DELHI — Bora Bai lives on the outskirts of Guwahati, a large city in the state of Assam located on a hillock, set against the backdrop of lush hills of the Shillong plateau. What looks like an idyllic setting is actually the opposite: life is tough for Bai, a single woman who runs a small dairy outside the city to make ends meet.
As the sole caregiver for two older relatives and a grandson, Bai, who is 55, has her hands full. From doing the household chores to cleaning the cattle shed adjoining her hut to bathing the two cows and buffalo, lugging loads of fodder from the nearby forest, milking the cows twice a day and managing the sale of the milk, her schedule doesn’t leave her any time for herself.
Bai moved to Assam, in northeastern India, after marrying. Her husband was a laborer who worked on government construction projects. To supplement their income, they gradually bought a couple of cows, buffalo and hens. Since their monthly income was meager, the couple couldn’t afford to live in the city and built a small hut with a cattle shed in what is called the “peri-urban” zone. Usually, these areas neither fall under the jurisdiction of the city nor are they rural, so people living in these parts rarely figure on the agenda of policy makers.
According to Bai, no one from the government visits her and her family, whether it’s health workers, livestock extension officers or even census officials. They have no ration cards or any other identity cards. Yet, it is women like Bai, living on the invisible fringes, who are responsible for supplying nearly 80 percent of the milk that comes into the city. And this is true not just for Assam but other states as well.
Once Bai’s husband died — she was only in her 20s at the time — the challenge of keeping the dairy work going, her only source of income, fell on her. While she had been tending to the animals, negotiating the sale of milk was completely new to her. This transaction is handled by men, since they are the go-between who come into the community to collect milk from each household and take it to state-run cooperatives or sell it directly to homes and shops in the city. The payment, Bai said, is a fixed amount, usually 20-22 rupees a liter, or 30 cents.
While some households in her neighborhood directly drop off milk at the cooperative, Bai doesn’t have the means to travel daily, and, in any case, she feels quite hesitant to deal with strangers. She manages to collect around 20 liters of milk that fetch her around 400 rupees, or $6 a day. So far, she has worked tirelessly to pull through. But her biggest challenge is caring for her animals.
“I am not intimidated by the physical hardships of running a dairy in a hilly area, but managing the operations alone and being largely homebound come with its shares of problems,” she said in an interview. “It especially curtails me from upgrading my cattle, and treating them when they become sick is quite expensive. I am aware that my animals are not premium quality. They are not the exotic, high yielding breeds like a Jersey or Holstein. But then it’s the men who go to the cattle market, and so sellers are not willing to engage with a woman.”
In the early days, as she was battling the grief of losing her husband and grappling with her new responsibilities, Bai yearned for nuanced training that would have helped her figure out the tougher, technical facets of dairy farming.
“Whatever I have learnt has been on the job,” she said. “In the beginning, it was my husband who had showed me the ropes, but later I had to rely on my own judgment, do things intuitively. If the government can provide women like me with specific training that will enable us to identify common cattle diseases, select good milk-yielding breeds and even deal with the financial aspects, especially matters related to loans and insurance, it would make a huge difference.
“Women do eventually figure out ways to do things, but it would be good to go into this line of work with some sound information base so that men cannot take advantage of our ignorance.”
In fact, across India, women are central to dairy farming. But whereas the backbreaking work traditionally comes under their domain, it is the men who call the shots because they control the money. Critical decisions like what cattle to buy, where to sell the milk and what price to fix are done without consulting the women. Consequently, when they are forced to handle finances, insufficient experience and understanding only increases their vulnerability.
Unlike Bai, Partavi Bai, who lives in a village on the outskirts of Udaipur in Rajasthan State, married into a family with an established dairy business. Every day since she got married, Partavi Bai, with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, gets dropped off at their dairy farm nearby after they are done with their housework. There, they toil till sundown, cleaning the sheds, feeding and milking the 50 cows and buffalo: doing everything except selling the milk and interacting with the vet, which are “important tasks” handled by men.
Partavi Bai resents the discrimination and uneven distribution of work, brought on by patriarchal mind-sets. She says, “Why do we not know how much money comes in from the milk? After all, we do everything from ensuring the upkeep of the sheds and animals to the milking and even putting the milk in the steel containers, ready to be sent off. Why should we not be aware of the finances and get a share of the income? The men do absolutely nothing; we, on the other hand, ensure the smooth running of the farm and the home.”
Women involved in dairy farming are mostly unaware and often excluded from services and incentives. Moreover, because of prevailing social rules, they lack the agency to move forward on their own. Of course, exceptions can be found, such as the Ichhamati Cooperative Milk Union in West Bengal and the Mulukanoor Women’s Mutually Aided Milk Producers Cooperative Union in Andhra Pradesh. At these sites, women have successfully enjoyed benefits of animal husbandry programs and extension services.
Significantly, however, things have worked out when women came together to further their own cause, whether through self-help groups or thrift groups set up under the Women Dairy Cooperative Leadership Program.
As a gender expert who has analyzed policies and programs for inclusive development, Dr. Sarita Anand, a professor at Lady Irwin College, part of Delhi University, thinks that awareness and access will be the starting points for easing the livelihood difficulties of Bai and others.
“Women do understand the dairy business but have limited exposure to the market dynamics,” Dr. Anand said. “Simplifying linkages to government schemes, regular visits to cattle fairs and grounding in the basics of animal health will definitely build capacity and give them confidence.”
(© Women’s Feature Service)