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India’s ‘white revolution’ – myths and realities

Bharat Dogra analyses the significance of India’s pre-eminence as a milk producer for the poorer sections, which should ideally gain the most out of the production and availability of milk and milk products

India is widely rated as the world’s top milk producer and the achievement is commonly attributed to the ‘white revolution’ which in turn is said to be the result of improved livelihoods of small dairy farmers. How real are these claims? If accurate, they provide grounds for the pattern to be replicated. If not, the present path of dairy development needs to be reconsidered.

Dairy development aims chiefly at providing highly nutritious food for the needy. The extent to which this objective is achieved depends not just on the total volume of production but even more on the way consumption is distributed. Most poor households in India suffer from malnutrition and protein deficiency. The biggest source of protein was traditionally legumes (mostly pulses) but this has declined significantly following the so-called ‘green revolution’. Hence the added importance of protein from milk and milk products. If more milk and milk products reach the poor, malnutrition can be reduced.

However, while there is a highly visible increase in the range of milk products (including highly priced ones) available to the richer sections of society, where they contribute to obesity rather than increased nutrition, there is increasing evidence of a decline in the consumption of milk and milk products among the poor in both cities and villages.

This is partly related to changes in milk processing. The Indian village typically saw milk being processed into butter and ghee in homes for local consumption till a few decades back, ensuring that a lot of nutrition stayed in the village. A high protein by-product or residue of the processing (chaach) was often distributed free to the poorest sections. Now, there is a big decline of this most accessible form of protein among the rural poor.

Simultaneously, the problems of small dairy farmers have been increasing, particularly with regard to steep rise in costs. Most dairy farmers in India are small landowners or landless households in villages, for whom milk production is important both as a source of income and of nutrition. Keeping in view their low resource base, it is important that costs be kept low.

Feed for dairy animals is a major component of costs. This comes from grazing fields or pastures, dry fodder and concentrate feed or oilcakes. Pastures and fodder trees are rapidly declining in most parts of the country. Dry fodder from exotic dwarf green revolution crop varieties is less compared to the indigenous traditional varieties of crops grown earlier. Mechanisation of crop harvesting, particularly wheat, has further adversely impacted dry fodder availability.

In recent times, these factors have sent up the price of dry fodder exponentially. Oilseed processing having moved almost completely from villages to urban units has meant that small village dairy farmers can get only very limited supplies, and at a higher price. The increased government focus on palm oil will also result in the shortfall of oilcakes of mustard, groundnut and other traditional oilseeds and aggravate the problem.

As a result of rising costs, the margins from milk production are fast declining for most small landowning farmers. Landless dairy farmers may even face losses, and be forced to opt out of this livelihood support. The spread of lumpy skin disease among dairy animals has exacerbated the depressing situation for dairy farmers in recent times.

The milk distribution system is also highly polluting, with milk sachets accounting for the highest amount of methane-emitting waste in many cities. Also, contrary to the concept of reducing food miles travelled, requiring food production and consumption to be close together (something that had happened traditionally), a perishable commodity like milk is transported across more and more miles as leading brands try to capture increasing shares of the market.      

If small-scale processing facilities are set up within or very close to villages, risks for farmers can be reduced and availability of chaach will increase. Similarly, there is a strong case for processing oilseeds like mustard, groundnut, etc as close to villages as possible.

Note: In 1970, India set in motion the ‘white revolution’, the world’s biggest dairy development programme led by Verghese Kurien. Operation Flood, as it is otherwise known, transformed the dairy-deficient nation into the global leader in milk production.

(The writer is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food,Man over Machine and Protecting Earth for Children.)