Economy | The Indian farmer is driven by economics


The latest 2019 livestock census gives us some idea of which way the lifestyle of those who rear and keep domesticated animals is headed. This in turn can tell us how their economic conditions and practices, as also subjective beliefs – religious, if you like – are evolving.

One long-term trend is in food habits – are people eating more meat or less? A key economic factor is how far cattle are still being used to plough the land and draw load; another is to what extent rural families are rearing animals primarily for milk, not just for own consumption but also for sale to supplement incomes by becoming part of the dairying revolution.

Along with all this there is a key religious or political issue – cow protection – that has cropped up between the last census carried out in 2012 and the latest one in 2019. How has this affected the cattle population and can we find some clue in the statistics as to how the political/religious agenda has played out?

To state upfront what all the numbers indicate, the farmer is powerfully driven by economics, and maybe marginally by religion. He goes for high-yielding milch livestock and gets rid of both male and female when their economically productive life is over. When the livestock numbers and poultry numbers are read in their entirety, it seems likely that the non-vegetarian lifestyle is on the rise in India.

Here are the detailed numbers. The total livestock population in India fell noticeably between the censuses of 2007 (530 million) and 2012 (512 million), but rose more markedly in the census of 2019 (536 million). Within this, the largest segment, accounted for by cattle, fell perceptibly but thereafter rose marginally.

Within cattle, the cow population (female cattle) has risen by as much as 18 per cent and the male population (bulls) decreased by a massive 30 per cent between the last two censuses. The rise in the cow population can be attributed to the advent of cow protection but the fall in the male cattle population is clearly dictated by economic reasons. The usefulness of the male cattle has declined as it is used less and less for tilling the soil and pulling loads.

Simultaneously, a remarkable geographical shift has taken place. The livestock population in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan has fallen between the last two censuses but risen sharply in West Bengal, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. It would be tempting to interpret this as cattle being migrated to West Bengal for smuggling to Bangladesh, but how do we explain the rise in Madhya Pradesh? It would be facetious to say that cattle let loose in UP learnt by word of mouth that goshalas in MP were better run and so moved there.

The economic factor is also highlighted when we look at how the different breeds of cattle have fared. There has been a fall in the indigenous non-descript breed of cattle and a corresponding rise in exotic crossbred cattle with male numbers going down across breeds.

Females are more valuable for the milk they produce, across breeds, and their rise would indicate the growing importance of dairying in the finances of the agricultural family. This is buttressed by the rise in the number of milch as also in-milk cattle and fall in the number of dry cattle. The rise in milch cattle numbers is wholly accounted for by the exotic crossbreds, with indigenous numbers remaining stagnant.

The poultry population numbers tell its own story. The total poultry population has gone up by a considerable 17 per cent. Within this, commercial poultry, run as organised businesses and driven by what the market will take, has gone up by a modest 5 per cent. However, backyard poultry, which has the free run of the farmer’s homestead, has gone up by a phenomenal 46 per cent. The farming family clearly seems to be consuming more eggs and poultry meat with rising income.

A look at the goat population, economically useful for milk and meat, tells a story consistent with that emerging from the cattle numbers. The total goat population has gone up by 10 per cent, the female population has gone up by double that number at 20 per cent but the male population has gone down by 15 per cent. The in-milk population has gone up by 15 per cent, but the dry segment by a lower 10 per cent.

The farmer looks after his female goat for as long as it will lactate and then presumably give it for its meat. This is done for the male at a far earlier stage in his life. So the farmer is reaping the economic usefulness of the goat through both milk and meat.

This also indicates that India is consuming more meat than before. The goat population has gone up significantly in West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand (more meat eating), but gone down marginally in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan (more vegetarian).

The buffalo population tells its own story which is also part of the overall pattern. Buffaloes are highly useful for their high fat milk as also meat. The total buffalo population is static. While the female population has gone up by 9 per cent, the male population has gone down by a massive 42 per cent. This is not a recent phenomenon as the female outnumbers the male by 10 times. Within this the in-milk population has gone up and the dry population has gone down, both by a tenth.

The way economics has overwhelmed religion in today’s India, would have made Karl Marx happy.

Subir Roy is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal. Get access to India’s fastest growing financial subscriptions service Moneycontrol Pro for as little as Rs 599 for first year. Use the code “GETPRO”. Moneycontrol Pro offers you all the information you need for wealth creation including actionable investment ideas, independent research and insights & analysis For more information, check out the Moneycontrol website or mobile app.