Over 1,000 women in Gujarat's Surendranagar district have proved that modern technology can ameliorate the worries of poor rural women. Surendranagar now has nine dairy cooperatives - with a turnover of Rs 9.8 million in the past year - run entirely by women.

Gujarat in fact, spearheaded the 'Operation Flood' movement in the 1970s, which sought to maximise milk production and profits through scientific techniques and attempted to free milk producers from the tyranny of middle persons. This was an initiative by Dr. Verghese Kurien, chairperson of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF) and architect of the Gujarat dairy cooperative movement. The GCMMF is the apex body under which all the 12 district cooperative unions in Gujarat function. The Surendranagar dairy is one such cooperative.

Traditionally, India's dairy cooperative societies have been run by men, but this is gradually changing. According to 'Dairy India' - a publication on the dairy industry - at present, of an all-India total of 9.2 million cooperative members, 1.63 million (18 per cent) are women. Some 2,476 all-women cooperatives are functioning in the country. That said, women constitute less than three per cent of diary cooperative board members.

Today, several NGOs are working to change this scenario to be more inclusive of women. The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad, Gujarat was the first one to start the concept of all-women dairy cooperatives in the Banaskantha district. This is a dry area with limited fodder reserves, and so SEWA has been actively working on fodder security, since fodder is the key to milk production. This scheme is implemented by women members of SEWA, now organised into the Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas Association. SEWA has also revived some defunct dairies in Santhalpur and Radhanpur talukas. Apart from NGOs, governmental organisations like the National Dairy Development Board have also organised special training programmes for women in modern livestock management. More than 860,000 women participated in this educational programme.

The Deepak Charitable Trust (DCT), a Vadodara-based NGO, has also been actively promoting women's dairies in Vadodara district since the mid-1990s, especially now - as part of the state government's Livelihood Restoration Project for areas affected by the January 2001 earthquake - since 2001. It was as part of this effort that DCT set up the Surendranagar project. The organisation chose Tikar - a remote village situated in the Little Rann (desert) of Kutch - in Surendranagar for its first project in 2001. The district itself is a backward area, and was considerably devastated during the earthquake.

A survey of the existing livelihood skills showed that, after farming, the dairy trade is the most commonly-pursued occupation in the village. Meetings were set up with dairy officials from the Surendranagar dairy, the main collection centre, and a milk collection centre was set up at Tikar, complete with the latest automatic milk collection machine, milk tester, weighing scales, batteries (electric supply in the village is unpredictable) and a telephone. To protect the milk from getting spoilt, a bulk chilling centre was set up at Halvad taluka (block), because the main Surendranagar dairy is 85 kms from Halvad.Developing local resources through self-help groups (SHGs) and training was also given importance.

It is not the higher price they get for their milk that makes them keep coming back. There are other benefits, like bonus, payment every 10 days, information about fodder, mineral mixture and cattle health training.

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About 37 training sessions were conducted with 588 women to equip them to work as secretaries, milk testers, para-vets, peer educators, as well as for administrative and management jobs. So far, about 228 women have visited other dairies for exposure to their working techniques, and another 82 have travelled for para-vet training. Today, there are 11 trained para-vets in Tikar.

Initially, women were hesitant about depositing milk with the dairy. But through intensive training sessions, they began to see the benefits of associating with the dairy. In the past three years, eight dairy cooperatives (in addition to the one in Tikar) were started in the villages of Halvad - Mayurnagar, New Ghanshyamgadh, Juna Amrapur, Mayapur, Kidi, Nava Amprapur, Miyani and Suchit Adigadh. On an average, a woman is able to deposit one to two litres of milk per day. The women associated with the dairy say that it is not the higher price they get for their milk that makes them keep coming back. There are other benefits, like bonus, payment every 10 days, information about fodder, mineral mixture and cattle health training.

And this investment in women is beginning to bear fruit. Bank accounts and transactions, as well as the day-to-day functioning of the cooperative, are operated entirely by women. Nearly 171 women in the nine project sites in Halvad have availed of cattle insurances and 570 women from 52 SHGs have availed loans for cattle and other livelihood activities.

The women of these villages have developed an unshakeable faith in the machines. They are especially pleased with the measurement of fat content in milk. This helps them fix the price of the milk depending on its fat content, instead of the flat rate that the middlepersons gave them. They have also learnt techniques to ensure better health for their cattle, through deworming and mineral mixture. This, in turn, leads to increased fat content in milk. Further, artificial insemination - which the women can afford because of the profits that the cooperatives earn - results in a better breed of cattle.

Some cooperatives - New Ghanshyamgadh, Tikar, Mayurnagar and Juna Amprapur - have installed Automatic Milk Collection System machines. The Tikar dairy has gone a step further and used its profits to buy a milk collection centre. (The other cooperatives rent a place.)

While the dairies have transformed the lives of almost all the women associated with them, for some women the journey has been spectacular. Take Jasuben Sonara, 35, of Mayurnagar. Barely literate, she is secretary of the Mayurnagar cooperative and receives a monthly salary of Rs 1,200. Besides, she earns a gross profit of Rs 24,000 a month, of which about Rs 10,000 is spent on fodder and cattle care. Some more is spent on instalments for the three new buffaloes she has bought. Sonara today operates a computer and carries out her functions with elan.

Says Jasuben, "Only a couple of women have four buffaloes. I am fortunate to have a very supportive family." Arunaben, a tester in the dairy, adds, "Most women receive little support from their family. Jasuben's is a rare example."

Even if Jasuben's success is not the norm, it does point towards a huge learning and earning potential. Janaben Dangar, 45, of New Ghanshyamgadh, says, "I only need to spend on fodder for the four summer months. Otherwise, I get fodder from the fields and I also store dry grass for winter." An astute assessment of income and expenditure (Women's Feature Service)