Coronavirus lockdown forces Assam farmers to throw away thousands of litres of milk daily; dairy industry hit by rising costs, feed shortage

Karishma Hasnat

The dairy industry in Assam has come to a standstill with farmers having to deal with lockdown regulations that have severely impacted their livelihood. Dairy farmers in Jorabat area of Kamrup district, waiting for the state government to ease restrictions and help them out of this crisis, are concerned about their cattle falling sick due to feed shortage, rise in fodder prices, and unavailability of forage.

On Sunday, five dairy farmers from Ghanshyam Patti village of Nepali Basti hired a van to travel almost 20 km to Guwahati to sell milk. At least 250 people live in the basti that has 50 dairy farmers.

Though dairy and milk goods, shops selling animal fodder fall under essential services according to home ministry guidelines, the lockdown has affected their daily routine and transportation of milk to the wholesale markets.

"All hotels and restaurants are closed, so wholesalers do not buy milk from us. I brought 120 litres of milk, and managed to sell only 20 litres," said 42-year-old Shivlal Sharma, a dairy farmer who cares for 80 jersey cows in his household.

Shivlal and other dairy farmers of Jorabat have requested the government to ensure availability and supply of cattle feed at this time of crisis. Farmers are throwing away thousands of litres of milk each day.

"We can still throw the milk, but we need to keep the cattle alive. In some farms, cattle are in a critical condition, not able to get up. How will we feed the cows? The fodder was priced at Rs 1,000 before the lockdown, and now it has gone up to Rs 1,300," said Pradip Ghosh, another dairy farmer from Jorabat.

"Usually, we milk cows at six in the morning, feed them, clean the barn €" but now, we are turning the milk into cream. Till noon, we separate the cream from raw milk. But where will we store it? I have discarded almost 50 to 60 litres of milk today, and the cream will also go waste," said Ramu Sharma, a 60-year-old dairy farmer who said he'd never seen such times.

"The commercial dairy farmers have a proper system, they can preserve the milk in big fridges for at least two days," Sharma added.

On the other hand, the Sitajakhala Dugdha Utpadak Samabai Samiti Ltd (SJDUSS) in Morigaon district has sought government help to set up a joint venture for producing approximately 15,000 to 20,000 litres of milk and milk products daily.

During the first two days of lockdown, the dairy farmers of Sitajakhala threw away almost 10,000 litres of milk in the Killing River. Farmers are facing a loss of Rs 12 to 13 lakh every day.

During the 1962 Indo-China War, Sitajakhala farmers did yeoman's work in supplying milk to the Indian Army personnel on the front lines, and believe they can do more.

"If we could do it during war time, we can do it today. We have our own processing plant, pasteurization and other units to produce about 20,000 litres of milk and milk products daily," said Ranjiv Sharma, chairman of Sitajakhala Cooperative Society, which was launched in 1958 with only 17 members, and now has around 1,500 members. "To cope with the circumstances, people need to boost their immunity and develop strength, for which milk is absolutely essential."

The dairy farmers of Sitajakhala launched their first full-fledged milk processing unit in November 2018 at Jagiroad on the outskirts of Guwahati.

"The commercial dairy farmers have been affected to a great extent. They are suffering today because their land holding capacity is very small. Dairy farming is their primary source of income, almost 80 percent are dependent on cattle feed from other states, mostly West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Fortunately, we have been trying to preserve silage fodder for past three years, and we have some of it in stock," added Sharma.

In Assam, there is a gap between the dairy market and farming, transport and storage of milk. According to reports, almost 95 percent of the dairy industry in Assam remains unorganised and milk marketing is controlled by traditional channels.

"We are producing 17,000 to 18,000 litres of milk a day, but where do we take it? We have no other option but to throw it away. About 1,100 farmers are directly catering to 25,000 consumers in Guwahati and adjoining places. Because of the lockdown, 8 to 9 districts have been severely impacted. The National Dairy Development Board has been located here since 2008, and yet our farmers find themselves helpless," added Sharma.

The commercial dairy farmers of Assam are looking to the state government to build an effective milk marketing chain that would give farmers a fair return on their investment, and assist farmers by paying at least Rs 5 per litre.

Farmers are also holding meetings in their areas to find solutions to their problems.


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