Dairy Farmers

Although India enjoys the reputation of being the leading milk producer of world, India’s overwhelming majority of small dairy farmers are facing increasing problems and among them those who are landless face a truly precarious situation.

What is more, these problems have increased even more during recent weeks when both the private dairy units and to a lesser extent the milk cooperative unions have reduced their purchase of milk or reduced its price in several parts of the country. In a leading milk producing  state Maharashtra, for example, the All India Kisan Sabha and the Milk Producer Farmers’ Struggle Committee have condemned the tendency of private units as well as cooperatives to push down the purchase price while increasing their profit margins. They have asked for protests against this tendency. They have asked for a purchase and sale audit of these units which can bring out the injustice done to ordinary milk producers / dairy farmers including women.

These problems of milk producers should be seen in the wider context of other increasing problems including higher costs. Most of the milk producers in India consist of small farmers and landless households in villages. Milk production is both an important means of nutrition and an important source of earnings. Whereas the income from crop comes after the harvest, income from milk production can come on short-term basis and  is an important source of meeting routine daily expenses. Hence dairy development can be  very important for most rural households if the base for this becomes strong.

One very important means of ensuring this is that there should be adequate  feed for dairy animals. This consists of grazing fields or pastures, dry fodder and concentrate feed or oilcakes. Pastures and fodder trees have been in rapid decline in most parts of the country. Dry fodder is lesser in the case of dwarf green revolution varieties compared to tall indigenous varieties of crops. As oilseed processing has moved almost completely from villages to big urban units, oilcake supply is prioritized for exports and big units while small village dairy farmers can get only small supplies at a higher price.

All these factors lead to increased costs for all dairy farmers, but the problem of high costs is worse for the landless as they do not have access to free dry fodder of crop residues and have to purchase this also from the market at increasing price. Hence at a time when even small landowning farmers are producing milk at a very low margin or when their margins are declining, landless dairy farmers may be pushed into losses and hence pushed out of this livelihood support.

Hence the need to be protective towards small and dairy farmers is very strong in India.

Another reason why costs arise relates to breeding practices and inputs. More attention has been given to  cross-breed cows in official policy but these require  conditions which increase costs. Recently , particularly in the last six years or so, the government has promoted the technology of sexed semen in which semen is treated and tampered to ensure that only female calves are born. It is strange indeed that a government that claims to promote holistic cow-protection has actually been pushing a technology that prevents male calves from being born!

As the recent pandemic has also taught us, arbitrarily imposed changes in animals, particularly when these are against what exists in nature, can have unforeseen hazards. It is hence very risky to promote such technological changes, particularly when this is done without long terms studies on impact on quality of milk or other risks.

In recent months there has been a big debate in the context of the adverse impacts of increasing corporatization on farmers. This debate is also relevant in the context of impact on dairy farmers. Increasing corporate control on dairy farmers can result in dairy farmers being asked time and again to buy particular high-cost equipments, feed or medications which can drive them out of business, paving the way for increasing imports of milk powder and butter oil etc.

This is why dairy farmers have been opposing those free trade agreements which would have led to increased imports of such milk products from Europe, Australia and New Zealand and at least two such advanced negotiations could be called off. However the threat of a free trade  agreement with the USA leading to imports which harm our dairy farmers still remains.

Dairy Farmers have become more vulnerable with spread of recombined milk in which milk powder, butter oil etc. are combined with fresh milk. By changing the proportion in favor of powder and butter oil,  adequate milk availability can be ensured for consumers even when procurement from farmers is declining. If and when cheap imports are available, then this tendency can increase. Hence there is careful need to monitor such trends, to ensure transparency and to protect the interests of small dairy farmers.

This need has increased particularly in recent times as dairy farmers in many parts of county have faced increasing problems due to a number of adverse factors in Covid and lockdown times. Milk being a perishable product, there is need for a lot of care to ensure that dairy farmers operating at a low margin do not suffer losses due to sudden loss of market or fall in price received by them.

If small-scale processing facilities are set up within or very close to village, then risks for farmers can be reduced. In addition nutritious by products like chaach which were earlier available even to poorest sections can again become more abundant in villages.

Another suggestion can be for the government to provide a spending limit to panchayats within which they can procure milk ( the expense to be refunded by government later) in any sudden situation like a lockdown or transport disruption and the procured milk can then be distributed free among poorest households , or as additional supply to nutrition schemes. This will ensure good use of milk instead of the milk getting spoilt.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Protecting Earth For Children.


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One Comment

  1. Radha Gopalan says:

    Bharat, you might be interested to see a related study that we at the Food Sovereignty Alliance, India carried out on the dairy sector. The report is accessible at: https://foodsovereigntyalliance.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/the-milk-crisis-in-india.pdf. Would be very interested to hear your comments on the study when you’ve had a chance to read it.