The great divide

For the urban Indian, upwardly mobile on auto-power, livestock means products like milk and meat. For 75 per cent of India living in villages, it means transport, power, fertiliser and food

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

The great divide

-- First, a refresher of what is commonly known. With 2.4 per cent of the world's land area and 16 per cent of the world's human population, India has 20 per cent of the world's livestock population. Yet, India's share in the total milk production in the world is estimated around 13 per cent. The annual average milk yield of Indian cattle is 51 per cent less than the world average, according to the Union ministry of agriculture's department of animal husbandry and dairying (DAHD).

This large livestock population has put tremendous pressure on the land available. About 90 per cent of the cattle population in the country subsists on natural grasslands or common pasturelands, which are in an extremely poor state (see 'The milk that ate the grass'; Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 22; April 15, 1999). There is a great scarcity of fodder. In the absence of proper feed, productivity is low. This, in turn, means that more animals are required to produce the same amount of milk, putting further pressure on resources. N S Jodha, analyst at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (icimod), Kathmandu, says: "The livestock economy of India is characterised by low productivity, overpopulation of animals and their poor management and maintenance of stock."

"Broadly speaking, India's livestock population of 450 million large and small animals depends on a meagre area of 12 million hectares for green fodder. This means 40 animals to one hectare of land, while the burden should not be more than five animals. Consequently, livestock encroaches into forest as well as denigrate the available pasture," says N S Ramaswamy of the Bangalore-based Centre for Action, Research and Technology for Man, Animal and Nature (cartman), which has done a great deal of research on issues relating to livestock, the environment and sustainable development.

Livestock, forests and agriculture
The issue of livestock grazing in the forest is a bone of contention between those involved in management and research of forest and wildlife on the one hand and livestock-owning communities living in and around forests on the other. Pitched battles are common in virtually all the protected forests of the country, and there are about 550 wildlife sanctuaries and national parks. One widely publicised case is of the proposed 82,000-hectare Rajaji National Park (rnp) in Dehradun. This requires the eviction of 5,000-odd Van Gujjars and their 12,300 buffaloes. It also meant that they relinquish their age-old traditions and nomadic lifestyle (see 'Mutually assured destruction'; Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 20; March 15, 2000).

"The buffaloes owned by Van Gujjars are largely unproductive. Lopping off trees has denuded large forest tracts. Besides, buffaloes living in forests trample seedlings, lowering the rate of regeneration," complains Dhananjay Prasad, range officer of the Ramgarh range of rnp. Ruchi Badola, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun, who specialises in the relationship between people and protected forests, says, "Barely 4.6 per cent of the land area of our country is protected forest. If this colossal livestock is allowed to graze on it, wildlife will be destroyed as there will be no habitat left." She says people maintain large livestock herds because these animals graze free of cost on public land: "So any income, even the little from unproductive animals, is a bonus."

Like most wildlifers, Chandra Prakash Goyal, director of the proposed rnp, says unproductive animals, which are a drain on national resources, have to be culled if India is to keep its forests healthy: "It is a tough decision, but somebody has to take it. We have to learn to separate these issues from religious sentiments." This is vociferously opposed by Hindu religious outfits and even by those who believe in prevention of cruelty to animals. It is a strong lobby and the media is full of stories of those vigorously opposing cattle slaughter.

As 43.5 per cent of India's livestock population comprises cattle, any discussion on livestock invariable becomes a discussion on cattle. Especially due to the sacred status accorded by Hindus to cows and bullocks. Several experts on livestock related issues estimate that 85-90 per cent of the cattle population is 'non-descript', which means it has no pedigree. These animals are at the core of the issue.

"Animals form an essential part of our food security, especially as soil fertility is declining alarmingly," points out Pran K Bhatt, country director of the Heifer Project International, an international agency with 28 livestock rearing projects in India and operations in 102 countries. "But, as things stand, it seems humans will compete with livestock for food and water. The choice is between growing foodgrain to feed the poor or growing crops useful for animal feed. While culling seems like the only option to do away with unproductive animals, it is not viable in India as the issue generates a lot of religious emotion. It is a stalemate."

But there is more to livestock in India than milk, meat, wool, leather and other such products. Draught power and cowdung, two extremely significant aspects of India's 'unproductive' livestock, especially cattle, are hardly factored in when their economic utility is calculated, which shows the appalling bias against rural India that exists among the policy-makers and politicians (see box: Driving the Indian economy).

Now, what is known but is seldom recognised. "Our age-old farm energy source (draught cattle) is now classified as 'unconventional' energy and placed in that ministry and not in ministry of agriculture by the government of India." These words, delivered in a keynote address at the Regional Conference on Draught Animal Power held in Bangalore in 1995, are from K K Iya, the founding director of the National Dairy Research Institute in Karnal, who retired as the deputy director general (animal science) of ICAR. "The Sun and wind are now considered 'unconventional' sources of energy and diesel and petrol are considered 'conventional' sources. Probably, in another 25-30 years, we will come back to the Sun and wind as the 'conventional' energy sources when diesel and petrol become scarce and 'unconventional'... Everybody thinks now only of milk production and crossbreeding with exotic germplasm. The pride of our country's draught animals is left to fend for itself, despite the fact that they provide energy for agricultural operations and transport, among other things, for a vast number of rural agricultural populations. It is mainly an aberration of urban thinking. We constantly have to be reminded that 75 per cent of our total population lives in villages and farms. Milk becomes a priority and draught animals today are not even allocated any special funds for development. Even the state animal husbandry departments do not consider it a critical issue."

"Traditionally, the wealth of a family or a person was counted on basis of four aspects and livestock was one of them. The other three were: land, knowledge and money," writes D V Rangnekar, who has been associated with Gandhian organisations for over 30 years (see box: Economics melts into religion). More than 200 castes of nomads -- breeders and herders of cattle buffaloes, camels, donkeys, yaks, sheep and goats -- are engaged in pastoralism, making up six per cent of India's population, according to the Centre for Science and Environment's The State of India's Environment - A Citizens' Report. In Gujarat, a pastoral nomad is called Maldhari, meaning owner of wealth. There are tales of Maldhari families owning thousands of animals.

While the entire rural economy of India has been badly affected by the sad plight of livestock, the worst hit have been pastoral nomads. Community after community of nomads is facing the after-effects of government subsidies on tractors and fertilisers that promote automation of agriculture, tipping the balance against the use of animals in agriculture. Clearly, the government does not understand the environment.

Pastoral nomads: attacked on all fronts
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Banni grassland area of district Kachchh in Gujarat. This unique area was known for several varieties of nutritious grasses that sustained large livestock populations for hundreds of years. About 100 years ago, the ruler of the princely state of Radhanpur introduced the fast-growing tree Prosopis juliflora (called gando bawal in Gujarati, meaning crazy tree) to meet the rising demand for fuelwood. This was promoted by forest departments to control soil erosion (see 'An army of mad trees'; Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 22; April 15, 1999). Today, P juliflora has spread to several parts of Gujarat like a weed, changing and destroying the unique ecology of Banni, in turn destroying the livelihood of the famous Maldhari semi-nomadic communities of the area.

"We had a saying: 'Banni ro mawo, khavo ek lhavo' (it is real good fortune to be able to taste the dried cream of Banni). The milk from cows fed on the grasses of Banni was considered nectarly. One good monsoon and 200,000 animals could feast on grasses like jhinjhwa for two years," says Ibrahimbhai Isabhai Halepotra, 45, a Maldhari from village Sadai in the Banni, falling under the Bhuj taluka of Kachchh.

"Milk was never sold earlier. It was meant for calves and we used to take the surplus. There was no market for it as virtually every household had cows. We used to earn money basically from preparing bullocks for farm work, selling dried cream and ghee. Seven years ago, I had a cow of the Baniyar breed which used to give 20 litres of milk. But I had to take her to Bhuj as there is no grass left in Banni. Gando bawal has just eaten up our land." Maldhari after Maldhari has similar stories to tell. Their sustainable lifestyles have been simply destroyed.

Soil productivity
Even as the government refuses to acknowledge the crucial role of gobar in the agrarian economy, the subsidy on fertiliser has rebounded in several parts of the country. Banaskantha district of northern Gujarat is no exception. Bagabhai Patel is the sarpanch (head of the village council) of Kaanth village in Deesa taluka. "This area is famous for potato cultivation. Earlier, before we started using chemical fertiliser and relied solely on gobar manure, we would sow one kg of potato and reap a harvest of 32 kg. Now, with all the fertilisers, the productivity has fallen to 8 kg for every kg of potato sown," he rues.

"The entire government machinery and extension offices of the agriculture department promoted and advertised chemical fertilisers and hybrid seeds. They never cautioned us against their overuse. Now we don't have our own seeds, and the hybrids are not that productive. And we have to use chemical fertiliser as there will be no crop without it. This effort to get rich quickly and increase productivity manifold has destroyed us. From being independent farmers, we are actually slaves to the government -- we survive at their whims and fancies. Actually, our food has been contaminated with this inorganic fertiliser, resulting in the contamination of our mind, of the way we think," says Hemabhai Patel, the sarpanch's cousin.

But there is still no doing without gobar. As they do not possess as many cattle as they earlier did, the farmers go the nearby pinjrapol for organic manure. There is no doing without animals even today (see chart: Livestock economics).

Usefulness of livestock today
"If not for draught animals, our food security would be undermined as the agricultural produce will not reach the market in time," argues Ashimabha Batobyal, joint commissioner (livestock and poultry), department of animal husbandry and dairying (dahd). "Apart from farm operations like ploughing, seeding, fertilising and weeding, draught animals are useful for a range of off-farm operations like carting, threshing, winnowing, cutting, chaffing, pulling oil mills and lifting water," says Ramaswamy.

It is clear enough that the Indian livestock does not get credit for what it means to the Indian economy. In fact, most people do not know anything about the overall contribution of livestock to the economy, especially as 50 per cent of India's villages are not connected by motorable roads, as Ramaswamy points out.

P C Dash, joint commissioner (cattle breeding farms), dahd, does not agree at all that India's livestock population is too large: "It is this livestock which is sustaining our population of one billion people. It is more of a management problem than a population problem. If you do not manage your resources properly, they become a burden." He says a straight no to the question of culling: "Even the so-called unproductive animals are worth keeping just for gobar.

Shailendra Kumar Prasad, the director of the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (nbagr) in Karnal, Haryana, asks, "Who decides which animal is productive and which is not? Before we hurry to slaughter the 'unproductive' animals en masse, we must remember that the greatest quality of our indigenous cattle is that it is very hardy and has resistant to disease. The low-productivity animals are also low-input animals -- they survive on very little fodder and have great resistance to disease. Mass slaughter will also get rid of the good animals. Already, we have lost such a lot due to the disastrous crossbreeding programmes. What's needed is their selective breeding. It is better to neuter non-descript animals."

As for protecting the country's forests, Anil E Nivsarkar, former director of nbagr, is scathing in his attack on the forest department. "Everybody knows that we are losing our forests not due to overgrazing but corruption in forest departments. Let them stop supporting illegal logging and the forests will be healthy. If you slaughter indigenous animals, you will kill the 70 per cent of India's farmers who are marginalised or landless. Instead of using gobar properly, as we used to in the past, we talk about killing these animals. Livestock is not destroying the environment; mindless people are doing it," he concludes.

Villages like Sukhomajri in Haryana and Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra have already shown that when people are involved in forest management, forests can be regenerated even in degraded areas despite a substantial livestock population (see 'Sukhomajri at crossroads'; Down To Earth, Vol 7, No 14; December 15, 1998).

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.