The Times They Are a-Changin’

India’s government has made a habit of letting its own people down.  With an election looming on the horizon, meaningful reform has given way to pandering populism.  Rather than taking steps towards an economic environment in which people can afford food, the government has decided it would be best to hand out food to the neediest at enormous public cost.  The ‘food security bill,’ as it is referred to in the media, will actually function to make the country less food secure by enforcing a culture of dependency without an investment towards an improved future.
India’s economy is driven by services, primarily in urban areas, where development is most apparent.  Indeed, while nearly 70% of Indians live in rural areas, agriculture only contributed 16% to the nation’s GDP in 2011.  This gap between population and productivity makes clear the fact that India’s farms are extremely under-productive.  From my perspective, there are several ways to address this problem.
My research showed that the most productive farms were those that received investments from an external entity.  That is, those farms that had financial inputs from outside of the farm itself.  The most productive dairy cows I saw were exotic cross-bred cattle living on vertically integrated concentrated animal feeding operations, or ‘factory farms.’  This is unsurprising, as these cows were fed a precise diet from birth, and were generally sold after only a few lactation cycles (ensuring that only the most productive cows are on the farm).  Small-holder farmers are not able to provide appropriate rations to their animals, resulting in diminished productivity.  While dairy cooperatives ensure that small farmers can still make a small profit, with no direct access to markets (not to mention meager land and labor availability) these farmers have little incentive to increase productivity.  Thus, as urban demand for dairy increases, the larger farms will factor more heavily into India’s agricultural equation.
To ensure that urban demand for dairy is met, the government must take action.  Building state-of-the-art dairy facilities is expensive.  Therefore, government should seek to open agriculture to greater foreign direct investment, in order to avail capital to corporations looking to build a more productive farm.  As large farms would then flourish, government ought to simultaneously address the millions of dairy farmers whose livelihoods would be put at risk.
To increase productivity in small farms, contract farming is an important option to consider.  In this scenario, a company (or larger farm) provides seed, fertilizer, training, veterinary care, and other services to a small-holder farmer in return for a share of output.  Contract farming is in use in dairy farms in Rajasthan, but outdated laws have prevented it from becoming available nationwide.
Beyond this, there are numerous ways for the government to improve the productivity of its small farms.  Increasing access to credit for farmers, investing in education, improving infrastructure (especially dilapidated roads and shoddy electrical grid), removing counter-productive subsidies, and authorizing genetically modified crops could all go a long way to improve productivity and food security.
If the government does further liberalize agriculture, the future for small-holder farmers is bleak.  Cabinet ministers are actually quite blunt about this: Prime Minster Manmohan Singh declares that “salvation lies in moving people out of agriculture.”  If Singh has his way, though, he will have millions of unemployed people on his hands.  One potential avenue for putting rural Indians to work is in manufacturing: but for that to happen, government would have to reform labor laws in addition to revamping infrastructure.
No matter the route taken, care should be taken to ensure that women and those who have been traditionally discriminated against based on caste are not left behind.  Many rural Indians I met fell into the latter group, and though they had little wealth or education to their name, they were almost invariably cheery and forthright, hopeful for a brighter future.  Arbitrary social barriers that prevent upward mobility are cruel and unjust.  India ought to incentivize education and job training for all citizens, but especially members of historically disadvantaged groups in rural areas.  In the slow march of development, all of India’s people must walk in stride.

I’d like to conclude this blog as I began it: with thanks.  In addition to those I thanked earlier, I would like to send my sincere gratitude to Dr. Vitthal Kauthale,  Dr. Shivaji Sontakke, Dr. Suresh Gokhale, Mr. Balasaheb Khedekar, Mr. Yogesh Tilekar,  Mr. Digambar Gouli, Ms. Uttara Ghatge, Mr. Chetan Sadgir, Mr. Sumit Agnihotri, and Ms. Gunjan Rathi of BAIF; Ms. Maureen Valentine of Cornell University; Mr. Parag Shah and Dr. Amol Hande of Bhagyalaxmi Dairy/Gowardhan; Mr. Anand Kapoor of Shashwat; Ms. Bhavana Chilukuri of Dalberg; Mr. Jay Nargundkar of Kraft Foods; Mr. Abhi Chandrasekhara of Technoserve; and Mr. Deepak Kamath of Neotroniks for their contributions and much-appreciated expertise throughout my study.  Further, I’d like to send thanks and warm wishes to my family in Pune for their unending support, the rock upon which I built my experience.

Heifer, International

Fire and Rain

The Indian canvas has been painted with such starkly contrasting hues that it can at times swerve into the realm of irony.  Billboards and buses are plastered with signs advertising extra classes for students, in advanced subjects ranging from computer science to chemistry; yet a third of the country cannot even read said signs, as they are illiterate.  Satellite dishes affixed atop tin-roof shacks enable impoverished, bronze-skin residents to incessantly watch soap operas featuring invariably pallid actors on implausibly posh sets.  Signs hang above traffic-choked, potholed streets, imploring motorists to keep the environment ‘clean and green.’  Below the signs, though, black exhaust is sent upwards and tobacco-laced expectorate is sent downwards.

Such contrasts appear everywhere in India, which recently experienced unprecedented economic development.  While the development has helped advance some sectors of the population, others remain unchanged.  India’s unequal rise has spurred  a slew of interesting juxtapositions, even in agriculture.

The newest addition to the Patil family lives off a side street in Uruli Kanchan.  She hasn’t been given a name yet, but it is hoped she’ll be put to work soon.  Tied to a fenced-in post below an apartment building, she leads solitary life, blithely munching the green grass put in front of her as most cows are wont to do.  The milk she produces will provide a small amount supplementary income: she is not of a breed known for high productivity, and will not be seen as an important source of revenue.  Rather, the animal will serve a more superstitious role, as some Hindus believe there are spiritual benefits to keeping a cow in the family.

About 100 kilometers to the northwest, Parag Shah sits in his second-floor office above the Bhagyalaxami Dairy in Manchar.  Mr. Shah’s herd of 3,000 produces 20,000 liters of milk per day with the help of technologies imported from the west, including a rotary milking parlor.  The milk is bottled for sale in nearby cities, while cheese, butter, and other milk products are exported.  The Bhagyalaxami cows are Holsteins (a breed known for high volume productivity), and are managed meticulously to maximize their liquid returns.  After a few lactation cycles, the cows’ productivity diminishes, and they are sold to smaller farms.

In the United States, where dairy farms have become almost exclusively industrialized and vertically-integrated, there is nostalgic affection for small family farms.  Farms in which a cow is given a name (not an ear tag), is not de-horned, and is not valued simply for her return on investment are treasured artifacts of a bygone era.  Many of the small farms in rural Maharashtra, with only a handful of animals, would fit this bill.  These farms, like Mr. Patil’s, are owned by families who cannot afford or are not interested in expansion.

Yet this there is a different side to this story.  The families who own small farms in India cannot secure bank loans to expand their acreage.  This also means they cannot afford to feed their animals a proper daily ration.  Larger farms are able to not only provide access to a nutritious diet, but also fresh water, soft bedding, and prompt medical attention.  Furthermore, cows are herd animals: to tie them to a stake in a concrete enclosure away from other cattle is antithetical to their nature.  Cows I have encountered who live untethered, well-fed, and with plenty of bovine friends nearby tend to be the most content and most productive.

Certainly, this is not to say that all small farms are bad, or that all large farms are good.  At the end of the day, India’s populace will depend on a steady flow of dairy products to meet its protein demands.  This requires a high level of productivity in the ubiquitous cows scattered across its countryside.  However, despite the relatively higher productivity of large farms, the small farms will not disappear soon.  Even Mr. Shah of Bhagyalaxami agrees that small farms will persist.  Poor infrastructure, high population, and arcane land transfer rules ensure that family farms are necessary to provide dairy products for rural Indians moving forward.  Some of India’s contrasting shades may yet be complementary.

Can’t buy me love

Luck Be a Lady

Traveling through rural India on a motorbike during the monsoon season is not pleasant.  Sharp rain drops hamper visibility, ubiquitous potholes and depressions become lakes and rivers, and tires kick up sheets of mud with each acceleration.  For farmers, though, the steady rains are a boon.  This year’s harvest is likely to be more fruitful than the previous year’s.

But the news for agrarians in India is not all good.  The Times of India reported this week that 9 million women in rural areas lost their jobs last year, a dip of more than 10% (urban women, on the other hand, gained 3 million jobs, also more than 10%).  VK Ramachandran of the Indian Statistical Institute in Bangalore points to the increased mechanization of farm labor, which often leaves women out of the loop.  Indeed, BAIF research (as well as my own observations) conducted here in Maharashtra supports that hypothesis.  While rural women regularly contribute to caring for livestock and the home, men are generally responsible for managing finances, negotiating business deals, and operating heavy machinery.  Alarmingly, only the latter skills could be considered transferable if farms become more industrialized.

BAIF has taken initiative to support rural women, introducing a groundbreaking community health center that focuses on women’s health and job training.  For decades, it has served local women who otherwise may not have any healthcare or educational  services at all.  Yet the story is not entirely positive.  Recently, staff at BAIF’s Central Research Station banned on-campus conversations between male and female staff members outside of the workplace.  Rather than prevent frivolous or immoral banter, the ban will likely quell professional development and networking.  And since there are far fewer women on the campus, the ban will disproportionately affect the more vulnerable gender.

Prior to the ban I had the chance to network with a few women who are engaged in agricultural research at BAIF.  It seems that discrimination is nothing new.  One woman had dreams of becoming a medical doctor, but her family refused to pay the tuition, leading her to agricultural science.  Two others, both with masters degrees in biological sciences, are interested in biofuel research, particularly in deriving energy from algae.  For an energy-starved country like India, such an idea has a great deal of merit.  I encouraged the pair to consider starting a company, but was swiftly shot down.  Women in India, I was told, do not take such risks.

Twenty-first century rural India faces the challenge of feeding a burgeoning population.  To accomplish this, farms may face a paradigm shift, and move toward consolidation and industrialization.  Unless discrimination in education and opportunity is stopped, rural Indian women may be left out in the cold.  And if half the population is left dependent on the other half, India will need more than just a heavy monsoon to remain food secure.


Girls don’t just want to have fun


Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough

The sleepy, dusty town of Uruli Kanchan came alive yesterday, awash in pageantry and humanity as an estimated million Hindu pilgrims strolled through on their way to Pandharpur, approximately 200 kilometers away.  Propelled perhaps by dogmatic devotion to tradition, the mostly elderly lot will continue their journey for two weeks, stopping for food and water in the villages they pass through, eventually joining with other pilgrims making their way on other routes through Maharashtra.  Other than the question of lost economic productivity, I am bewildered that these folks have the physical ability to walk so many hours through alternating extreme heat and rain.

The local diet may not be the best fuel for intense physical exertion.  The food in the BAIF mess, for instance, is almost exclusively vegan, low in saturated fats and protein, but high in carbohydrates and oils.  Though ostensibly salubrious, it probably prevents its consumers from performing feats of strength on Festivus or training to become Olympic athletes.  Still, it is certainly enough to carry on a day’s work and keep off excess weight.

While local humans deal with a constrained — yet adequate — diet, local cows fare much worse.  Many of the milking animals in the Uruli Kanchan area are Holstein-Friesian, a European breed known for its high milk productivity.  Their milking potential in small farms in India, however, has yet to be unlocked.  Nearly all of the cows I have seen to date have been inadequately or inappropriately fed.  This leads to emaciated (BCS 1 or 2) cows, in stark contrast to the healthy behemoths at Marshak Dairy at the University of Pennsylvania.  It’s clear that one of the key factors in improving productivity of small Indian dairies is ensuring appropriate nutrition for dairy cattle.

Farmers report that they are constrained financially insofar as the amount and types of forages and concentrates they can provide as feed.  Therefore, I have begun to explore the economic and political issues that limit farmers’ ability to acquire appropriate rations for their cattle.  Releasing these constraints may be the key to more healthy, happy, and productive cows.

Perhaps the only animals here that eat undoubtedly well are the mosquitoes, devouring my blood as if it were a delectable imported red wine.  I coat my exposed skin in DEET nightly, but often awake to find the defense ineffective.  Like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park, the mosquitoes never attack the same place twice.  They test the skin for weaknesses, systematically.  They remember.


Will give milk for food

Where the Streets Have No Name

In the 1940s, Mahatma Gandhi approached Manibhai Desai with a quandary that had been troubling the spiritual leader of the nascent nation:
Why is India so poor?
Desai, an expert on sociological issues in India, replied that the answer lied in the persistent poverty experienced by the millions living in rural India.  Gandhi therefore implored Desai to bring economic development to rural India.  Desai founded the Bharatiya Agro-Industrial Foundation (BAIF) with this purpose in mind in 1967.

After a few days with family in Pune, I arrived at BAIF’s Central Research Station earlier this week and have begun adjusting to the quiet town of Uruli Kanchan.  Though just 30 kilometers from the sprawling city of Pune, the town does not have the same international feel as Pune.  I wondered, perhaps as India’s founding fathers did, why there is such a cultural and economic disparity between cities and their outlying towns and villages.  The answer from my perspective might be found in the journey between the two adjacent areas, which took a full hour (excluding the hour I spent waiting for a scheduled bus that didn’t arrive).  India’s infrastructure, particularly its transportation infrastructure, is in disrepair.  If commerce is to spread outside of the city limits, if people and ideas are to move efficiently, new roads or transport methods must be established.

As such, I have had to adapt to a desolate town with a populace that speaks a slightly different, more rhythmic Marathi accent.  I am staying in the BAIF hostel, sharing my room with a 9-inch green lizard who stares warily at me as he clings to the wall.  I have been able to make acquaintances with  fellow hostel residents by impressing with my cricket bowling ability (we won’t talk about my batting).  The food served in the mess is simple, traditional Maharashtrian, though I fear its repetitive nature may lead to a great deal of monotony in the coming weeks.  I have found everyone to be respectful and knowledgeable, but also flummoxed as to how an American learned to speak fluent Marathi.

I have been collecting preliminary survey data with Balu, a veterinary technician at BAIF.  Balu has been providing artificial inseminations, vaccinations, medical services, and general management consulting for hundreds of dairy farmers in the surrounding area for the last thirty-eight years.  Balu did not pass the fifth grade: yet his knowledge of veterinary medicine, and the demand for his services is astounding.  Together we  traverse mismanaged dirt roads to visit farming families, who shower Balu with great respect.

For anyone reading this blog in the Pune area, come to Ship tonight at 8:30.  Retro-Legendary Act (RLA) is performing classic rock from the 60s through the 90s.  My uncle is their lead singer and never disappoints.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

In a few short hours, I start my journey to India by way of the European Union.  Unlike my fellow CASI fellows, I’m a professional student, in the School of Veterinary Medicine.  Before I discuss my project, I must thank several people.
Thank you to my parents and brother for providing me a life in which I can achieve my goals; to CASI and Penn Vet for supporting my research financially; to Mr. Sudhir Ambekar for running a Sunday Marathi school that gave me the language skills this project demands; to my faculty mentor, Dr. David Galligan, for working with me to create a reasonable research plan; to Dean Joan Hendricks, Dr. Narayan Avadhani, and Dr. Dipti Pitta of the School of Veterinary Medicine for their help and encouragement; to Dr. Harvey Rubin and Dr. Aravind Menon of the Perelman School of Medicine & Energize the Chain for their inspirational work and faith in my ability to contribute; to Dr. Narayan Hegde, Dr. Jayant Khadse, and Dr. Ashok Pande of BAIF who have graciously opened their doors to a novice scientist; and finally, my fellow veterinary students for continually inspiring me with their aptitude and motivation.

My project seeks to achieve two distinct goals:
1. Improve production in rural Maharashtrian dairy farms through as-is nutritional, medical, and land-use analysis; and describe best practices in these areas.
2. Understand vaccine use and distribution for veterinary purposes, to establish whether cold-chains are a limiting factor in vaccination of production animals.

Global food security in the 21st century has been recognized universally as an important issue worth solving.  According to the BBC, India’s population, which is growing by 1.4% annually, is set to overtake China’s as the world’s largest by 2025.  Providing enough food to feed over a billion human beings is an incredibly challenging task.  Indeed, the World Bank reports that more than 70% of Indians live in rural villages, many of which do not have reliable access to adequate sources of nutrition.

The United States Centers for Disease Control has established that adults over the age of 18 require approximately 50 grams of protein per day.  In a country where meat consumption may not be affordable or culturally sanctioned for many people, dairy supplementation is essential — especially for the rural Indian population — to reach target levels of protein (as well as dietary fat and calcium).  According to Meeta Punjabi Mehta of Creative Agri Solutions Pvt. Ltd., while milk production in 2010-2011 was 121 million tons, with 4% growth annually, demand is growing at double this rate.  Demand in 2020 estimated to reach 200 million tons.

My project this summer seeks to increase productivity among small dairy producers in rural Maharashtra to help meet the rising demand for protein.  Dairy production in rural areas is crucial for India to provide its rural population with adequate nutrition.  Compared with their counterparts in Pennsylvania, Indian cows tend to produce far less milk.  This is thought to be due to the lack of appropriate nutrition, or an unfavorable climate.  A dearth of infrastructure compounds matters: milk delivery requires a rapid, cold supply chain in order to limit spoilage.  Rural Indians, lacking paved roadways, require productive local dairies.

I will be based at the Bharatiya Agro-Industrial Foundation (BAIF) near Pune, Maharashtra. Leveraging the expertise of David Galligan, professor of animal health economics at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine, I have crafted a survey that will quantitatively illustrate the economic realities of dairy production in Maharashtra.  I aim to administer the survey to dairy farmers in the Pune area with the assistance of BAIF staff.  Examining the as-is practices and processes of these farmers will yield insight into areas in which cow health and dairy productivity can be improved.  These insights will improve the populace’s access to dairy products, increase profits for farmers, and have a positive effect on the health of the cows themselves.

Further, I have joined the team at Energize the Chain as an ambassador for the veterinary profession.  I had the privilege of attending a lecture given by Dr. Harvey Rubin this Spring, and was immediately enamored with his idea to increase vaccine availability by leveraging existing cell phone tower electrical supply for vaccine refrigerators.  The idea has been put into action to improve cold chains in India already, but only on the human side.  I will examine the possibility of extending the capability into the veterinary sphere.  With foot and mouth disease and pestes des petits ruminants vaccines requiring reliably chilled supply chains, there is great potential in Energize the Chain’s work in promoting India’s food security.

I will arrive in India on the 12th of June, and begin work on the 17th.  I am certain the weeks ahead pose a significant challenge, and will be sure to update this blog regularly and candidly.  I welcome your comments and questions.

India, with Maharashtra highlighted