The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare has put forward an action plan, which projects an increase in the national cattle and buffalo population from 88.35 million in 2015-16 to 108.31 million in 2021-22 and 116.38 million in 2023-24. The Modi government’s National Action Plan for Dairy Development: Vision-2022 projects the doubling of milk production and a trebling of farmers’ incomes by 2023-24. But, to realise these dreams, which seem rather unrealistic, the government is relying greatly on the Rashtriya Gokul Mission. The mission emphasises on raising the productivity of indigenous and nondescript cattle by creating a super elite population of Sahiwal, Gir, Tharparkar, Red Sindhi, Rathi, Kankrej, and Hariana breeds. 37 indigenous breeds are recognized “pure” as a part of this mission.
But, this is an evident departure from the tested and proven policy of upgrading nondescript breeds through crossbreeding with western breeds like Jersey, Holstein Friesian and Brown Swiss. The government’s move raises alarming voices regarding both the milk production and farmer incomes. Another major issue that accounts for the low milk yield is the genetic erosion, which made our cattle and buffalo breeds featureless. A majority of the bovine population in India has only produced just 350 to 500 kg milk over an average annual lactation cycle. In the remaining minority, Indian cattle breeds have an average annual milk yield of 600 to 1,000 kg, while crossbred cows producing a yield of 1,800 to 2,200 kg per year.
Shifting farmers’ focus into dairy husbandry is a viable option to bridge this huge gap in annual milk yield. But, for that, the farmers would need cows and buffaloes with an annual yield exceeding 1,000 kg. It is estimated that over 80% of cattle in India are owned by around 70 million small and marginal farmers. With the proliferation of farm machineries and soaring costs of maintaining bullocks, rearing low yield cows and buffaloes for dairying and bullocks as draught animals is not an affordable option for the farmers.
Out of the 37 indexed indigenous Indian breeds, only four, Gir, Red Sindhi, Sahiwal and Tharparkar, have annual average milk yields around 1,500 kg per lactation. Seven breeds have annual milk yields of 800 to 1,200 kg and hence used for dairy and draught purposes. The rest 26 breeds, whose yield is below 800 kg per year, are used primarily for draught functions and producing bullocks. When rearing bullocks become uneconomical, farmers choose to breed cows and buffaloes with bulls of high yielding milch breeds. This trend leads to the generic erosion of some of the best Indian indigenous breeds. In order to save small and marginal farmers and indigenous breeds from this peril, an efficient cattle breeding and conservation policy have become inevitable.
Over the forty years from the 70s, crossbreeding varieties with European dairy breeds like Jersey and Holstein Friesian helped to increase India’s annual milk production from 23.3 mt in 1973-74 to 155.5 mt in 2015-16. With an annual milk yield of 2,000 to 2,400 kg, these crossbred varieties have become the darlings of marginal farmers, who ventures into animal husbandry more enthusiastically. But, unfortunately, there is a wave of misconceptions circulating around about the drawbacks of crossbred cattle. The glorifications of Indian native cattle breeds, without any proper scientific foundations or data, added fuel to this facade.
As a result of such propaganda, farmers would be compelled to depend upon low yielding native breeds, which cause a crunch in their income as far as over 1,000 kg per cow per year. Similar situations were prevailing in Brazil when they started to import Indian breeds 100 years ago, a decisive move that helped the milk farmers in Brazil to increase the milk yield from 6,000 to 8,000 kg per year. The issue of conservation of the native breeds is important, but not at the cost of the farmers’ income. The breeding policy should give emphasis to the farmers’ interests instead of weighing on consumer, political or nationalist interests. Farmers should be allowed to rear indigenous or crossbreds as per their liking and crossbreed cows with elite Indian breeds to improve high milk yields and achieve greater tolerance to heat and diseases.
Only then a rural family can make a decent living on rearing and dairying, and the dairy industry can trigger the next phase of radical change after the White Revolution. With the branded players catching up with the cooperatives, which are a product of the collective strength of the 70s, and premium products targeting the brand conscious middle and upper middle class consumers in the cities are flooding the market, a comprehensive and farsighted dairy policy becomes inevitable again. Only such a policy can keep the volatile milk procurement prices under check and encourage the cooperatives to diversify into high margin value-added products (VADP).
The Indian dairy sector has grown into a mammoth in size with multinational and Indian corporate giants and a number of startups stepping in to lock horns with the cooperatives in the market. Market studies suggest that the private corporate dairies will overtake cooperatives and handle larger milk volumes than them within the next five years, with a projected procurement capacity of 28.93 mt. Major private players in India like Hatsun Agro Product Ltd, Arag Milk Foods, Schreiber Dynamix Dairies, Heritage Foods, Tirumala Milk Products, Kwality Ltd, Sterling Agro Industries, VRS Foods, Bhole Baba Milk Food Industries, Nestle India, Prabhat Dairy, Indapur Dairy, Dodla Dairy, Creamline Dairy Products, SMC Foods, Milkfood, Gopaljee Dairy Foods, and Anik Industries, are already challenging the monopoly of cooperatives in various areas with innovative marketing strategy and increasing market presence.
Lack of efficient artificial insemination (AI) coverage, anti-slaughter legislations, rising cow vigilantism and their impacts on the milk production are also crucial factors when it comes to the future of India’s dairy sector. The management and disposal of unproductive animals becomes a nightmare for farmers across the nation. As the starkly satirical first dialogue in the movie Manthan, Amul and White revolution were a “time par aa gayi gaadi,” a vehicle arrived at the right time. Nonetheless, a mammoth industry with a huge growth potential and hundreds of thousands of farmers depend on it can’t venture into new arenas with that residual momentum. What India’s dairy sector needs now is a far-seeing policy and a strict action plan, “a vehicle that arrives before its time.”