India has enormous and diverse animal wealth generating livelihood opportunities for millions. Total livestock population in the country in 2012, as per the All India Livestock Census, was over 512 million — the largest in the world even as there was a decline of 3.3 per cent over 2007. Add to this poultry birds numbering 729 million and fish to appreciate the wealth we have.

One interesting trend in the composition of livestock is that indigenous species of cattle, sheep and pigs declined between 2007 and 2012 while that of crossbred/exotic population increased, which reflects the market orientation of producers.

Poultry recorded 12.39 per cent increase between these two years. The question is, are we able to tap this wealth to the benefit of the people involved in rearing and tending them as also consumers?

Animal farming in India is largely pursued as a complementary or supplementary activity. Livestock is integrated in the farming activity.

When one or both of the complementary activities are scaled up, the balance is lost. They may start competing with each other for resources, including managerial capacity.

With major encouragement given to crop production to tide over the food crisis during the 1960s, the sector grew faster. Of late, several entrepreneurs have taken up livestock enterprises as a standalone commercial activity.

The sector emerged ahead as a result, accounting for 28.33 per cent of the GDP originating in agriculture during 2011-12 — higher than the 13.88 per cent in 1980-81 and 20 per cent in 1990-91.

Touching rural lives At the grassroots level, animal farming supports a sizeable chunk of livelihoods both in rural and urban areas. An average rural household earned about 12 per cent of his net income from animal farming.

I want to stress here fact that 22.9 per cent of the landless and 9.6 per cent of marginal and small farmers (up to 2 hectares) depend on livestock as a major income source.

For such farmers, animal farming integrates well with the family’s economic crusade against unemployment, poverty and uncertain income flows from main activity.

Rural women form another category of people whose lives have been closely linked to animal farming. Successful homemakers, it can be easily discerned, are those who could leverage their animal stock to take care of the family and farm needs. Women share a special bonding with animals who were like their ATMs.

Even today women are employed in this sector on a significant scale. According to 66th round of NSSO survey (2009-10), 1.6 per cent of males and 9.5 per cent of females usually worked on principal or subsidiary basis in farming of animals.

Additionally, there are 0.3 per cent and 0.6 per cent males and females, respectively, involved in service activities related to animal husbandry performed on farm (other than veterinary activities).

Periodic NSSO surveys on assessing participation of women in HH work and specified activities revealed that sizeable proportion of women in rural areas are engaged in livestock related works, including cow dung cake making.

The list here does not specify cutting grass, preparing feed, feeding animals, milking and making and marketing value added items like curd, butter and ghee which are performed by women.

In 2009-10, 12.1 per cent of rural women other than those who are already engaged in dairy, poultry and other animal husbandry related works, expressed their willingness to accept those works.

Income augmentation for farmers, especially of small holders and the landless, as seen above, is the primary contribution of livestock segment towards farmers’ economy. Animals were an integral part of farming where they helped cope with the risks associated with crop cultivation besides smoothening the income flow during the year.

Income and risks Besides, animals give food and fuel for humans and manure for farms while eating on left-overs and by-products from crop cultivation which is otherwise considered waste.

Thus, one can operate an animal farm with zero cost and good income by mere by-product management between different livelihood activities on the farm.

Farming systems approach, hence, is the need of the hour especially with the overwhelming patronage to organic products in recent times.

After the initial drive for increasing food production, the attention slowly shifted to quality of food. With Operation Flood, the country achieved record milk production and per capita milk production improved.

On poultry and fisheries front also India made significant progress.

Milk available per capita more than doubled over last 60 years or so after hovering around 130 gm/ day during initial three decades. We could almost reach the nutritional requirement norm of 300 grams/day during the last one and a half decades.

Egg production in the country increased to 75 billion now from less than 2 billion during early 1950s. As a result, an average person who was able to get one egg to eat in more than two and a half months during early 1950s is now able to eat one egg a week. Meat production too increased significantly to reach 5.5 million tonnes in 2011-12.

Contribution to sustainability Commons, in spite of the deterioration and encroachment, are still able to cater to about one-fourth of the input needs of the landless and the marginal.

About 20 to 40 per cent of the incomes of households are contributed by commons.

Notably, there is a strong linkage between commons and production systems — including livestock and crop cultivation and higher the contribution from commons and livestock, lower is the vulnerability of households and their dependence on wage labour.

Commons’ contribution to rural production is significant with 37-68 per cent of annual fodder requirement being met from them across all regions.

The animal stock can also supply clean fuel through biogas. Bio CNG, if commercialised, can go a long way in improving our environment.

Investment in animal wealth and in integrating it with crop production systems can contribute to income growth and equity.

The National Livestock Mission (NLM), launched during 12th Five-Year Plan, working towards achieving sustainable development of the sector by providing greater flexibility to states in formulating and implementing the schemes as per the local needs for benefit of the farmers.

Nabard has been partner in NLM and on its own too contributed to the betterment of people through supporting animal farming activities. All the stake holders should join hands to bring out full synergies.

The writer is Chairman, Nabard, Mumbai