Drastic fall in ownership of male cattle in rural India is testimony to the benefits of farm mechanization in agriculture
New Delhi: Delivering his customary Vijayadashami speech, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat advised farmers to adopt “cow-based farming" practices as a way out of poverty.
“When we talk about farming with less capital, organic in nature, naturally the point is raised that the large number of farmers in our country are small land holders, without any irrigation facility," said Bhagwat in his speech. “For such farmers, cow-based farming is the easiest way out for poison-free and less capital-intensive agriculture."
But there are good reasons why Indian farmers, especially small and marginal ones, are unlikely to pay heed to Bhagwat’s prescriptions.
According to data from successive rounds of the land and livestock surveys conducted by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the overall number of cattle and buffaloes has been declining over the past decade. Between 2002-03 and 2013, the number of such livestock in the Indian countryside declined by 11.3% to 204 million.
The decline is largely because of increasing mechanization in the countryside which has led to a sharp decline in the adult male bovine population. In 2002-03, 403 households per thousand households in rural India reported owning an adult male bovine animal. This number fell to 223 in the 2013 survey, largely driven by a fall in the male cattle population. The female bovine ownership has also declined, but the decline has been less dramatic.
The choice of whether to own bovines and which one to own is driven largely by economic considerations, as an earlier Plain Facts column pointed out.
And data shows that it is large farmers rather than small ones who are more likely to own cattle and buffaloes. According to the 2013 NSSO survey, average bovine ownership per thousand households among large farmers is five times higher than among marginal farmers. Marginal farmers are those who own less than a hectare of land. Large farmers own more than 10 hectares of land.
This may partly be driven by increasing scale economies, as an earlier Mint article had pointed out. These returns increase even more when farmers have access to better storage and marketing infrastructure, such as in Gujarat.
But for both large and small farmers, it is imperative that they are able to find an exit from their cattle investments when such investments stop offering remunerative returns. The current frenzy around cow protection may have choked off such exit options, making it burdensome to own cattle.
If RSS is really interested in promoting farmer incomes, it should advocate an end to the frenzy around cow protection, and start considering economically feasible models—such as the Gujarat model of dairy cooperatives—to boost livestock incomes of Indian farmers.
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