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.