In 1970, the Government of India (GoI) embarked on a landmark dairy development program, known as the White Revolution. The White Revolution spanned three decades and has generally been accepted as a monumental success: Since the inception of the White Revolution, there has been a fivefold increase in rates of national milk production and a doubling in the availability of milk for consumption (World Bank 2007). Indeed, in 2014, India became the world’s leading producer of milk with a national output of 146.3 million metric tons valued at ten billion US dollars (NDDB 2015). This has been done without a shift to centralized industrialism in the form of intensive animal farming and without flooding Indian markets with cheap foreign goods. Instead, through the introduction of infrastructures for collection and bulk processing, Operation Flood formalized new and existing dairying communities into a network of cooperative societies. Today these societies make up much of the formal sector. They encompass approximately 70 million households in possession of an average of 0 to 0.008 square miles of land and one to two cattle (Babcock Institute 2006:13, Government of India 2006). By contrast, there are about 70,000 dairy farms in the US in possession on average of 200 cattle. Meaning, the American dairy sector is somewhere between one hundred and one thousand times more concentrated than that in India.
The distinctive mode of production in India’s dairy sector has made it a compelling case study for critics of the corporate-industrial food complex. In the article The White Counter-Revolution: India's Dairy Cooperatives in a Neoliberal Era, Schoelten and Basu (2009) state that the White Revolution is “an example of alternative development which has for decades empowered small-scale farmers with … a low-input/low-output model appropriate to the environmental and socioeconomic conditions of much of the rural population in India and across the Global South, and one which provides a sharp contrast to the Western model of intensive dairying dependent on high energy use and confinement of animals” (Schoelten and Basu 2009:18). At the same time, the distinctiveness of India’s cooperative dairy sector is anxiously discussed for the threat it is under from multinational corporations (MNCs) and the growing number of intensive dairy farms. In the report “India’s Milky Way,” written for the nonprofit Grain, Jyotika Sood (2014) describes the attack cooperatives are under from a laundry list of MNCs. She writes: “Following economic liberalisation, the government delicensed the dairy industry. Since then there has been a sharp rise in the number of private players … Industry sources claim that it took the private sector just 20 years to surpass the market share acquired by the dairy cooperative sector over nearly half-a-century” (Sood 2014).
In this paper, I present a slightly different portrayal of the cooperatives than is often offered, one that attends to its inefficacies and injustices as well as its triumphs. I also work to think about industrialization beyond the privatized factory farm as the supposed opposite of the cooperatives. I do so by looking to the intensification of the cooperatives and the technologies it provides throughout its decentralized channels, as this mode of corporate industrialization mirrors Foucault’s (1977) description of power as “tentacle like” (Foucault 1977:141-144). I focus specifically on developmental techniques for techno-scientific animal husbandry practices and their history, particularly as these were imagined as “developing” irrational, inefficient, and religious practices. I conclude by reflecting on the relevance of this portrait of decentralized industrialization for contemporary, global dynamics of climate change diplomacy.
In the misty afternoon of an incipiently monsoon day, myself and several team members of Anthra – a nongovernmental organization (NGO) focused on sustainable livestock development based out of Pune, India – travelled into the hills of the Western Ghats. We were to meet with Arjun, a dairy farmer who had opted out of the state cooperative in the interest of founding a private organic dairy. In one of the two rooms that comprised his house, the one directly attached to the cattle shed built with a loan from the Bank of Maharashtra, we discussed the details of his livelihood. Do you own land? What do you grow? What do you sell? And so on. Like many dairy farmers we met with, Arjun did own land upon which he grew a laundry list of vegetables for domestic consumption, including ridge gourd, bottle gourd, red gourd, bitter gourd, broad beans, peas, cabbage, fenugreek, turmeric, black beans, cucumber, onion, tomatoes, eggplant, rice, and vegetables that do not have names easily translated to English from Marathi. In addition to his use of crop remainders, Arjun grows elephant grass as fodder for his ten crossbred cows and trades with neighboring farmers to add diversity to their diet. Everything is fertilized with cow dung and tilled with bullock labor. In the absence of easily accessible veterinary care, plants are often used in home remedies. Arjun’s self-sufficiency, however, was less a confirmation of the desirability of independence than an expression of resilience, which I conceive of as ad hoc techniques of survival in the face of failing state care and changing economic policy.
Arjun narrated a brutal breaking even, with the exception 400 rupees a day. “I have tried to do things in different ways,” stated Arjun, “but I have not been able to come up with a profitable solution. I am unable to make ends meet. I must think twice before having an extra cup of tea. From four or five in the morning until the evening, we are all working hard, just working.” Arjun went on to offer a critique of the state cooperative, Katraj. Arjun was critical of the depressed prices of milk per liter that it provides to farmers and inflated costs of milk it offers to consumers. He saw too much money being diverted to the costs of distribution, to the proverbial middleman.
Arjun’s critique echoed the refrain of cooperative farmers: that the price per liter of milk is too low and that the subsidies provided by the cooperatives are inaccessible or not especially useful. India’s state dairy cooperatives hypothetically function in a democratic hierarchy, where the millions of farmer members regulate the upper echelons of management and therefore have a say in decisions regarding what kinds of subsidies and prices will be offered through the cooperative. In this way, farmers ought to have some degree of control over what kinds of benefits they have access to through their membership. For many, however, this is not the case. For, the hierarchy is not just one of governance but also one of infrastructure, where milk is collected from villages twice daily and shipped via truck to district-level centers for pasteurization and then onto state-level facilities for packaging. The day-to-day experience of milk being taken to distant places for unknown consumers, of a functional cleavage between everyday agrarian life and the broader functioning of the cooperative, obscures the connection of governance that ostensibly transcends this divide.
Consider, in Maharashtra there are three official veterinarians associated with the state cooperative. Maharashtra is 118,809 square miles and home to 23,273 village societies. Thus, while cost effective, to call the state veterinarian is to be able to wait. In which case, the illness to be treated is likely of the sort that can be addressed with non-allopathic therapeutics. If it is something that requires immediate attention, a private doctor will be called. The inefficacy of state development subsidies when it comes to the maintenance of animal health negatively interfaces with its interventions into this realm in terms of breeding. That is, the overarching and perhaps most effectively implemented undertaking of the White Revolution was its initiative to remake breeding practices in accordance with the principles of modern agricultural science, which were boiled down to the crossbreeding of Indian cow breeds with European varietals. As with other efforts to use biotechnology to genetically modify nonhuman beings that are considered only as resources, the genetic remaking of Indian cattle has left them more susceptible to disease.
Arjun, for instance, began his dairying career with a herd of murrah buffalo originally from Punjab and Haryana. This breed of animal was kept by his family for generations. Six years ago, Arjun decided to replace his herd with Jersey crossbreeds. While buffaloes produce more milk, which is in fact worth more per liter because of its fattiness, they also have longer gestation times. This affects not only how quickly one can reproduce a herd but also how frequently buffaloes give milk. Either way, Arjun made a costly decision to switch to Jerseys. The animals did not fare well in their new hilly, rainy home. All suffered from cases of mastitis so severe that he had to replace his herd again. Replacing his herd again, Arjun opted for Holstein crosses, those which he is in possession of now. He was emphatic that he wanted to replace his herd again, with desi cows.
The approach of the NDDB did not come out of nowhere. The modern history of agricultural science and livestock development in India, in fact, begins with what was first a postulation and then a presupposition: that India’s cattle – bos indicus breeds – were a problem. On one hand, they were viewed as necessary but unfit for the alleviation of poverty and hunger, and on the other, as disproportionate users of resources. The linchpin of this view was the valuation of a cow in general in terms milk yield and the definition of an Indian cow in terms of low productivity. As an inefficient being, the Indian cow’s production of one resource did not justify consumption of others. The Royal Commission of Agriculture (1928) describes Indian cattle as being of markedly “low quality,” excessive in numbers, and just “weedy animals eating up food” (Royal Commission of Agriculture 1928:198). The general view was that Indian cattle were categorically “uneconomical producers of milk” (Sikka 1933: 240).
In subsequent years, similar findings on the “deteriorating” state of animal husbandry in India were published by researchers from imperial institutes and colleges in authoritative journals of veterinary science and animal husbandry. The circulation of this discourse helped to legitimize it as a way of thinking about livestock and their owners to the extent that it became commonsensical. As one researcher at the Imperial Institute of Animal Husbandry and Dairying wrote, “that Indian cattle are low yielders, and therefore uneconomical producers of milk is widely recognized” (Sikka 1933:240).
It was not just the inefficiency of India’s cows that was a problem, it was the number of animals in the region’s livestock herd and the supposed irrationality of animal husbandry practices that underwrote this large population. The Royal Commission of Agriculture laid this out as an issue of Hindu religiosity and its dictates against cow slaughter. Bajaj and Srinivas (1999) state: “The very first attempt to conceive a set of policies for livestock development for the nation as a whole was the Royal Commission of Agriculture in 1928 … The commission linked the vicious cycle of low quality stock, fodder scarcity and excessive numbers to the Hindu religious sentiment against the slaughter of cows” (Bajaj & Srinivas 1999:76). In one of such instances of linking, the Commission states: “The religious veneration accorded to the cow by the Hindu is widely known. To at least half of the population of India, the slaughter of the cow is prohibited, and this outstanding fact governs the whole problem of the improvement of cattle in this country” (Royal Commission of Agriculture 1928:169). The lynchpin of the “problem” and its relation to issues of production was that not slaughtering cattle meant more animals would be encroaching on resources to be shared with human beings. Moreover, the encroachment was not for justifiable reasons of logic as in mathematical computation, but because of the vicissitudes of illogical affect and sentiment. Sikka (1931) writes, “a statistical study of India shows that India has far too many cattle to successfully maintain them either for the work needs of the country or for her food supply” (Sikka 1931:63).
Since it was undesirable to enlarge overall milk yield by increasing national herd size (it was already deemed excessive), the solution eventually emerged to crossbreed Indian cattle varietals with Holsteins and Jerseys. It was reported that Indian cattle bore lower milk yields than their European counterparts, and so the logic was the desi could take on qualities of the European breed. The Commission pronounced, “the value of the half-bred has been proved by definite experiment” (Royal Commission of Agriculture 1928:244). Following Independence, the proof of definite experiment stuck. It was not unusual for the roots of policy and practice in Independent India to be found in “the categories, structures, and predilections of colonial rule” (Pandian 2008:105). Indeed, it became a general aspect of the program developed by the National Planning Committee of the Indian National Congress. Founded in 1938 by Subhas Chandra Bose, the purpose of the Planning Committee was to design India’s national development trajectory.
There was an emphasis in the Committee’s approach that national unity and development could be achieved through the lofty promises of science and technology. With this Committee, India’s nationalist leaders proposed techno-scientific answers for problems of social and economic development. With humanitarian intentions, the Planning Committee stated that, “all social customs, religious taboos and injunctions which now stand in the way of the husbandry of soil resources and efficient utilization of available food resources have now to be abjured to mitigate the effects of chronic food shortage and poverty” (Kumar and Basu 2013:103). This sentiment was echoed by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He stated, “We are trying to catch up, as far as we can, with the Industrial Revolution that occurred long ago in Western countries” (Nehru in Chatterjee 1994:245).
In this way, post-Independence dairy development programs sought to improve the wellbeing of farmers by focusing on breeding practices. The Five-Year Plans of 1951 and 1956 both enshrined the basic solution of Indian cattle being crossbred with European varietals to increase milk yield. At the same time, a series of Livestock Improvement Acts were instituted throughout the country during the 1950s and 1960s. These acts endowed a licensing officer with the power to order the castration of bulls that were “likely to beget defective or inferior progeny” (Government of Maharashtra, 2013). A disobeyed order could result in fines, imprisonment, or the seizure and sale of an illegal bull on the market or its donation to a panjarpol (People’s Archive of Rural India, 2015).
In 1970, then, the Government of India’s White Revolution strategy to increase milk through artificial insemination (AI) is hardly a surprise, though its intensity was unprecedented. The census from 2013 shows a 62% increase in the national herd size of crossbred animals since 1992 and a 15% decrease in the number of indigenous cattle (Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations, 2014). Plans to expand the program remain after the end of the White Revolution under the aegis of the National Dairy Plan I (NDP I), also run by the NDDB. Under the tab entitled “Breeding,” the NDDB website reiterates that Indian cows have a low productivity and this “is an uneconomical proposition for farmers.” “The solution”, the website states, “lies in the genetic improvement of these breeds for milk production.” The website continues: “a steady increase in the productivity of cattle and buffaloes is achievable by improving their genetic potential in a scientific manner” (NDDB 2015). The diagnosis endures. As does the solution.
With the NDP I, there are plans for an expansion of semen production within India through state sanctioned stations, which also now declare breed conservation to be a key component of their initiatives. Nonetheless, the stations plan to increase the amount of Frozen Semen Doses (FSDs) produced annually from 85 million to 140 million by 2022. The semen centers stand alongside a range of new institutions of the NDDB, including immunological companies to manufacture medicine and feed plants to produce specialized animal nutrition products. The NDDB’s website is vague with regards to where the raw materials, the machines, and the labor for these new efforts come from. Is it possible these subtler forms of transformation ought to be receiving the same attention that the specter of the mega-dairy does?
As Arjun’s story expresses, crossbreeding is far more touch-and-go than the official narrative allows. Crossbred cows require more food and water and are less resistant to heat, drought, and disease than their indigenous counterparts. They succumb to illness during the monsoon season and heat stroke in the summers and require expensive shelters. They also have a lower feed conversion ratio than breeds indigenous to India and consequently require much more food and water. Crossbreed cows are needy. Bajaj and Srinivas (1999) state, “the system relies on expensive breeds, effective vaccination, expensive feeds, medicines, proper housing management” (Bajaj & Srinivas 1999:89). And, this entails a scale bias that favors upward accumulation for already well-to-do farmers. Crossbreeding introduces a high input-output model and is profitable for well-to-do farmers but not for all farmers. If these crossbreeds produce more with more resources, they will benefit farmers able to provide more.
The history of crossbreeding thus reveals a long history of techniques governance and development that sought to simultaneously contend with humans and nonhumans. As a result of the particularities of (A) how Indian farmers were understood to value of nonhuman beings, and (B) how the complex constitution of hunger, poverty, and agricultural production was managed, we receive a lesson for our present moment. That is, in humanitarian discourse, life in rural India is often described in terms of lack: a lack of material goods, a lack of agency, a lack of knowledge. Proof of this lack is found in statistics on hunger, poverty, literacy, farmer suicide, and debt. Within the last decade, in these same philanthropic circles, agrarian India has also figured prominently in discussions of climate change for the substantial methane emissions of its record-breaking cattle population. The 2006 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, picks up on this predicament in its summary of the livestock sector both as “a major stressor on many ecosystems,” and “a major provider of livelihoods for the poor” (FAO 2006:267). The report also begins to wrestle with the fact that not all livestock landscapes are equivalent: it states that India’s livestock sector is primarily focused on dairying through mixed farming systems in which cattle are “well integrated in nutrient flows and can have a positive environmental impact” (FAO 2006:274).
We now know that the stakes, terms, and questions of this predicament are quite old and that the redeeming portrait offered by the FAO is under threat. To conceive of the future of India’s dairy sector and our planetary prospects – interconnected as they are – is thus to possibly have to return to Arjun and the solutions being developed by farmers like him. These solutions do not find the embeddedness of India’s livestock in broader ecologies, in social life, and in webs of ethical obligation to be a problem but a possibility. For instance, Arjun’s plan to return to desi cows is underpinned by knowledge of minimal resource requirement of desis as well as the revaluation of specifically desi milk by nutritional trends of organicism, Vedism, and naturalism within the elite markets of consumption in India, which parallel the global growth of wellness movements. Either way, in combination with best practices for sustaining life in dry-land ecologies – practices that do not sees variability as disturbance but as potentially resilience-enhancing movement – what can be learned from the logic of Arjun is embeddedness and obligation as a source of possibility and innovation. What might happen if people everywhere began to imagine solutions not from the point of view of detachment, but from perspectives that accepted our fates everywhere are tied together?