India’s livestock economy


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AT 485 million India has the world’s largest livestock population – accounting for over 55 and 16% of the world’s buffalo and cattle populations respectively (the world’s largest bovine population). It ranks second in goats, third in sheep and camels, and seventh in poultry populations in the world. During the year 2004-05 we were globally the largest producer of milk with an annual production of 91 million tonnes. The same year, the country recorded a production of 45.2 billion eggs (seventh in the world), 44.5 million kgs of wool and 2.2 million tonnes of meat, which ranked us eight in the world in meat exports.

Taken together, the value of livestock output (2003-04) accounts for over six per cent of GDP, just a little under a third of the contribution of agriculture and allied sectors. By all accounts it appears that India has an extremely fast growing livestock economy, and there is much to be proud about.

Yet the livestock economy of the country is not merely a bovine economy or a commercial poultry economy, and least of all a leather economy. Livestock rearing is central to the livelihoods and survival of millions of small and marginal farmers, and landless agriculture labour across the country, particularly in the dryland regions of India, who rear diverse species ranging from the camel to the duck. It is estimated that almost 18 million people derive their livelihood from livestock.1

Women continue to play a key role in livestock production at the household level, with over 71% of the labour force being women. When their animals fall sick and die, small livestock holders suffer enormously in multiple ways. The loss often goes unnoticed and uncompensated. Thousands are pushed into dire poverty once they lose their livestock to disease, scarcity of water and fodder, or sheer poverty which forces them to sell their animals for cash, and it is often impossible for them to rebuild their stock.

The livestock economy penetrates sections of rural society both vertically and laterally, supposedly more equitably than land holdings. However, it is a matter of growing concern that despite 70% of India’s livestock being owned by landless, marginal and small farmers, recent studies across India indicate that over half of all these households are ‘non-livestock owners’, challenging the well entrenched notions of livestock being more equitably distributed than land.

There have been dramatic changes in livestock population and composition over the past five decades, many of which have negatively impacted the poor. While total population and density of livestock has increased over time, the number per rural household has declined. There was a drastic decline of bullocks post the eighties, with the share of farm animals in power supply declining from 71% in 1961 to less than 23% in 1991.2 The 59th round of the NSSO reports that working cattle in rural areas declined by 25% between 1991-92 and 2002-03. There has been a corresponding shift in composition of the bovine population from cattle to buffalos.


According to the NSSO (National Sample Survey Organisation) 54th round, a mere 56% of the households reported ownership of at least one livestock in 1998-99. Change in livestock population and composition has varied across different landholding categories, with the decline in livestock holding being sharpest amongst landless households. Surprisingly only 15-20% of households own sheep and goat. Micro-level studies carried out in Gujarat,3 Andhra Pradesh4 and Orissa5 confirm the broad trends that obtain in the NSSO studies. Limited livestock ownership amongst the poor and landless households might further reduce their stakes in common property/natural resources, which is not only iniquitous but also reduces their coping ability particularly in vulnerable dryland contexts.

The changing livestock canvas both in terms of numbers and composition, has been accompanied by large scale disappearance of grazing lands, pastures and forests, and the gradual collapse and loss of indigenous management systems and practices. There has been an increasing dependence on irrigation for the livestock economy, leading to unsustainable use of ground water.


These shifts in livestock composition and ownership patterns have not happened ‘naturally’ but as a response to several development policy choices made by the state over the years. Land reforms often translated into distribution of public grazing lands, even as the landlords continued to possess fertile lands. The landless were given the worst kind of land, and the village lost its common grazing spaces. Shrinking CPRs pushed more and more livestock into the forests areas. Post-independence, restrictive forest policies continued to aim at keeping livestock out of forests. Forestry and so-called wasteland plantation programmes further reduced grazing access.

Simultaneously, the green revolution agriculture policy directly impacted the livestock economy in extremely negative ways – mechanization replaced bullock power; hybrid mono-crops resulted in reduced stalk size, diversity and quality of crop-residue; and chemicals and pesticides polluted the environment, thereby compromising the health of humans, animals and plants. Finally, water-intensive crops and fodder varieties consumed water far in excess of what the agro-eco regions could replace/ recharge. This was a major reason for the collapse of traditional water harvesting and water management systems in the drylands, which were perhaps the only source of drinking water for all village and migratory livestock, apart from their other traditional uses. Underlying all this, are deeply held biases against India’s indigenous livestock wealth which originated during the colonial period and continue to be held sacrosanct by many policy makers (Box I).

Box I

Colonial biases that persist to date

* Pastoral livelihoods are environmentally damaging, unscientific and irrational and need to be settled.

* Goats are the number one enemy of the environment.

* Grazing is the single biggest threat to checking soil-erosion and improving vegetative cover.

* Lopping is harmful to the trees.

* Huge herds of local ‘non-descript’ livestock should be replaced with high-producing animals.

The decade of the fifties began with a clear focus on developing our local bovine breeds both for draught and milch purpose. However, by the third five-year plan in the early sixties, ‘Dairy Development’, enhancing milk production and transporting milk to urban areas became the cornerstone of government livestock development policy. The policy got institutionalized through the establishment of the National Dairy Development Board and was operationalised through Operation Flood I, or what is now referred to as the ‘white revolution’. Crossbreeding of local cattle with exotic breeds to enhance their milk producing genetic potential became the thrust of national breeding strategy and buffalos gained a pre-eminent role in the Indian dairy industry.

Subsequent plans were dominated by the Operation Flood project, with an aggressive focus on replacing the local cattle breeds with exotic breeds (mainly Jersey or Holstein Friesian) and local buffalos with ‘superior’ varieties (Murrah/Surti) from Punjab/Haryana and Gujarat respectively. Fat content based pricing of milk in the organised dairy sector, coupled with a declining natural fodder base, were prime factors in pushing farmers towards rearing local buffalos instead of cattle, resulting in huge growths in buffalo population.6 The 8th plan, in the early nineties does make passing reference to improving draught animals, but this was not matched with an operational plan or budget.


During this entire period the plans for other livestock species were minimal for some and completely non-existent for the others. Over the past nine five-year plans, the allocation of funds to Animal Husbandry and Dairying has come down from about 1.2% initially to about 0.2% in the ninth plan. Within these scarce resources, the largest allocations have been to the dairy sector. But these too have been declining. While dairying was allocated close to 91% of total plan investment on Animal Husbandry and Dairying in the 8th five-year plan, it comprises a mere 14% of the 10th plan outlay. Perhaps the most critical problem, a direct fallout of the above processes, is the acute scarcity of fodder (in terms of quality and quantity) and water for the greater part of the year, resulting in reduced productivity of animals and high rates of disease and death. Fodder and water insecurity forces many farmers to sell their valuable and productive animals at distress rates during summer, only to repurchase them at exorbitant prices at the onset of monsoons.


These uniform ‘bovine-centric’ development plans, rooted in the green and white revolutions that promoted high-producing, resource-intensive breeds whose productivity hinge upon large quantities of water, fodder and labour, were completely inappropriate to the geographical and environmental diversity of India.

India’s mainland comprises four broad geographical areas: the Northern mountains, the Indo-Gangetic plains, the Southern (Deccan) Peninsula bounded by the Western and Eastern Ghats, and finally the coastal plains and islands. About 228 million hectares (69%) of its geographical area is described as dryland (arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid). Of the total cultivated area of 142 million hectares, 97 million hectares, comprising 68% of the net cultivated area, is rainfed.

Similarly, livestock production systems, in the country can broadly be described under four categories: pastoral, forest-based, mixed crop-livestock and industrial/commercial production systems. While the former three have existed and evolved in the country since time immemorial, the presence of the latter is a relatively recent phenomenon which draws upon a system that evolved in the developed countries.

Grazing lands or wastelands

Wastelands is a medieval English term used in a legal sense to refer to land that was unoccupied, undeveloped or uncultivated. As a result, the land could not be the source of any tax or other revenue to its owner. The term was similarly applied to property that had been allowed to deteriorate, or had even been purposely damaged, so that its value (whether in terms of selling price or rentability) decreased. Unfortunately the term wastelands continued to be used effectively in British India and subsequently in Independent India to denote lands which were ‘unoccupied’ or ‘undeveloped’ and could be conveniently diverted to various development or plantation schemes. Many of these lands were actually grazing lands used by the village poor, the landless or migratory pastoral herding communities but seldom have these ‘grazing’ needs been carefully considered in ‘wasteland development’ programmes.

Another major problem leading to further degradation and depletion of our fodder resources has been the treatment of natural grasslands and pastures in typically the same way as forests have been treated: excessive protection and exclusion of local communities and their livestock. There are in fact examples from grasslands outside and sometimes within protected areas where by involving local communities and allowing grazing not only have the fodder concerns of livestock been addressed, but wildlife species and biodiversity in general have benefited.

Mixed crop-livestock farming and pastoralism are the two common production systems found across our rainfed agriculture zones. In the former, farmers derive their livelihood somewhat equally from agriculture and livestock; in the latter, people’s livelihoods depend primarily upon their livestock, which are exclusively maintained on grazing. Dryland regions also traditionally harboured the ‘grasslands’ of India, providing pasture/grass for some parts of the year. In these harsh climates with minimal precipitation, sustained agriculture through the year is extremely difficult and it is livestock which has historically played an important role in people’s livelihoods.


Livestock are better and more efficient utilisers of the available biomass. They contribute to the grasslands by dispersing valuable grass seeds, keeping unnecessary weeds in check and by fertilising the soil with their dung and urine. In turn they consume grass that cannot otherwise be consumed by humans and convert it to a range of valuable animal products: milk, meat, wool, manure, draught power. As natural grasses are not available throughout the year, migratory or semi-migratory systems of livestock rearing are practiced, particularly by the pastoralists and, sometimes in acute water and fodder scarce situations, also by farmers who are engaged in more settled mixed crop-livestock farming. Drought is a recurring feature in these areas, and people have developed their own mechanisms to cope with the reality of scarce water, which include ingenious and intricate water harvesting and water management systems, biodiverse dryland cropping practices and the careful selection and breeding of a range of livestock species and breeds. Pastoral herders maintain the largest per capita number of livestock.


Pastoral systems are found across the country from Ladakh in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South. Flexibility is central to the pastoralist way of production. During drought years when grazing lands are scarce or when the pressures in the area become intense, or when labour is scarce, pastoral communities have the option of either selling their stock, changing to a less demanding species or migrating to another area where water and fodder is available in greater quantity. In a good season they may decide to expand their flock size.

Over the years traditional pastoral systems have grown, evolved, and adapted to changes in their environment. Herders practice crop farming for a few months of the year during the monsoon, when water is available, thus supplementing their livelihoods. Attempts to sedentarize pastoralists and make them conform to so-called modern systems of livestock rearing originated during the colonial rule, and continue to date. The fact that many of these attempts have been largely futile bears testimony to the fact that the traditional livestock herding communities are perhaps more perceptive to changes in economies and environments than policy-makers.

Similarly in the heavily forested areas of the subcontinent too livestock breeds play an important part in peoples’ lives – culturally, socially and economically. Think of poultry and dwarf goat breeds for most tribal communities, the pig in the Nicobar islands and North East states, the mithun in North East India or the buffalo for the Todas of the Nilgiri. Most of the livestock and produce is consumed at the local level and seldom enters the larger market economy. Attempts to bring in other systems have inevitably led to conflicts. With the increasing pressure on grazing lands, pastoral/migratory herders become even more dependent on forests, often resulting in conflicts between the permanent forest dwellers and the pastoralists.


Presently, only a very small fraction of the livestock sector exists as industrialized systems. Examples include commercial poultry farms, dairy farms and a few commercial goat and pig farms. While industrial systems permit reduction of costs of production due to economies of scale, their social, environmental and public health costs may prove extremely expensive in the long run. Industrial systems require conversion of good agricultural land that can feed humans to fodder plots to feed animals. They accelerate the conversion of natural forests and grasslands to pasture. They concentrate large numbers of animals in a small area, leading to accumulation of animal waste which in turn contaminates air, soil and water, while increasing the risk of communicable diseases.


Economic reforms, globalization and privatization and the push by global capital to enter all arenas of trade and services, aided and abetted by multinational institutions such as the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, are clearly reflected in India’s 9th and 10th plans. The key thrust areas, more than reflecting ‘farmer’s needs’, draw on the 1996 World Bank Livestock Sector Review of India7 (1996) and the Livestock Revolution thesis (Delgado et. al., 19998). These studies forecast that the demand for and production of milk, meat and poultry products would double by 2020. Also that the production would shift from temperate to humid and warm regions situated in the developing world.

Since current trends indicate that increasing share of the supply will be met by industrialised production given economies of scale, increasing labour and declining capital costs, the reports recommend that for small producers of the developing world to benefit from this demand and compete with organised industries, developing countries must introduce favourable policy changes. These include vertical integration of small producers with livestock food processors through contract farming, improving the efficiency of their operations and the productivity of their animals, which largely depends upon improved research and availability of veterinary services, and improving food hygiene to enable export. They also recommend the privatization of veterinary services, extension, education and research to improve the efficiency of service delivery. The livestock revolution thesis also foresees a negative impact on the environment. This they propose to offset/mitigate by introducing the ‘polluter will pay concept’ and incentive schemes that promote ecological services such as trade in carbon and biodiversity.

The 10th plan argues that since close to 70% of milk is traded through traditional milk markets and in the so-called unorganised sector, it can be tapped by private capital and investment through creating a favourable environment. Thus the government withdrew the Milk and Milk Products Order (MMPO) which placed restrictions on the quantum of milk traded by a private dairy enterprise, to create ‘level playing field for the private sector to compete with the government supported cooperatives’, as recommended by the World Bank in 1996.


In many states, the collapse of government dairy cooperatives and the entry of private dairies, instead of improving milk prices for the producer have in fact depressed them, as the private dairies have an ‘internal agreement’ amongst themselves on the buying price. The second significant and visible change is the dismantling of the government veterinary health care delivery systems. Even though veterinary posts continue to lie vacant across the country, the government actively allocated budgets to train private service providers to ‘fill the gap’, provide doorstep services, and sustain themselves through cost-recovery from the farmer. This has paved the way for profit-motivated malpractice, and created an unholy nexus between private drug suppliers and private providers. The collapse of the government referral system and withdrawal of public investments in healthcare has resulted in the growing inability of the system to respond to and handle disease outbreaks. The emphasis on disease control, ironically, has now shifted to controlling diseases of concern to international trade, rather than focusing on the farmers concerns.

Fresh restrictions are being placed on grazing areas through programmes such as the national bio-diesel plantations programme which aims at planting thousands of acres of so called ‘wastelands’ and fallow lands with non-fodder species such as pongamia and jatropha. In many parts of the country government policy of inviting private capital to invest in industry and mining, has already translated into displacing thousands of villages, and converting prime acres of agriculture lands, grazing lands and forests into concrete jungles, thus further making livestock rearing a non-option for the poor.


History is witness that the process of industrialization in the developed world has wiped out poor farmers, small enterprises and local breeds.9 90% of cattle in the USA and 60% of all European cattle belong to one breed.10 Broiler and layer chicken in organized farms across the world rely on less than half a dozen breeds, although there are 606 breeds of chicken worldwide. The recent outbreak of bird flu in India demonstrates the pressures of global trade and its ricocheting impact on small holders. A few H5 N1 positive birds found in commercial poultry farms in Nawapur and Jalgaon districts of Maharashtra, resulted in 600,000 birds being culled in two months, to create a ‘poultry free’ zone of 10 km radius around the outbreak area.


While most poultry farms were small businesses, many tribal families, for whom poultry is an extremely valuable asset reared in the backyard, too were targeted. The compensation of Rs 40 per bird to these extremely poor families scarcely covered the asset loss. Under WTO regulations, member countries have to comply with regulations set by various international agencies and trade organizations in order to trade in livestock products. These include biosecurity at commercial farms, use of compart-mentalisation and zoning, control of animal production and movement and restructuring of the livestock industry.

The first five decades of development investment clearly bypassed the concerns of the vast majority of livestock rearers who live in the dryland regions of India in singularly advocating a dairy development programme centred around extremely water-intensive technologies, which in the long run are completely unviable for water-scarce and resource-poor farmers. The current ‘livestock revolution’ vision of development, which forms the basis of all plans up to 2020, completes the divorce of livestock and agriculture. The recommendations, far from empowering the small-holder, are working against them. This time it is the ‘free corporate market’ which will decide the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ as there will soon be no internal government support structures. In the process most small-holders will be thrown out of the business of keeping livestock, a shift that is already visible, unless we act otherwise.



1. Government of India, Report of the Working Group on Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007), Planning Commission, New Delhi, 2002.

2. N.K. Chawla, M.P.G. Kurup and Vijay Paul Sharma, State of the Indian Livestock Farmers and the Indian Livestock Sector: A Status Paper. Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, 2002.

3. Amita Shah, Changing Interface between Agriculture and Livestock: A Study of Livelihood Options under Dryland Farming Systems in Gujarat. Gujarat Institute of Development Research, 2004.

4. S. Ramdas, Strategies For Livestock Development In Watershed Interventions: A Report of a Study Commissioned by NABARD for the Indo-German Watershed Development Programme, Andhra Pradesh, 2003.

5. S. Ramdas, et. al., Between the Green Pasture and Beyond – An Analytical Study of Gender issues in the Livestock Sector in Orissa, Technical Report No. 21. Indo-Swiss Natural Resources Management Programme, Orissa, India, 1999.

6. World Bank, India Livestock Sector Review: Enhancing Growth and Development. Agriculture and Water Operations Division. Country Department II, South Asia Region, 1996.

7. 1996 World Bank Livestock Sector review of India.

8. C. Delgado, M. Rosegrant, H. Steinfeld, S. Ehui, and C. Courbois, ‘Livestock to 2020 – The Next Food Revolution’. Food, Agriculture and the Environment Discussion Paper 28. IFPRI/FAO/ILRI, 1999.

9. D.C. Korten, When Corporations Rule the World, Other India Press, Mapusa Goa , India, 1998.

10. N.S. Ghotge, Livestock and Livelihoods: the Indian Context, CEE and Foundation Books, Delhi, 2004.