"This is my demand," says Ravindra Gowarkar bitterly. "I want every beneficiary of the Sixth Pay Commission to get a cow like the one the government gave me." No pay hike the next time. "Give them an acre of land each if you like. And let the babus try and earn from this system," says the angry, educated farmer in Vanjiri. "This animal is destroying us."
"They landed up at my house and made me take this cow," protests Kamlabai Gudhe in Lonsawala, Wardha. This Dalit farmer's husband committed suicide five months ago. "I said we don't want this. We have never kept cattle and don't know how to. Give one of us a job, any work. Instead, my son is full time in service of this cow. Were he not tied down by it, he would earn Rs.50 a day as a labourer. This brute eats more than all us in this house put together. And we don't get more than four litres of milk in a day from it."
"The buffalo I got through the government cost me Rs.120-150 a day," says Mr. Gowarkar's neighbour. "It never stopped eating." He and several others have sold their animals. Next door, Anjanabai Dolaskar still has hers. "I feed it the wheat meant for my son - who was the 'beneficiary.'" As for suicide-hit households, says a top official in Amravati, "none of them even applied to government for an animal."
Giving quality cows to thousands of poor farmers was a high-profile element in the relief 'packages' of both Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The first would bring 40,000 new cows to the district in three years. The second, 18,000 in the same period. Even at the time, the idea was attacked as "insane" by critics from Planning Commission members to farm activists and others (The Hindu, July 14, 2006). Now the Chief Minister's package has crashed. The Prime Minister's hasn't even taken off.
The chaos, points out Vijay Jawandia, one of the region's foremost thinkers and activists, was predictable. "It was not clever to give poor farmers costly cows in places where there is no water or fodder." Which describes much of Vidarbha. And the result is familiar. Farmers without food, cows without fodder. No less predictable: the State's fodder assistance scheme is a mess. Much of what the farmers have got is inadequate, inedible, and the animals won't have it.
At first, the 'beneficiary' was to go to the market with an official of the Animal Husbandry Department and choose his or her cow. In practice, the AHD soon began 'choosing' on its own. The type of animal also changed. The original plan was to buy sturdy local breeds. Or a buffalo. Soon, as in much of the country, the idea of 'Jersey' cows slipped in. With each change, the costs of the game rose. Ms. Gudhe's cow is worth Rs.17,500. In theory, at least. She calls the sorry creature an "aadha Jersey."
Mr. Jawandia, amongst others, had demanded that the crores of rupees directed at these schemes be used to promote the growth of jowar instead. Vidarbha's livestock disaster began with the decline of food crop in the region. Jowar is where the fodder comes from. Up to 30 per cent of the land in some districts here was once under jowar.
Today, that's less than five per cent. Less fodder implies fewer cows, less milk. Importantly, it means less manure too, which affects soil fertility.
So milk production in the region collapsed some years ago. Yavatmal district is a good example, says Dada Rhode. He has been a milk collection contractor for decades. "Just 12 years ago," he says, "around 35,000 litres a day was procured in this district. Today, that's around 7,000 litres daily." An 80 per cent fall. In contrast, western Maharashtra could produce three quarters of a million litres in a day. Just two districts there, Kolhapur and Sangli, produce more milk than all of Vidarbha and Marathwada together.
Over there, points out Mr. Jawandia, "there is irrigation and water. The top of the sugarcane, a local by-product, is good green fodder. And the climatic conditions are better for dairying. For four months of the year, Vidarbha gets far hotter. The other regions have Pune and Mumbai as major markets. That doesn't exist here."
"Now," says Mr. Rhode, "milk comes in here from all over. From other districts and other States. Even all the way from Kakinada in coastal Andhra Pradesh. Private companies have gained from the collapse. And you'll find packaged milk all over the place."
"If jowar comes back," say farmers here, "farmers will begin to keep cattle once again." Just now, farmers are trying to give them away. Several have sold the animals. And lost money doing it. For these cattle, though subsidised (between 50 per cent and 75 per cent), did not come free. Ms. Gudhe in Wardha, for instance, paid more than the Rs.5,000 required of her for the cow. The AHD man extracted the standard Rs.500 bribe from her, tagging it on to the price. This happened to most others who got a cow. If all these schemes were fully implemented, the region's struggling farmers would part with over Rs.25 crore for the animals. Not counting what they would spend on maintaining them.
The cows given out may be "half" jerseys, but their appetites are not. The animal needs five kg of oil cake daily, which costs about Rs.45. Then there's the green fodder it needs. There is also the cost of labour in looking after a Rs.17,500 cow. "I'm tied to this thing," complains Bhaskar Gudhe, son of Ms. Kamlabai Gudhe in Lonsawala. "Don't forget I lose Rs.50 at least from not working elsewhere." There is also, as Ashok Manchalwar in Vanjiri says, "the bus ticket when I go to sell the milk." That's nearly Rs.30 for each trip. All in all, the costs of keeping the animal range from between Rs.85 and Rs.150 a day depending on who you are and where you live. Mr. Bhaskar Gudhe gets four litres and Mr. Manchalwar eight in a day. With a litre selling at Rs.9, they make between Rs.36 and Rs.70 at the most. "Remember it eats in the non-milking season as well," says a disgruntled Mr. Bhaskar Gudhe.
"I think I'll go and leave this creature at the Collector's house," says Mr. Bhaskar Gudhe. "Let him raise it." If other angry 'beneficiaries' here act the same way, the Collector could end up with the biggest herd in the region. And he won't have to wait till the cows come home.