Ekabhumi Sustainable Living, a farm in Karnataka, sells milk at Rs 120 a litre. Yet, it sells out all the 100 litres it generates daily. The branding of the farm in Hegganahalli village, about 35 km from Bengaluru, rests on one count: it houses some high-breed Gujarati and Rajasthani cows that give milk with more nutrients.
The owner of the farm, Balaji Naidu, a Canada-based non-resident Indian, spread the word that the milk from Gir (from Gujarat) and Sahiwal (from Rajasthan) has high protein and zero antibiotics. “We brought 65 cattle all the way from a market in Rajasthan’s Ajmer by paying Rs 1 lakh a cow,” says Govardhana, Naidu’s nephew, who accompanied his 67-year-old uncle to scout for desi cows with high milk yield in north India a couple of years ago.
“It is no doubt costly. But more than the price, the problem was their safe transportation. We did not want to take the risk of any backlash from cow vigilante groups. So, we first took clearances in writing from a Rajasthani Gau Seva Samiti (a cow protection group).”
A former WiproNSE -0.14 % executive, Govardhana, 31, now helps his uncle run the farm which has 90 cattle, including 28 full grown Gir and 12 Sahiwal. He is among a group of people who have started looking at dairy as a viable business venture, especially as the market for fresh milk is growing. The stocky Govardhana also owns a farm in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, where he milks 10 cows.
This new trend of rearing high-yielding cows on the outskirts of urban hubs to meet this demand is one of the many factors being captured by the ongoing 20th livestock census, a gigantic exercise involving 55,000 enumerators and 10,000 supervisors. It involves umpteen field visits to an estimated 28 crore households in India. The livestock census, held every five years, was to be completed in 2017. The delay, officials say, is due to the introduction of digital enumeration, for the first time in india.
Each enumerator (a person who does the census) is given a hand-held tablet computer and trained to record the findings — details of animals and birds; age groups; breed types of select farm animals such as cattle, buffalo, goat and fowl; and count of equipment such as incubators, milking machines and fodder cutters. Enumerators also collect data on fisheries — from selling of fishes to the craft of net mending. Apart from these, some basic economic information of every household — agricultural holding, annual income and the highest educational qualification in the family — are also recorded.
“We are using the 2012 livestock census data as a multiplier to calculate India’s milk, egg, meat and wool production through integrated sample surveys,” says Pradip Kumar De, an adviser in the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries, which is overseeing the census exercise.
“Once the new census data come in, production figures will be updated.” In another first in the country, this census is being manned by veterinary doctors and para-veterinary officials. The animal husbandry department in each state assigns 8-10 villages or wards to each enumerator, who is mostly based in the area concerned.
As on Wednesday, four crore households have been covered, adds De. His office has recently pushed three states — Delhi, Assam and Tripura — to fast-track the process as they had not yet procured the tablets, let alone started door-to-door survey. Haryana and Gujarat started late. The cost of the tablet computers — being bought by individual states at about Rs 6,000 a piece — is borne by the central government. The Centre has stuck to its March 31 deadline for collecting all household data,though the chances of completing the process by then look remote. The final report is expected to be out in 2019.
Livestock census began in India in 1919. After Independence, each round was fine-tuned to collect more data. For example, stray cattle and dogs were counted only since 2012.
In a written reply to ET Magazine’s query, the Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Radha Mohan Singh, emphasises breed-wise count is a key differentiator in the present exercise. “This livestock census has been designed to capture the breed-wise number of animals and poultry birds (fowls with their age, sex, etc). This will help the government understand the population dynamics of our livestock better and also to focus on the endangered ones.” The 2007 census also collected breedwise data, but that process was abandoned in 2012.
A fortnight ago, this writer joined Lakshmi Kantha, an enumerator in Hegganahalli and Aradeshahalli villages, among others, in Bangalore Rural district. In Kantha’s shoulder bag were a tablet computer and an instruction manual on how to conduct the census. If he had any confusion on whether a particular cow was of Gir breed or not — as was claimed by Govardhana of Hegganahalli village — he would flip to the annexure of the manual that has minute details of breed identification and their photos.. “Long and pendulous ears folded like a leaf ” is how the manual describes a Gir cow.
We proceeded to the nearby Aradeshahalli village, where Kantha — a tall man in his 30s — knocked on a door. It was answered by Ramanna, the head of the family.
After introductions, the 68-year-old man started answering Kantha’s questions. His son Srinivas and daughter-in-law Sushma also joined in. Ramanna owns three acres of agricultural land where he cultivates ragi or finger millet, a popular crop in the state. Till a couple of years ago, he owned six buffaloes and earned Rs 9,000 a month by selling its milk. He then took a drastic decision to sell all his buffaloes at one go
“Maintaining the buffaloes was not an easy task. I am also growing old. So when my son got a porter’s job in the (Bengaluru) airport with a salary of Rs 14,000 a month, I decided to sell the animals,” he said, adding that he did it with a heavy heart.
Kantha’s interactions were very short in households with no livestock. He filled up nil in most of the boxes on the screen. But the nils, too, show a trend. Shrinking of grazing grounds and rapid urbanisation are forcing people to sell their livestock. So is India’s livestock population going down? The census will answer such questions.
Available statistics show some interesting trends. In 2012, India’s livestock population — including cattle, buffaloes, sheep, goats, pigs, horses and ponies, mules, donkeys, camels, mithun and yaks — was 51.2 crore, a fall of 3.3% over the previous census, conducted in 2007. Cattle count declined from 19.9 crore in 2007 to 19 crore in 2012. The 4% drop send shivers down the spines of policymakers. The question that arose was, how come the cattle population was sliding in a country where the animal is worshipped and where there’s a ban on its slaughter in most states. But there was a silver lining, too.
The population of female cattle (cows) during the period (2007-2012) rose 6.52% and that of female buffaloes rose 7.99%. This was good news for milk production. No wonder, India, the largest milk producer in the world, has continuously been adding more tonnage in production. In 2017-18, for example, the nation produced 17.6 crore tonnes of milk, from 16.5 crore tonnes a year ago, according to the Government of India’s Basic Animal Husbandry and Fisheries Statistics, 2018. India’s milk production in 1950-51 was a paltry 1.7 crore tonnes. The findings of the latest census, which will also give breed-wise data of 41 elite desi breeds, will also be a reflection on how the Rs 2,025-crore Rashtriya Gokul Mission — focused on development of indigenous breeds — has fared.
Two senior statisticians who ET Magazine spoke to predicted a small increase in the number of cattle, particularly females, and a big slide on the number of sheep, taking a cue from the recent annual integrated sample surveys.
“There is a caveat, though. High milk production numbers may not necessarily mean growth in cattle numbers. This could also be because of high yield rate (milk per cow),” one of the officials cautioned.
The fall in sheep population has been a matter of concern for over a decade. It was 6.5 crore in 2012, a 9% fall from 2007. Since 2013-14, India’s wool production has also witnessed a steady shrinkage. Rajasthan, India’s largest producer of wool, contributes about one-third of output. This is followed by Jammu and Kashmir, which contributes about 18%, according to the same set of statistics. The worst year was 2015-16, which saw a 10% decline in wool production. In 2017-18, the production further declined 5% over the previous year, according to government data.
With gross value added (a measure of the economy) of the livestock sector to agriculture increasing from 22.6% in 2012-13 to 26.2% in 2016-17, the livestock census is of paramount importance. So then the question is how fool-proof is the system?
“The software is developed in such a way that once a supervisor presses the confirm button, no higher-ups in the state or the Centre can change the numbers. It will be locked forever,” says Basava Raj SK, a veterinary doctor supervising five enumerators. Clearly, technology is the new fodder for qualitative livestock data.