Floods and revolutions: revisiting India’s dairy sector


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IN 1970, the Government of India embarked on a landmark dairy development programme known as the White Revolution. The National Dairy Development Board’s (NDDB) White Revolution spanned three decades and has generally been lauded as a monumental success: There has been a fivefold increase in the rate of national milk production and a doubling in the availability of milk for consumption.1 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.2 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 infrastructure 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 less than two hectares of land and one to two cattle.3

This article provides a review of the dairy cooperative system, looking at its inefficacies and injustices as well as its triumphs. It looks at how the system is working from the perspective of everyday life for dairy farmers in Maharashtra. It examines industrialization beyond the privatized factory farm as the putative opposite of the cooperatives, focusing on the intensification of the cooperatives by the technologies provided through decentralized channels. It offers a history of the emphasis on the techno-scientific development of animal husbandry practices, including how these were developed to counteract supposed ‘irrational, inefficient, and religious practices’.

The atypical 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, ‘White Counter-Revolution: India’s Dairy Cooperatives in a Neoliberal Era’, Scholten and Basu 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.’4 At the same time, the distinctiveness of India’s cooperative dairy sector is anxiously discussed in terms of the threat it is under from multinational corporations (MNCs) and the growing number of intensive dairy farms. In the report, India’s New Milky Way, written for the non-profit Grain, Jyotika Sood describes the attack cooperatives are under from a laundry list of MNCs. ‘Following economic liberalisation, the government de-licensed 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.’5


To learn more about the cooperative model from the viewpoint of a small-scale farmer, the author and several team members of Anthra – a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on sustainable livestock development based in Pune, India – travelled into the hills of the Western Ghats on a misty afternoon of an incipiently monsoon day. They met with Arjun, a dairy farmer who had now opted out of the state cooperative in the interest of founding his own 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, the team discussed the details of Arjun’s livelihood, with regards to land, crops, and the market.


Like many dairy farmers, Arjun owns land upon which he grows 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, plus other vegetables that do not have names easily translated to English from Marathi. The residue from these crops are used as fodder for his ten cross-bred cows. In addition to his use of crop remainders, Arjun also grows elephant grass as fodder and trades it with neighbouring dairy farmers for adding diversity to their cows’ diets. Everything is fertilized with cow dung and tilled with bullock labour.

A Holstein calf at a farm near Ranjangaon (2016). L.C. Murray

Arjun began his dairying career with a herd of ‘Murrah’ buffalo, originally from Punjab and Haryana, a breed of animal kept by his family for generations. Six years ago, Arjun decided to replace his herd with Jersey cross-breeds. While buffaloes produce more milk, which is in fact worth more per litre because of its fattiness, they have longer gestation times. This affects not only how quickly one can reproduce a herd but also how frequently buffaloes give milk. Arjun’s decision to switch to Jerseys was a costly one. The animals did not fare well in their new hilly, rainy home. All suffered from cases of mastitis so severe that he was forced to replace his herd. In so doing, Arjun opted for Holstein crosses, which he is in possession of now, but is emphatic that he wanted to replace his herd yet again, this time, with desi cows.


In Maharashtra, there are three official veterinarians associated with the state cooperative. Maharashtra is 30,771,389 hectares and home to 23,273 village societies. Thus, while cost effective, a call to the state veterinarian only happens if the cow can wait; and the illness to be treated likely to be of the sort that can be addressed with non-allopathic therapeutics. If it is something that requires immediate attention, a private doctor is called. In the absence of easily accessible veterinary care, Arjun often uses plants as home remedies. This self-sufficiency is not so much a confirmation of his independence, but rather an expression of what Elizabeth Povinelli calls ‘endurance’. That is, Arjun’s ad hoc techniques for survival in the face of failing state care and changing economic policy echo Povinelli’s description of ways of existing in terms of enduring. Povinelli writes, ‘It is strength, hardiness, callousness; it is continuity through space; it is ability to suffer and yet persist.’6

A district-level cooperative (2016). L.C. Murray


Arjun narrates a brutal break-even, with the exception of 400 rupees a day. ‘I have tried to do things in different ways,’ he stated, ‘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.’ In the face of depressed prices of milk per litre and splintered state support, he has been left in the exhausting position of requisite ingenuity, of stretching thin to making ends that do not hold together.


Arjun’s views echoed the refrain of many cooperative farmers: the price per litre 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 are supposed 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. The issue of 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 centres for pasteurization and onto state-level facilities for packaging. The day-to-day experience of milk being taken to distant places for unknown consumers, and the functional cleavage between everyday agrarian life and the broader functioning of the cooperative, obscures the connection of governance that ostensibly transcends the divide.


The inefficacy of state development subsidies when it comes to the maintenance of animal health also negatively interfaces with its interventions in terms of breeding. 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 cross-breeding of Indian cow breeds with European varietals. However, as with other efforts to use biotechnology to genetically modify non-human beings that are considered only as resources, the genetic remaking of Indian cattle has left them more susceptible to disease.

The approach to breeding of the NDDB did not come out of nowhere. The modern history of agricultural science and livestock development in India began with what was first a postulation and then a presupposition: that India’s cattle – Bosindicus 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 terms of its milk yield, and hence the definition of an Indian cow as being of low productivity. As an inefficient being, the Indian cow’s production level of one resource did not justify its consumption of others. The Royal Commission of Agriculture in 1928 describes Indian cattle as being of markedly ‘low quality’, excessive in numbers, and just ‘weedy animals eating up food’.7 The general view was that Indian cattle were categorically ‘uneconomical producers of milk’.8

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 the standard viewpoint. 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.’9


It was not just the inefficiency of India’s cows that was seen as a problem, it was also the number of animals in the region’s livestock herd and the supposed irrationality of animal husbandry practices. The Royal Commission of Agriculture laid this out as an issue of Hindu religiosity and its dictates against cow slaughter. Bajaj and Srinivas 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.’10

A veterinarian and a cooperative dairy farmer near Lonavala (2016). L.C. Murray

In one of many 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.’11 The ‘problem’, and its relation to issues of production, was that by not slaughtering their cattle more animals would encroach on resources to be shared with human beings. Sikka 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.’12


Since it was regarded as undesirable to increase overall milk yields by increasing the national herd size (already deemed excessive), the solution that eventually emerged was to cross-breed Indian cattle species with Holsteins and Jerseys. If Indian cattle bore lower milk yields than their European counterparts, the logic was that the desi should take on qualities of the European breed. The commission pronounced, ‘The value of the half-bred has been proved by definite experiment.’13 Following independence, this proof of ‘definite experiment’ stuck,14 and the post-independence dairy development programmes sought to improve the well-being of farmers by focusing on breeding practices.


The five-year plans of 1951 and 1956 both enshrined the basic solution of Indian cattle being cross-bred with European varieties 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’.15 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.16


By 1970, the Government of India’s White Revolution strategy was to increase milk through artificial insemination (AI): this is hardly a surprise although its intensity was unprecedented. The census from 2013 shows a 62% increase in the national herd size of cross-bred animals since 1992, and a 15% decrease in the number of indigenous cattle.17 Plans to expand the programme remained 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’. It continues: ‘A steady increase in the productivity of cattle and buffaloes is achievable by improving their genetic potential in a scientific manner.’18 The diagnosis endures, as does the solution.

With NDP I there are plans for an expansion of semen production within India through state sanctioned stations, which now also 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 centres 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 does not clarify where the raw materials, the machines, and the labour for these new efforts will come from.


As Arjun’s story clearly showed, cross-breeding is far more touch-and-go than the official narrative allows. Cross-bred 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 summer, 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. Cross-breed cows are essentially ‘needy’. As Bajaj and Srinivas state, ‘The system relies on expensive breeds, effective vaccination, expensive feeds, medicines and proper housing management.’19 This means that there is a scale bias that favours upward accumulation for the already well-to-do farmers. Cross-breeding introduces a high input-output model and therefore is profitable for wealthier farmers but certainly not for all farmers. Cross-breeds produce more with more resources, thereby benefitting those farmers able to provide more.

The history of cross-breeding for improved milk production in India thus reveals techniques of governance and development that can be useful in the present situation. In humanitarian discourse, life in rural India is often described in terms of lack: a lack of material goods, a lack of agency, and 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 excess in the context of climate change: a record-breaking cattle population, substantial methane emissions, and a human population boom.

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. It describes the sector both as ‘a major stressor on many ecosystems’, and ‘a major provider of livelihoods for the poor’.20 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’.21 This view recalls the perspective highlighted at the outset of this paper that sees India’s dairy industry as a model for best practices.


What happens when we think about this predicament from the perspective of Arjun and farmers like him? On one hand, it becomes clear that the strategies of techno-scientific development respond to the imperative to increase material wealth and decrease excesses with the principle of efficiency. If often thought of as apolitical and technical, this inquiry has highlighted the structurally violent underside of efficiency, which is that it relies on classifying certain beings and ways of life as replaceable, where this classification disproportionately affects the already marginal. And on the other hand it illustrates that people endure. It is these practices of endurance that need to be researched, recognized, and reinforced for the future of India’s small-scale dairy farmers, and small farmers the world over.



1. Chandni Sahgal, Overview of Indian Dairy Industry. D’Essence Consulting, Mumbai, 2013, p. 198.

2. National Dairy Development Board, 2015. www.nddb.org

3. By contrast, there are about 70,000 dairy farms in the US in possession on an average of 200 cattle, meaning, the American dairy sector is somewhere between one hundred and one thousand times more concentrated than that in India. Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development, The Dairy Sector of India; A Country Study. College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2006, p. 13.

4. B. Scholten and P. Basu, ‘White Counter-Revolution? India’s Dairy Cooperatives in a Neoliberal Era’, Human Geography 2(1), 2009, pp. 17-28.

5. Jyotika Sood, India’s New Milky Way, GRAIN, February 2014.

6. Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Duke University Press, Durham, 2011, p. 32.

7. Royal Commission on Agriculture in India, Abridged Report, Part I. Bombay, 1928, p. 198.

8. L.C. Sikka, ‘Statistical Studies in Records of Indian Dairy Cattle’, Indian Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry 2, 1933, p. 240.

9. Ibid., p. 240.

10. J. Bajaj and M.D. Srinivas. ‘Principles of Organic Farming’, in Claude Alvares (ed.), The Organic Farming Source Book. Other India Press, Mapusa, 1996, p. 76.

11. Royal Commission on Agriculture, 1928, op. cit., p. 169.

12. L.C. Sikka, 1933, op. cit., p. 63.

13. Royal Commission on Agriculture, 1928, op. cit., p. 244.

14. 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’. Anand Pandian, ‘Pastoral Power in the Postcolony: On the Biopolitics of the Criminal Animal in South India’, Cultural Anthropology 23(1), 2008, pp. 85-117.

15. Government of Maharashtra, The Maharashtra Live-Stock Improvement Act. Law and Judiciary Department, Mumbai, 2013.

16. People’s Archive of Rural India, 2015. www.pari.com

17. Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations, State of Dairy Cattle in India, 2014.

18.NDDB, 2015, op. cit.

19. J. Bajaj and M.D. Srinivas, 1996, p. 89, op. cit.

20. Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow. 2006, p. 267.

21. Ibid., p. 274.