ON A cool, February morning, the mist hangs low over the harvested rice fields of Chinglepet district in Tamil Nadu. A peculiar, gurgling sound emanates from the haze, arousing your curiosity. The noise gradually gets louder - and suddenly, around a thousand quacking ducks emerge from the mist with their awkward, rolling gait. Herding the flock along the marshy patches on the edge of the narrow, metalled road is lean man with a weatherbeaten face, walking barefoot and wielding a long stick.
The man is Krishnaraj, a duck rearer from Andhra Pradesh who journeys every year to the freshly harvested paddy fields in the northern parts of Tamil Nadu in search of feed for his flock.
His family comprises his wife, son and 2 daughters. It is a nomadic family which survives solely on rearing ducks. Besides the precious flock, the family has few possessions -- notably, crude, makeshift tents of bright blue polythene sheets, home and hearth for the family.
Besides duck rearers like Krishnaraj, a new breed of duck farmers has emerged recently: those who travel even farther than merely across the state border. These long-distance wanderers, found mainly in Andhra Pradesh,Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, have made transhumance -- the seasonal movement of livestock to different regions-- a striking characteristic of duck rearing in India today.
Traditionally, duck rearers moved around only in the areas adjoining their homes, searching for feed. But the advent of better roads and transport facilities gave duck rearers greater scope for movement. At times, they even load gaggles on trucks and travel to Goa, 850 km away. Specially designed trucks are available to haul ducks to different regions and sometimes ducks are transported by train.
Duck rearers with small flocks, who cannot afford long-distance movements on their own, band up in groups and hire lorries. Moving together to areas where feed is available in plentiful during dry periods at home also arts to them the group a sense of security.
The transhumance of ducks is a well-organised and planned venture. Most of the transhumance takes place just before paddy fields in target destinations are harvested. Sometimes, the rearers make reconnaissance trips to make sure which field are ready for the ducks. Maximum egg- laying occurs during June-July, after which the herders who own land head home.
Besides looking for feed, other factors make duck rearers travel around. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, a social forestry scheme run by the forest department has posed a problem. According to a report on duck transhumance prepared by Arivudai Nambi and Jaya Somu of the Save the Eastern Ghats Organisation, the forest department has planted thorny species like Acacia on most irrigation tank beds, forcing duck rearers to steer clear of these areas for fear that the ducks might damage their delicate, webbed feet.
The report also cites deforestation as a major reason for transhumance. Siltation, caused by loss of vegetation cover, clogs up and reduces the water-holding capacity of irrigation tanks, village ponds and waterways Water is vital for duck rearing and long periods of water shortage compel duck rearers to move out till conditions turn favourable.
The relationship between duck transhumance and agriculture has a unique, symbiotic quality. Ducks indirectly aid agriculture, which, in turn, forms the backbone of duck rearing. When the ducks are released into the paddy fields just after the harvest, they perform the essential functions of tillage: they feed on dropped paddy, insects, snails, crabs and frogs. As they look for food, their bills loosen the soil and they weed the fields, control insect levels and provide manure.
Ducks also have an ecological role. Says P T Uma Shankar, senior fellow at the Centre for Water Resources in Anna University in Madras, "Paddy fields are unique in the sense that they always require standing water. This precious liquid gold is lost in the form of evaporation, seepage and percolation. About 25 to 50 per cent of the total water irrigated is lost because of percolation. Rat burrows, crab holes and others add to these losses. Ducks are let into the field after the land is prepared and puddled (ploughed with water to create a semipervious layer). They catch crabs and, in the process, also cover up crab holes with their webbed feet, thus aiding in the reduction of percolation losses."
Interestingly, in some parts of Tamil Nadu, duck rearers contribute a nominal amount (about Rs 3 per duck for 6 months) to the village common funds for using waterways, canals, ponds and irrigation tanks. This money is utilised to clear and maintain the water bodies. The extent of this practice, however, is yet to be studied.
Life for the peripatetic duck rearer is tough. Krishnaraj's day begins well before first light. His daughters start by collecting the eggs laid by the ducks, 3 flocks of around 250-300 birds each in open-air pens made of bamboo sticks and nylon netting.
After gathering the eggs, the daughters begin preparing the day's meals. Krishnaraj carefully examines the eggs that have been set aside in a basket for incubation, holding them up against the light to check for the embryo. Then he, his wife and their 18-year-old son set out with their flock to the harvested rice fields around their camp, where they will spend the hours until sundown, scouring for feed. During the dry season, chaffy paddy, known as karukkai in Tamil, and husk mixed with starch are used as feed.
At some point during the day, Krishnaraj will trek a few km to the nearest town, where he will sell the duck eggs and maybe a few birds.
Traditionally, the duck rearers sold all the eggs to farmers who allowed ducks to wade in their fields. In some cases, a fixed number -- about 40 eggs per ha -- was given periodically to the land owner. In others, land owners paid the duck rearers in advance and received all the eggs until the "loan" was repaid.
Nowadays, the rearers transact directly with duck egg dealers, whose wholesale shops in small towns also serve as collection centres.
Unlike livestock rearing, poultry farming or agriculture, duck rearing is not an organised occupation. It is a limited-scale enterprise, concentrated primarily in the southern and eastern states, where there is a demand for duck eggs and meat.
Rearing ducks is not a very secure vocation-- egg production is temperamental, determined mainly by the intake of feed and climatic conditions. Rearers like Krishnaraj are a vastly unorganised lot and plough through their daily routines with no one to lend them a hand. Planners and financiers spend little time trying to exploit the potential of duck rearing. If anything, it is the stepchild of poultry farming.
The ducks reared in India are predominantly desi(local) species, which are poor egg-layers and meat producers, compared to improved varieties such as the Khaki Campbell for eggs and the White Pekin for meat. Of estimated duck population of 15 million, West Bengal has the highest, followed by Assam, Bihar, Manipur, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Tripura and Jammu and Kashmir.
An average duck egg weighs about 20 gm more than a hen's egg. A duck egg has more albumen-egg--white-and yolk and 25 per cent more food value than chicken egg. The cost of a duck egg is about a rupee and can go up to Rs 1.45, and a full-grown duck cost between Rs12 and Rs 25, depending on quality and weight. Duck eggs and meat, therefore, make for a cheap source of protein, besides helping small and marginal farmers and uplifting the condition of the landless.
However, duck meat is still not an item relished by the Indian palate. Most people are put off by a supposed "fishy" smell in the meat. Duck eggs, on the other hand, are consumed in Kerala and preferred to chicken eggs in the northeastern states and West Bengal.
Despite the high demand for duck eggs from these states, duck rearing, which is easier and less expensive than poultry farming, has not merited any great attention from state governments. In fact, there is only one intensive and scientifically-managed duck breeding farm, set up by the ministry of agriculture at Hessaraghatta, in Bangalore (see box).
Not all duck rearers are landless. Some, like K Ponnuswamy, have small plots that are looked after by a part of the family while the others migrate to other areas to rear ducks. Ponnuswamy has been rearing ducks for the past 30 years. He and his family of 6 live on their own half-acre plot in North Arcot district. Like Krishnaraj, Ponnuswamy's experiences typify those of duck rearers in the country.
Ponnuswamy buys ducks from big duck rearers in the season (June-July) and moves to areas abundant in good feed and water during harvest time. In case of a drought or floods, he disposes of the birds as meat or sells the flock to other migratory rearers and switches to agriculture labour in the area.
Six years ago, Ponnuswamy was a relatively prosperous owner of around 5,000 birds. He hired trucks to carry his flock to far away places like the Krishna delta in Andhra Pradesh, an ideal area for duck rearing. Ponnuswamy reminisces about that fateful day when an unfortunate incident spelt disaster for his business.
"It was a drought year in Tamil Nadu. I had gone all the way to West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh in search of feed and water," he says. "On our return journey, we stopped one evening near a water body, after a tiring day's walk. All the ducks went to the water, but it was only after a while that we realised, to our horror, that it was a salt water body. By the next morning, most of the flock had perished."
After the incident, Ponnuswamy was reduced to working as an agricultural labourer. Today, thanks to a loan from a rural cooperative bank, he has managed to resurrect his flock. But he is unhappy about the extent of help provided to small rearers like him by the government. Although loans are available for duck rearing, banks are apprehensive about advancing money to small duck farmers because several of them have defaulted on repayments.
Ponnuswamy is nonetheless confident about making a living out of his vocation. Says he, "I get an average of 125 eggs per day from a flock of 250 birds. In a good season, I even manage to get an egg per day per duck. I then sell it to wholesale dealers at the rate of Rs 1.10-1.20 per egg, who in turn, transport it to major towns and cities, especially to Kerala where duck egg consumption is higher than in Tamil Nadu."
Despite the lack of any sustained state support to this vocation, business is booming and both the rearers and the dealers are confident of making profits. Says Kanaka Devraju, a landless peasant who rears ducks in Andhra Pradesh's Chittoor district, "If only there were more help from the government, even I could have earned enough to buy a small plot of land and build a house. Besides the physical labour of herding the flocks everyday, there is very little monetary investment that I have to make. Ducks are hardy birds and less prone to diseases unlike chicken."
A wholesale dealer in the small town of Ponneri, 45 km north of Madras, claims to have doubled his turnover from the sale and purchase of duck eggs. From an initial collection of around 4,000 eggs per day 3 years ago, I am now collecting and packing 10,000 eggs a day for markets in Kerala and West Bengal. I try to win over the duck rearers in this area by helping them financially during bad periods. That way, I ensure they sell all their produce to me."
For all the optimism shown by Ponnuswamy and others, duck rearing is fettered with problems. The children of duck rearers are unwilling to pursue duck rearing. "Who wants to do a job which makes you toil and labour all day long? My sons consider it below their dignity," says a pensive Ponnuswamy.
Duck rearing can be a profitable cottage industry if duck rearers are saved from exploitation by owners and agents who buy the meat and eggs. Despite its potential to be a very profitable small-farmer enterprise, this bird with its near-comical walk and grating quack has not quite caught the attention of the animal husbandry department.
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