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Beyond Nandini-Amul debate, dairying is an uphill task for many

If Nanje Gowda, a farmer at Kirugavulu in Mandya district, has sold off all three cows and stopped dairy farming in the last two years, his friends Nanjunde Gowda and Nage Gowda have reduced the number of cows as the rising cost of feed and fodder, coupled with an unattractive remuneration, has hit the dairy industry hard.

Across Southern Karnataka districts of Ramanagara, Tumakuru, Kolar, and Hassan, where dairy farming has provided a source of livelihood and supplemented income over the decades, farmers are now feeling the heat of price rise. Most holdings among farmers in the State has been estimated by the Karnataka Milk Federation (KMF) to be between one and three cows.

“The government increased the price by ₹2 per litre of milk in the retail market recently and passed on the same to farmers. But the cost of feed, which was about ₹800 for a 50-kg bag, increased to over ₹1,100. This would cost around ₹800 two years ago,” said Nagaraju, a resident of Malavalli in Mandya district.

The families of landless labourers owning cows are particularly hit hard as they have to purchase the fodder at a high cost. At Aladahalli in Mandya district, Nage Gowda’s contribution to the local milk society has dropped from more than 15 litres earlier to about 3 litres as he reduced the number of cows from three to one due to fodder issues. Mr. Nage Gowda said wryly, “A bottle of water is sold at ₹20 while we get ₹29 for a litre of milk. Is this a fair pricing mechanism?”

Varying prices

In Ramanagara, farmers get ₹32.85 per litre of milk while in Mandya it is ₹29 per litre. The procurement price of milk in 15 district unions across the State varies, depending on the financial status of the unions, and from season to season. Besides, ₹5 per litre that is given as incentive from the government has not been released since November 2022, which runs into over ₹600 crore now.

“Erratic release of incentive is another problem though the money is assured. Expecting the money, most of the times we raise hand loans and return it when the incentive comes,” said Nanjamma, a resident of Kempashetty Doddi, near Bidadi in Ramanagara district.

There are about 25 lakh members of the KMF, who benefit from the incentive scheme, and together with their family members are estimated to be over 50 lakh voters in the State, making it among the biggest catchment for political parties. Keeping an eye on the election, Janata Dal (Secular), BJP, and Congress have all promised to increase the incentive to ₹7 per litre in their manifestos. But many farmers the The Hindu spoke to were unaware of this incentive.

Interestingly, despite a high-voltage political battle over the entry of Amul into the Bengaluru market, and suspicions raised by the Opposition Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) over the merger of Nandini with Amul, farmers in rural hinterland either remain unaware of it or are more bogged down by survival issues.

Living with cows

Despite troubled times, why are farmers still holding to dairy farming? According to Mahesh at Anchemuddanhalli in K.R. Pet, with the vagaries of weather and poor pricing mechanism for agricultural produce, agriculture has not been profitable. “With milk unions making payments every fortnight, there is a steady flow of money. This also supplements income. Having cows is also part of the rural livelihood…. We are used to living with cows.”

KMF officials also acknowledge the problems faced by dairy farmers, and the price rise is squeezing them. While the KMF procured a record 94 lakh litres a day during the flush season last year, the procurement dropped to about 64 lakh earlier this March due to the lean season, which are the annual seasonal cycles. They also acknowledged that despite milk procurement going up, many farmers have either quit dairy farming or reduced the number of cows. However, the number of dairy farmers is also increasing beyond the traditional Old Mysore region, and many who can manage big dairies are also slowly increasing.

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