Why Development Agencies Love Quality Cows?


The penchant of development agencies for high-yielding cows has never abated. Whenever relief measures are planned for drought-affected families in villages, free quality cows are considered an important element in the official relief `packages’ or self –help schemes. I have seen    in my career that whenever a drought ravages a village, the crossed Holstein and Jersey s cows arrive in wagonloads and every family in these parched villages is handed a cow.  Regrettably most of the beneficiaries are usually landless and use common property resources for pasturing and nurturing them. It defies logic how these animals can be sustained in a land scorched to dust by rainless years.

These generous gifts obviously become burdensome since they have a voracious appetite and demand a rich nutrient diet. The only gainers are owners of cartels of cattle suppliers and the State’s development staff who usually love these natural tragedies because they ring the fortune bells for them. The families are usually in great distress as they are supposed to take care of these royal guests. The obvious storyline that follows such government attempts is normally the same. Newspapers bleed with morose headlines: ‘Princely cows for measly families,’ and yet, the results are on the expected lines. The farmers are unable to feed these cows and eventually they have to sell them off at paltry only to return to their original plight.

For a farmer who owns land and animals, it is easy to make effective use of an additional cow. Whereas, for an asset-less household, the same animal can be a Damocles sword. If the cow falls ill and the family cannot afford to take care of it, or if it grows emaciated during non-lactation periods when buying fodder is necessary, the household can easily be ruined. Therefore, to address the needs of villager better, we must ask them, not the development officers who spend their time in urban offices. Or, better still; leave it to the people to make decisions regarding the allocation of resources in their areas.

It may only be a coincidence that the development programmes have a greater fascination for cows when several other alternatives could work better.  My initial exuberance and enthusiasm in my rural career suffered jolts and I soon realized that financing cattle was not a simple apprentice’s job. My notions of dairy finance being the simplest of all types of finance were based on my naivety and lack of exposure to rural realities. Soon enough, I realized that it was the diciest finance wherein the laws of nature play a greater role than our financial and agricultural skills. If the cows keep gushing out gallons of milk, yoghurt and cream that keep padding the farmer’s wallets with wads of cash, the gravy train keeps chugging on and it is a happy romantic situation for the dairy farmers. However, the problem starts when the cattle falls ill. An ailment, if left unattended, can lead to mortality resulting in a heavy loss for the poor household.

In one district, for example, many poor small farmers signed up to receive microfinance. They decided to purchase a cow, to generate additional income through the sale of milk. While this was widely seen as a very sensible and compassionate intervention by the international donor and NGO community, the development outcome was extremely problematic. The local over-supply of raw milk in many communities led to a general price decline. This undermined all incumbent producers, of course, but especially other non-client ‘one-cow farms’ who quickly saw reduced margins and incomes and were thus more likely to fall into poverty than before.

In the case of cattle loans, a majority of cattle owner’s report that they either sell off the animals bought with the loan or that these animals die due to improper care. Cattle loans are financed without adequate attention to other important details, such as fodder availability and the marketing of milk that heavily impact the farmer’s income. The stories of proxy animal purchases and client fleecing for insurance claims continue, but the processes have become highly transparent and rigorous. This has been beneficial for honest borrowers. Private veterinary doctors have proliferated, but the poor are now much more empowered and aware of their rights than ever before.

It is essential that basic veterinary knowledge is imparted to individuals and they must be provided with emergency veterinary kits. The onset of the internet and mobile phones has revolutionized dairy business like every other. Veterinary assistance is now readily available. The story of the cow and the computer is a local parable which proves that sometimes the simplest information is the most valuable.

Sangita Kitey, a woman who cannot read and write, sat in the courtyard of her small home with the family’s only milch cow in Wanoja, Chandrapur. For five days and nights, the cow moaned while she was in labour. Sangita grew feared constantly that the cow would die. She explained, “This is the only good income we have,” implying that the four gallons of milk the cow produced each day paid all the bills. Fortunately, the news about Sangita’s woebegone cow reached Ashok, a public-spirited farmer who uses one name. The village’s computer is in the anteroom of his home and is operated by Ashok full time. Ashok used it to call up a list of area veterinarians and that night a doctor arrived. By the light of a dim electric bulb, the doctor stuck his arm into Sangita’s cow, extracted the calf’s spindly leg, tied a rope to it and dragged the calf into the world.

One thing that I admire in cattle owners is the priority they attach to their animal’s health. If his milch cow or his prized bull is ill, the owner rushes the animal to a veterinarian even if he may not visit the doctor for his own child who may be a victim of chronic diarrhea. “A man can breed children. But if his bull dies, he loses his livelihood. What gives man bread should be cared for and worshipped,” says Ledange, another farmer.

In villages, a day is set aside to honour the bull. In ‘pola’ (a bull-worshipping festival), the bulls are massaged and bathed, fed on eggs, and made to participate in a race. “He is my child,” says Ledange, as his hand rests tenderly on the head of a sturdy white animal. He feeds his bull on wheat and himself eats ragi, a coarse grain. And when his bull becomes a father, he celebrates the occasion in a manner that befits the birth of his own son. “Do you know how to judge a bull?” he asks, as his eyes glow. “You first look at its horns, then its hump and watch closely how it crouches down. When mine does, it deserves an arti (sacred ritual).” The bull is Ledange’s companion. He brings him home in the dead of night. The bull is more than a wife, who he only sees at certain hours. His wife to him is a mere tool, necessary to keep a unit complete, to bring the next generation. He has no room for her. She finds room for herself in her motherhood.

Veterinary services in villages are very poor and   the poorly equipped apprentice’s behave like sharks, trying to fleece the poor even for treating common ailments. Some of the tribes think of their expertise as nothing sort of   super specialists. The much-touted insurance of livestock is quite cumbersome. Techniques for increasing the quantity of milk are but one part of a vast repertoire of practices in which dairy farmers must be thoroughly grounded. They must also have a thorough exposure to traditional and informal veterinary knowledge and practices.

After my bitter experiences with dairy financing, I vowed never to get into the nightmarish ordeal again As I moved up the hierarchical ladder in the bank, I came in contact with promoters of giant dairy plants, particularly in Western Maharashtra, who had modern salons and parlours for housing animals, state-of-the-art chilling plants and the required infrastructure in terms of veterinary care. These dairy plants were real wealth creators and sources of pride and revenue for the banks.This model, I think, is the only viable route for dairy businesses: small dairy farmers need to be aggregated and linked up through a value chain to these sophisticated projects, which carry the potential to sustainably transform the lives of all stakeholders involved. This is precisely the reason why tiny dairy loans are now a sunset financial product in the banking shelves.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]


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