dry.

The last one will then calve in two months time, just when the second cow stops lactating.

In this way, 14-15 litres can be sold round the year, grossing Rs 1.2 lakh at Rs 23 a litre. Even if all expenses are 70 per cent, they will have Rs 36,000”, notes Narendra Vashi, Managing Director of the Valsad union.

Farmers can also make money by selling one freshly-lactating heifer every year for Rs 34,000 — or Rs 24,000 after deducting rearing costs over 28 months. It all adds up to a monthly net income of Rs 5,000 or so.

Producers are further being encouraged to cultivate subabul, a fast-growing fodder tree yielding 15-20 kg of protein and carotene-rich leaves daily.

These leaves can replace 2 out of the 6 kg of cattlefeed that a lactating cow requires every day. With cattlefeed costs at Rs 10/kg, the savings are not small.

“Currently, we procure 21,000 litres per day from Dang alone. With the foundations laid over the past decade, it can easily touch one lakh litres in the next five years”, adds Vashi.

Milking counter-insurgency

The question to ask is: If dairying can provide viable alternative livelihood in areas as backward as Dang — where there is no piped water and LPG; women walk 2-3 km to fetch firewood and water; and homes have walls built of bamboo and mud-dung filler — why not replicate it in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa or West Bengal?

Kaushikaben, Paruben and Sumanben are living proof of adivasi women being more than receptive to modern animal husbandry practices, even if environmentalists and cultural anthropologists may see them as impinging on their pristine tribal traditions.

There is no doubt that our adivasis have been victims of development strategies ‘developing’ only others, and foisted upon them by venal governments and vile corporate interests.

But does salvation really lie in their going back to forest-based livelihoods, or engaging with modernity in a productive and inclusive manner?

This is where a product like milk holds out hope more than mahua flowers or tendu leaves. It has, more than anything else, a ready market in a nation of consummate milk drinkers.

With efficient procurement and marketing systems, of the kind the Amul unions have established, producers can also get up three-fourths of the consumer price.

There is no better way to combat Maoist insurgency than investing in a sector that can generate daily cash flows for the most marginalised sections, allowing them a life of dignity and empowerment.

(blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on December 3, 2012)
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