MANIPUR — Livelihoods

Milky way forward

Dairy farming has been the stairway to a fuller life for many households in an all-women project executed with precision over a long period

Omita Karam was struggling to cope with rising expenses when a new income stream flowed in to change her existence for the better. “I was able to send my children to a private school and to save up for emergencies,” says the 51-year-old mother of four from Ithaiwapokpi village in Manipur’s Bishnupur district. “Also, I understood how to keep accounts and I learned about the world outside my kitchen.”

For 38-year-old Kanjam Geetasana from nearby Ithaibazar village, more money in the family kitty has resulted in a refurbished house and the fuelling of optimism about the future of her two kids. “I will give my daughter a good education; no question of marrying her off early,” she says. “I want her to be a nurse or some other kind of professional. More marks and she could even become a doctor.”

Liquid nutrition

Ms Geetasana’s son is into karate and he’s adept enough at the martial art, even if only 11, to think of representing Manipur someday. “If I continue doing well I can help him realise his ambitions,” says the proud mother. “And the milk we have at home will make him stronger.”

Milk is the life-enhancing lubricant for Ms Karam and Ms Geetasana, two of 580 women in the ‘integrated dairy development programme’ backed by the Tata Trusts. Spread across 27 villages in five districts of the state, the initiative is being implemented by Youth Volunteers’ Union (YVU), a long-standing nonprofit with solid credentials.

The Trusts have been supporting the programme since 2007 and, officially, the support period ended in June 2018 but they continue to be involved with it. The way the initiative works is straightforward. Rural women are organised in dairy groups 10 to 20 strong and they are provided with training and low-interest loans to purchase high-yield cows. The women deposit the milk produced at village collection centres to earn money as well as repay the loan in kind. The milk is processed and packed at a plant set up under the programme before being marketed.

That’s the big picture. The details explain the programme’s success, its precision and its sustainability. YVU has brought the member groups together and organised them under a producer company — YVU Diary — and this is the pivot of the programme. Resources from the Trusts have enabled the setting up of a milk processing plant, with a capacity of 10,000 litres a day, that has branched out into the production and sales of ice cream, butter, ghee (clarified butter), paneer (soft cheese) and curds.

YVU has roped in financial institutions and the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (Nabard) for the loan-disbursals component in the project, which borrows heavily from the trailblazing Amul model in Gujarat. Farmers can avail loans of up to 120,000 (for two units of cattle) and Nabard deposits 25% of the loan amount as grants to them through its Dairy Development Entrepreneurship Scheme. Furthermore, there is a revolving fund — created through a contribution from the Trusts that has to be paid back — from which farmers can get interest-free loans.

A farmers group in Bishnupur, one of the five districts in the state where the dairy development project has unfolded

High-yield breed

The cows procured by the beneficiaries are of the Holstein Friesian breed, a Dutch-origin variety that delivers milk in much greater quantities than the other breeds available in Manipur. YVU Dairy provides veterinary services to take care of the cows and much else besides: fodder and specialised feed, sales support and insurance for the animals. These and other efforts, taken together, have resulted in each member in the programme being able to earn upwards of 7,000 a month from the milk produced by a single head of cattle.

YVU Diary, the producer company, has evolved in the last phase of the project into an independent entity. The beneficiaries are the shareholders of the company, which now manages the programme and the milk processing plant and will, in time, take exclusive ownership of the entire business.

The progress achieved in the programme thus far has been built brick by brick, from the pilot phase of 2007 to the present day, and there is no plan or expectation for further funding support from the outside. “We began with the idea of generating livelihood opportunities and we have evolved to a stage where we can confidently say this can go on without our hand-holding,” says AkoijamTikendrajit Singh, who heads YVU.

The numbers corroborate what Mr Singh, a respected figure in Manipur’s NGO sector, believes. YVU Diary — or the YVU Milk Producer Company Limited, its official name — made a profit of 212,000 in 2016-17 and is on course to garner more in the days ahead.

What will remain constant is the gender equation. Poor and unemployed women comprise the vast majority of the farmers in the programme. But why only women? “We have more trust in women; they work harder,” says Akoijam Tikeshwori, the lady boss of YVU. “The money comes to me and my husband comes to me when he needs some,” says Ms Geetasana, before adding with the hint of a smile. “That’s fine by me.”