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.