MILK IN INDIA, is not just a drink, it is an elixir. For almost every Indian — rich or poor — the idea of a daily glass of milk holds a potent and emotional charge. It speaks of parental devotion, well-being and health. This faith in the power of milk is well-grounded: it is the primary nutrient for the young and the old. Nearly 63 percent of animal protein in the Indian diet comes from dairy products. For vegetarians, there is simply no alternative.
The idea of the cow, of course, is also emotively charged because of its mythical place in Hindu iconography, religion and culture: it is quite literally worshipped as goddess Kamdhenu: the cow of plenty. Premchand famously captured its centrality to Indian village life with his memorable tableau of grazing herds returning home at dusk in a cloud of dust, creating the magic hour of “godhuli”.
Again, this veneration is founded in hard pragmatics. Traditionally, India has been home to some of the most varied stock of cows in the world: the red-skinned Sahiwal that milks through droughts, the mighty Amrit Mahal with swords for horns or the tiny Vechur that stands no taller than a dog. Different breeds to suit different climatic conditions. These cows have been the most crucial backbone of India’s rural economy. Low on maintenance costs, their milk yield has not only been a succor and source of nutrition for otherwise impoverished families, their surplus has been sold by small farmers to State-run cooperatives and private companies, which further package and sell them to urban households under brands such as Amul, Vijaya, Verka, Saras, Nestle and Britannia.
The importance of cows to India’s economy, therefore, just cannot be overestimated. India is the world’s largest producer of milk. A whopping 68 percent of these milch animals are owned by small and landless farmers; their produce is distributed through over one lakh village milk cooperatives, which have more than 1.1 crore members. These arteries interconnect every strata of the country. In fact, milk is a bigger driving force for India’s agro-economy than paddy, wheat or sugar.
But in a mere 10 years, all of this could disappear. India is at the precipice of a disaster that no one seems to be trying to avert. In the run up to India’s 66th Republic Day, here’s a really sobering thought: the indigenous Indian cow — one of the country’s biggest assets — will soon cease to exist and we will be forced to import milk within a decade. This is going to have catastrophic and unimagined impact on lakhs of people.
Predictably, an almost criminal lack of government planning and foresight is responsible for this. India does possess the world’s biggest cattle herd, but typically, the individual yield of these malnourished cows is very low. Merely helping small farmers increase their cows’ food and water intake could have had miraculous results. (Indian cows, for instance, are doing really well in Brazil. In 2011, a pure Gir named Quimbanda Cal broke its own 2010 record of delivering 10,230 kilolitres of milk a year, with a daily yield of 56.17 kilolitres.) But instead of focussing on — and improving — the reasons why the yield of these cows was low in India, the government in the 1960s started crossbreeding Indian cows with imported bulls and semen.
This practice was followed more indiscriminately with every passing decade. Over time, it’s triggered a two-pronged crisis. On the one hand, it has set off a systemic destruction of the indigenous Indian cow, which includes precious breeds developed over a millennium. On the other hand, the new exotic crossbreeds have not adapted to Indian conditions yet. In theory, these crossbreeds are capable of very high milk yields, but their capacity suffers drastically as the cows are very vulnerable to tropical weather and diseases. Unlike the indigenous cow, they also need to be kept in very high-cost, air-cooled, all-weather shelters, and require expensive stall feeding and medical care.
Clearly, the small farmer is not equipped to bear these costs of rearing exotic crossbreeds. But because of official negligence, the low-maintenance, weather-resistant local breeds are continuing to deteriorate. Rearing cattle, therefore, is fast becoming unviable for small farmers. Lakhs of them are facing a loss of livelihood; soon their families will not have access to their basic daily glass of milk — unless they can afford to buy it from big dairies with deep pockets.
But the brewing crisis does not end there. The obliteration of the desi cow will impact urban consumers too. In the next 10 years, as the new order of industrial dairy production begins to dominate, from being self-sufficient, India will not only have to import a large percentage of its milk demand, but will also become heavily dependent on importing everything from exotic semen to cattle feed for the exotic crossbreeds reared within the country. By controlling these key inputs, foreign markets will eventually decide the price we pay for exotic milk. Incidentally, unlike the milk from desi breeds, this milk is unsuitable for those susceptible to diabetes and cardiovascular problems.
The advantages of the exotic crossbreeds are also extremely shortlived: their yield may be higher in the short term but they also run dry much quicker. Even exotic bulls are not nearly as hardy as the desi ones. This is triggering a separate crisis. Millions of these crossbreeds are being abandoned by owners the moment they run dry as they cannot afford their high-nutrition diet and costly healthcare. Not only are feral cattle a civic nuisance, supporting these unproductive animals is stretching the country’s already limited resources. According to a recent survey by the Punjab Gausewa Board (PGB), 80 percent of the state’s nearly one lakh stray cattle are exotic crossbreeds. Alarmed, the PGB Chairman Kimti Bhagat is leading an agitation against the state’s pro-exotic policy.
Finally, as the gene pool of the indigenous Indian cow is allowed to fade away, if some epidemic triggers a population slide in our cattle — already made vulnerable by its high percentage of exotic strains — there will be no scope for corrective intervention.
So here we are, heading with suicidal speed towards jeopardising our food security, ruining the backbone of our agro-economy and handing the control of our dairy industry to foreign markets. There are many reasons why India is poised on the edge of this disaster: each of them reads like a novella of frustration.