THEIR JERSEY cows and Murrah buffaloes now their lifeline in a worsening drought, 1,400 families from villages in Satara’s Maan taluka have moved with their animals to a cattle camp near Mhaswad, unable to provide adequate water and fodder for the milch animals in their villages. The first cattle camp of the 2018-2019 drought opened unusually early on January 1, long before the advent of the summer, and is already home to over 7,000 animals who will live at the camp until the monsoon arrives.
drought mitigation measures will kick in with general elections, fuelling speculation that these may be at an unprecedented scale this year. Among the ideas being discussed is direct benefit transfer, a cash dole, to counter complaints of corruption in the fodder camp contracts. But the rapid rise in the number of animals at the Mhaswad camp is emblematic of the paucity of fodder and water. A cash transfer for fodder purchase may not resolve the farmers’ worst fears.
“I celebrated Sankranti right here, my animals are as important as the rest of the family,” says Ranjana Virkar of Virkarwadi.
5 km away. In her sixties, Ranjana spends day and night at the camp, walking back home once every week to fetch supplies. Giving her company are other women from Virkarwadi, and her husband or a son and an infant granddaughter. With no crop on their two acres for the past two years, her younger son has migrated to Surat, where he’s employed as a helper in a diamond polishing unit. Virkarwadi is among a dozen villages in Maan where water scarcity is currently severe.
Late in 2018, the Maharashtra government declared 112 talukas severely drought hit, and thousands of villages are already being served by water tankers. Chetna Gala Sinha, founder and chairperson of Mann Deshi Foundation that is running the cattle camp with a sponsorship from Bajaj and two Mumbai-based social organisations, says they decided to open the camp early to give livestock owners a viable alternative to selling animals in times of acute water stress.
“The dairy industry is a critical source of livelihood in this region, and it has become more so in the last few years. Because even when milk prices are low, farmers get a sustained cash flow. It’s less uncertain than farming,” says Sinha. “We announced the camp right after Diwali, to prevent owners from selling their animals at the last animal yatra.”
Since the camp opened on January 1, the numbers have grown rapidly, standing at 7,349 animals on January 16. The 1,485 families come from 58 villages in Maan and around. The organisers expect the numbers to grow three-fold in the coming months. The state government is expected to launch its own fodder camps and other drought mitigation measures next month.
Mhaswad itself is still lush, and there is water in the Rajewadi dam, as well as the promise of water to be released from the Urmodi dam about 80 km away. At the camp, organisers provide over 2,50,000 litres of water for the animals daily, and the local municipal council provides drinking water. There’s a vet stationed at the camp, as well as a visiting doctor and obstetrician.
The animals are lined up in sections and lanes, under green net sheds. Around them are the paraphernalia that will render the flimsy cloth tents home for the coming five months, pots and pans, brick and wood stoves, large plastic drums to store water, a mirror nailed to a bamboo pole, a child’s plastic tambourine, the chicken coop, the pet mongrel. There are also meagre squares of privacy fashioned out of four sticks and a saree wound around — the women wake up before the sun is up for a bucket bath within these. Some have brought along their kadba-kutti machines or chaff cutters, to chop down the fresh fodder. The Mann Deshi Foundation is distributing blankets, but the cold at night and the afternoon heat can be uncomfortable.
“We’re getting water and fodder for the animals. And it’s good quality fodder, which means milk production is above
average. I cannot ask for anything more,” says Pamabai Mane of Hingani village, 11 km away. Her 10 animals produce 40 litres of milk, twice a day. At Rs 20-Rs 21 a litre for cow milk and Rs 38-Rs 40 per litre for buffalo milk, her daily earnings total nearly Rs 1,000. Multiple dairies are procuring from them at the camp.
The camp organisers provide 15 kg of fodder per day per large animal, and 7 kg for small animals. “Farmers are supplementing that with fodder they purchase from outside. We’re planning to increase our own fodder provision for Jersey cows to 20 kg per day,” says Rekha Kulkarni, CEO of the Mann Deshi Mahila Sahakari Bank. In addition, they’re planning to set up a production unit to make ‘murghas’ — a non-perishable cattle feed made of fermented corn — to reduce their costs.
Conversation in the cattle camp invariably returns to the rising cost of maintaining cattle and the depressed milk prices. The milk producers also have accounts of growing losses in a depressed agrarian economy, of livestock sold in the last animal yatra. In Masaiwadi, Ranjani, Virkarwadi and Hingani villages, the water tanker has been arriving once every eight days. “One drum of water in eight days spells death for cattle, so you can expect many more farmers and their animals here in the coming months,” says Ranjana of Virkarwadi.