This is an apocryphal story, but it is bizarre enough to be true. Once every four or five years, we have a livestock census. The latest one is the 19th, for 2012. This anecdote is about the 2007 version. In a village in West Bengal, there were 31 geese — 17 male, 14 female. An officer, who prided himself on his knowledge of the English language, reported this as 17 ganders and 14 geese. The superior, who prided himself on his ability to correct mistakes committed by his incompetent subordinates, detected an inability to spell “genda” correctly. To avoid further confusion, he changed the report to 17 rhinos and 14 geese. Naturally, there was considerable consternation and re-checking at the prospect of 17 rhinos roaming around an obscure village in West Bengal.
Livestock data can be pretty good indicators of development, although they are rarely used in this way. Did you know there were 11.7 million dogs in 2012, down from 19.1 million in 2007? Judged by the global average of human to dog ratios, India has too few dogs, not too many. But more to the point, the more urbanised a state, the more the gender ratio is warped in favour of male dogs. The more urbanised a state, the more dogs move from the “stray” or “semi-stray” category to “domesticated pet”. The better a state does in agriculture (mechanisation or diversification into dairy), the more the gender ratio turns favourable for cows and unfavourable for bulls.
At a recent event in Jaipur, I found myself seated between two gentlemen — the famous photographer Steve McCurry and a faculty member from the Central Institute for Research on Goats (CIRG), located in Makhdoom, UP. I know little about goats, though I have argued with people about two points. First, goat meat shouldn’t be called mutton. Mutton is lamb meat. Goat meat should be called chevon. (I know you may not agree, which is why such arguments occur.) Second, studies on the ill health effects of red meat should be taken with a pinch of salt. Those studies invariably involve pork, beef and lamb. These are domesticated animals, with plenty of fat. If, for argument’s sake, you could eat venison, or wild boar, you might not have those effects. Goats aren’t lazy, they frisk around, even if they are domesticated. Unless they are specifically reared for slaughter, goats don’t possess a great deal of fat. A lazy sheep grazes. A frisky goat browses and there’s a huge difference between grazing and browsing. Between 2007 and 2012, the goat population in India also declined a bit, from 140 million to 135 million. In 2012, 129 million of these goats were in rural India and six million in urban India.
Subject to urban-rural differences being somewhat misleading, most urban goats were in UP. Most rural goats were in Andhra, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, MP, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP and West Bengal.
I had expected the CIRG faculty member to be interested in goats. I hadn’t expected Steve McCurry to be so interested in goats. He fished out his smartphone and showed us pictures of assorted goats he had clicked throughout the world. There was one especially remarkable shot, from Morocco I think. Several goats had climbed up a tree. Standing atop the branches, they were browsing. From their conversation, I gathered there are around 210 breeds of goats in the world, with 24 breeds in India. (The answer is a function of whether you only include domesticated breeds, or wild ones too, and also a function of whether you count unregistered and “nondescript” breeds.)
But for this conversation, I wouldn’t have realised India is the largest producer of goat milk and the second-largest producer of goat meat in the world. For the record, that 135 million amounts to 18 per cent of the world goat population. My interest in goats must have been evident, because the faculty member has just sent me a paper he has coauthored on goats, with a focus on economic gains that can result from technological and marketing interventions. These are simple interventions — vaccinate goats, deworm them, give nutrition supplements, breed with better bucks, sell kids when they are nine-10 months old, not when they are five-six months old. (50 per cent of goats are sold at five-six months.)
Although this paper is based on a regression model, the results are quite remarkable. Breed with a superior buck and the average weight of the resultant male kid increases by 1.65 kg. (63.5 per cent of goats in India are useless, in the sense that they belong to nondescript breeds.) If you use prophylactic measures, mortality of kids declines from 18 to 7 per cent and that of adults from 12 to 5 per cent. Finally, there’s an economic cost-benefit analysis of four kinds of intervention proposed — breeding, healthcare, nutrition and marketing. The overall gain is Rs 5,688 crore, net of costs. These are 2012 figures, to retain comparability with the livestock census. While that’s a substantial figure, the more important issue is how such changes can be brought about, since they also involve making goat-farming more structured and organised and less fragmented and dispersed. In other words, we cannot de-link this from the broader issue of the structure of farming and animal husbandry. After all, those costs have to be borne by someone, public or private. However, I also think there’s an element of information dissemination and extension of services.