NEW DELHI: Bora Bai lives on the outskirts of Guwahati in Assam on a small hillock set against the picturesque backdrop of lush hills of the Shillong plateau. What looks like an idyllic setting is actually quite the opposite.

Life is really tough for Bora, a single woman who runs a small dairy on the outskirts of the city to make ends meet. Moreover, as the sole caregiver for two elderly relatives and a grandson, Bora truly has her hands full.

From doing the household chores to cleaning the cattle shed adjoining her little hutment to bathing the two cows and buffaloes, lugging loads of fodder from the nearby forest, milking the cattle twice a day, and then managing the sale of milk, her packed schedule doesn’t leave the 55-year-old any time for herself. While Bora is not averse to working hard it’s the demands of her livelihood that keep her on the edge.

Bora moved to Assam after marriage. Her husband was a daily wage labourer who made a living by working on government construction projects. To supplement their income they saved up to gradually buy a couple of cows, buffalos and hens. Since their monthly income was meagre the couple couldn’t afford to live in the city and constructed a small hut with a cattle shed in what is called a “peri urban” zone.

Usually, these areas neither fall under the jurisdiction of the city municipality nor are they rural, which means the people living in these parts rarely figure on the agenda of policy-makers.

According to Bora, no one from the government visits them, whether it’s health workers or livestock extension officers or for that matter even Census officials. They have no ration cards or any other identity cards. Yet, it is women like Bora, living on the invisible fringes, who are responsible for supplying nearly 80 per cent of the milk that comes into the city. And this is true not just for Assam but other states as well.

Once her husband passed away – she was only in her 20s at the time – the challenge of keeping the dairy work going, her only source of income, fell entirely on her. While earlier too she was tending to the animals what was completely new to her was negotiating for the sale of milk.

This transaction is handled by the men because it’s the middlemen, who come into the community to collect milk from each household. Thereafter, they take it to the State-run cooperatives or retail directly to homes and shops in the city. The payment, informs Bora, is a fixed amount, usually Rs20-22 a litre.

While there are some households in her neighbourhood that are directly dropping off milk at the cooperative, Bora doesn’t have the means to travel daily and, in any case, she feels quite hesitant to deal with complete strangers. She manages to collect around 20 litres of milk that fetch her around Rs 400 a day. Thus far she has worked tirelessly to pull through.

But Bora’s biggest challenge is caring for her animals. “I am not intimidated by the physical hardships of running a dairy in a hilly area but managing the operations alone and being largely home-bound come with its shares of problems. It especially curtails me from upgrading my cattle and treating them when they become sick is quite expensive. I am aware that my animals are not premium quality. They are not the exotic, high yielding breeds like a Jersey or Holstein. But then it’s the men who go to the cattle market and so sellers are not willing to engage with a woman,” she elaborates.

In the initial days, as she was battling the grief of losing her husband and grappling with her new responsibilities, how she yearned for some nuanced training that would have helped her figure out the tougher, technical facets of dairy farming.

She says, “Whatever I have learnt has been on the job. In the beginning, it was my husband who had showed me the ropes but later I had to rely on my own judgment; do things intuitively. If the government can provide women like me with specific training that will enable us to identify common cattle diseases, select good milk-yielding breeds and even deal with the financial aspects, especially matters related to loans and insurance, it would make a huge difference. Women do eventually figure out ways to do things but it would be good to go into this line of work with some sound information base so that men cannot take advantage of our ignorance. ”

Indeed, across India, women are central to the process of dairy farming. But whereas the backbreaking work “traditionally” comes under their domain, it’s the men who continue to call the shots because they control the money.

In fact, critical decisions like what cattle to buy, where to sell the milk and what price to fix, are taken without so much as consulting the women. Consequently, when they are forced to handle finances, as in Bora’s case, insufficient experience and understanding only increases their vulnerability.

Unlike Bora, Partavi Bai, who lives in village Nawania on the outskirts of Rajasthan’s Udaipur city, has been married into a family that has an established dairy business. Every day, since she got married, Partavi along with her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, gets dropped off at their dairy farm located nearby after they are done with their housework. There the women are expected to toil till sun down, cleaning the sheds, feeding and milking the 50 cows and buffalos, in short doing everything except selling milk and interacting with the vet, which are “important tasks” handled by the men.

Parvati, who has studied till Class Eight, deeply resents the discrimination and uneven distribution of work, obviously brought on by patriarchal mindsets. “Why do we not know how much money comes in from the milk? After all, we do everything from ensuring the upkeep of the sheds and animals to the milking and even putting the milk in the steel containers, ready to be sent off. Why should we not be aware of the finances and get a share of the income? The men do absolutely nothing; we, on the other hand, ensure the smooth running of the farm and the home,” she asks.

Not just women like Bora and Partavi, who inhabit the peri-urban spaces and virtually have no formal rights or identity, but even in rural areas that are covered by specific schemes and programmes, women involved in dairy farming are mostly unaware and often excluded from services and incentives.

Moreover, owing to prevailing social rules, they lack the agency to move forward on their own. Of course, there are some exceptional examples, such as the Ichhamati Cooperative Milk Union in West Bengal, and Mulukanoor Women’s Mutually Aided Milk Producers Cooperative Union in Andhra Pradesh, through which women have successfully availed of benefits under relevant animal husbandry programmes and extension services. However, significantly, things have only worked when women have come together to further their own cause, whether through the SHG route or thrift groups set up under the Women Dairy Cooperative Leadership Programme.

As a gender expert, who has analysed policies and programmes for inclusive development, Dr Sarita Anand, Associate Professor, Lady Irwin College, Delhi University, believes awareness and access will be the starting points for easing the livelihood difficulties of Bora and others.

She sums up, “Women do understand the dairy business but have limited exposure to the market dynamics. Simplifying linkages to government schemes, regular visits to cattle fairs and grounding in the basics of animal health will definitely build capacity and give them confidence.”

(Women's Feature Service)