The COVID-19 lockdown is driving milk businesses in western Uttar Pradesh to the ground

The milk industry directly and indirectly employs thousands of people in states like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. The ongoing lockdown to control the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the industry hard. Ajit Solanki / AP Photo
03 April, 2020

The state of Uttar Pradesh is the highest producer of milk in India and its western region accounts for a major share of the output. Consequently, the production and distribution of milk is a source of livelihood for thousands in the state. The ongoing lockdown, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, has hit this sector hard with sales and prices of milk dropping dramatically, and a concomitant rise in the input costs, such as fodder.   

I spoke to farmers and agrarian workers spread over several villages in western Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat and Shamli districts. All of them told me that ever since the nationwide lockdown began on 26 March, sales of milk have come to a standstill.  For instance, a business in the village of Dhanaura Silver Nagar, reported that their intake of milk has dropped from 200 litres per day to barely 60 litres per day. The sudden drop in demand has led to a drastic fall in the prices—in some areas milk is being sold at Rs 15 to Rs 25 per litre compared to the earlier range of Rs 40 to Rs 50 per litre. All of them reported that on the other hand the costs of inputs like fodder, bran, cotton-seed cakes, gram and straw have increased significantly—all these items are being sold at a markup of anywhere between Rs 5,00 to Rs 1,000.

Most of the people employed in the sector are daily-wage workers, agricultural labourers, and farmers. In a significant proportion of cases, the women of these households are the ones who rear the cattle and sell the milk. This income is what runs their households, educates their children and contributes to their savings. While the farmers who own their land still have a safety net, the daily-wagers and agrarian labour are out of work because of the lockdown. With no work and the sales of milk almost negligible, these households are now struggling to survive and see no hope on the horizon. 

In addition, the excessive seasonal rains across north India in March have disrupted and delayed the wheat harvest, which is the main source of fodder for cattle, for the year. Usually, people who rear cattle start running out of their stock of fodder and straw by the time the wheat harvest starts. The by-product of the harvest is then used to replenish stocks. The delay in the harvest has also contributed to rising prices; for instance, the price of 100 kilograms of straw has increased by almost Rs 500 to Rs 1,000.

Dhanaura Silver Nagar is about seventy kilometres from Delhi. It falls under the Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh. In 2015, Anuj Kashyap, a resident of Dhanaura Silver Nagar, had conducted a survey of the village, along with the village secretary. He told me that there were around eighteen hundred families in the village. The sale and processing of milk was a major business in the village—there were eight dairies and ten milk-boiling plants in the village. People from across caste groupings were engaged in these businesses. He also told me that the village had around one thousand people who worked as daily-wage labourers and did not own any land. Almost all the women in these houses raised cattle as a source of income.

I also spoke to Arshad, a resident of the village, who owns a milk-boiling plant there and supplies Mawa—a milk product—to Delhi. He told me that before the lockdown, he used to buy 200 litres of milk daily at a price of Rs 40 to Rs 50 per litre. But now, he buys only 60 litres of milk at Rs 30 per litre. And all his supplies to Delhi had stopped. He said he and his workers were suffering terribly because his “business is destroyed.”

Tejpal, a daily-wage labourer, told me that since the lockdown began he has no work. “About one hundred of us labourers used to go to Baraut for work every day but that has stopped.” He rears one buffalo at home, to sell milk, and that income too has stalled. He too complained about rising input costs and that “no one is taking milk.” He added, “in such a situation what will the labourer do and who will listen to our problems?” Tejpal was also worried about the government’s supply and distribution of ration. “Earlier my name was in the MNREGA rolls, but not anymore. Today, ration was supposed to come to the village but no one knows who will get it and who will not.”

Povindra Rana, also from the same village, is a farmer and rears buffaloes, too. He told me that milk was selling at Rs 20 to Rs 25 a litre and even then there were no takers. Rana told me, “Like the labourer, the farmer is also facing a big crisis now.”

The story repeated itself in the village of Budhera, less than ten kilometres from Dhanura Silver Nagar. I spoke to Ajay Gujjar, who is a resident of Budhera and practises law at the Baghpat district court.  He told me that the seven to eight villages surrounding Budhera were dominated by the Gujjar community and all of them supply milk to Delhi. Ajay said that before the lockdown, his village used to send three trucks of milk to Delhi daily. Now, they send just one truck and the distributor in Delhi was refusing to take delivery of even that one truck. “Today, the people of the village went to Baraut with the milk. There the price was Rs 25 per litre so they came back,” he said. He said all the Gujjar villages were facing the same problem. “In this, the farmer will be able to survive a little but the labourer will not be able to survive,” he told me. He added, “And the animals of the labourers will also not get fodder. And it seems that the situation will only get worse.”

The situation was the same in the neighbouring district of Shamli. I spoke to Ajay Kumar, a resident of Gangeru village. Ajay rears cattle and sells milk. When I spoke to him he was on his way back from the market after buying khal—it is mixed with the fodder given to cattle. “Suddenly the shopkeeper has increased the price of khal,” he told me. He continued, “and no one is even asking about milk. No one is willing to take it. Some offer Rs 20, some Rs 25. Till last week, I was selling it for Rs 45.” He was worried the situation for “labourers like me will worsen soon.”