Changing methods of agriculture, lack of rain and a vicious cycle of debt are some of the reasons
With many farmers heard mulling their options and increasingly talking about moving out of the villages, the first to let go off due to the water scarcity and retreat of agriculture they say, are the cattle.
With most farmers The Lede spoke with having sold off their milk cattle, if not reduced their numbers considerably in the recent past, there seems to be a trend to it.
With no numbers available as to the actual status of the number of cattle in Tamil Nadu, in the next part of the series, The Lede travels to Poigai market near Vellore to ascertain if the trends witnessed indeed is the case.
The weekly cattle market in Poigai, near Vellore, is held early morning every Tuesday. Locals say the market has been around for as long as they can remember.
At 4 am, the market begins to assemble. All around the temple, around which the Poigai market gathers in the pitch dark, headlights of the many pickup trucks start to reveal silhouetted figures of people and cattle standing next to each other.
The cattle, all weary legged, are helped out of the trucks, some crowded and appearing relieved to step on firm ground but most falling over, twisting their ankles after the long shaky trip in the middle of the night and immediately relieve themselves, passing urine, blasting poop or sometimes both at the same time.
Without much delay, and no regard for the natural procedures underway, the cattle are all tugged along towards the market. Till a prominent place is found amongst those not already taken, the cattle are all paraded in the dark.
Some slump over multiple times, falling chest first into the dung already splattered everywhere by the earlier visitors and rest where they fall, mute.
The humans accompanying them egg them on with loud grunts, clicking tongues and a swift whipping of the end of the ropes in their hand.
Dogs occasionally attack the young calves which are barely a few days old and if not caught in time by the traders themselves, like it once happened when The Lede was there, they will take a fatal bite too.
Regular traders have their spots marked and reserved by early comers and soon the many incoming trucks bring them more and more cattle, all meant for sale.
Meanwhile men unload hay, rolled in bundles by the market side, to be sold as feed for those who need them.
Buffaloes are taken to the southern end of the market while cattle meant to be sold for butchering are lined up at the other entrance. Cattle used for racing as well as the draught cattle meant to be used for farm use all find different places.
But it is the milch cattle which take up the largest space of the market. Almost to the extent of it being the overwhelming purpose of the market. Second being the cattle to be butchered.
By the time the day breaks, the market is filled with a mixture of cow dung, urine and the headlamps of the incoming pickups no longer find easy entrance into the market.
The visitors to the market in general all agree that the number of cattle coming to the market has reduced considerably.
“Earlier farmers used to keep more number of draught cattle for farming purposes, says 58 year old Pandi who has been visiting the market for 10 years from Red Hills in Chennai.
“The number of draught animals coming to the market has fallen considerably,” he says. “This has been happening over the years,” he adds.
Pandi himself buys milch cattle and sells milk in Chennai.
“I supply milk to tea shops,” he says. “I have five buffaloes and two cows. While buffalo milk earns Rs 50 per litre, cow milk gets only Rs 40 per litre. So those keeping cattle only for milk prefer buffaloes more.”
But the Poigai market did not have many buffaloes.
“These cattle are all brought by traders themselves who buy the cattle from farmers in distress, feed them and sell them off at a higher price,” he says.
“Only the farmers with sufficient water can keep cattle now,” says 51 year old Jayachandran from Tirupattur. “Others send their cattle here to be bought by butchers from Kerala,” he says.
“Most of the milch cattle goes to Chennai as there is a high demand for milk there.”
Jayachandran has been trading in cattle for close to 40 years, according to him.
“I stopped farming 25 years back and took to trading fully. While compared to older times, the number of cattle in the market has fallen by at least one fifth,” says Jayachandran.
“Earlier too mostly businessmen used to buy and sell in the market here,” he says about the lack of farmers.
“Not many farmers come directly to sell or buy their cattle in this market,” says Jayachandran. “But they are seen even less now.”
“There are three reasons why farmers here sell their cattle,” says 53 year old Govindasamy K hailing from Poigai itself.
Govindasamy has been a trader for 35 years. He buys cattle from farmers and sells them to the traders who visit the market looking to buy.
“The biggest reason is debt. Cattle is let go of whenever the debts become too high or servicing them becomes impossible.
Most times this happens when something they have pledged is under threat of being lost. In their desperation it is the cattle which are sold to arrange money. Then there is the inability to procure enough grass and feed for them. Many times I have seen farmers being unable to afford to spend money on feed and hence being forced to sell.
The other category of sellers are the ones where the cattle itself has become old or lost its ability to conceive any further. In such cases, the farmers usually have other cattle.
If you look at the market here, more or less the number of cattle which gets bought and sold has remained even. It is the purpose of such transactions which has changed. At the same time the composition of the crowd who visit the market has also changed.
Thus if you ask me, while earlier, almost half of the visitors here were farmers, the numbers now have gone down considerably. I would say less than one third of the visitors today are actually farmers.
And if earlier 50 farmers bought cattle in the market, today that number is less than 20. Today it is the sellers in other markets themselves who are buying here. They buy to sell and for nothing else,” explains Govindasamy.
41 year old Karikalan M who has been visiting the market for more than seven years, puts the number of farmers visiting the market at less than 5%.
“Almost 95% of all the people you will find here are traders themselves. I cannot speak about the figures comparatively but it is a fact that scarcity of water and grass has affected the farmers adversely. Who will buy cattle when there is hardly any water to drink?” asks Karikalan.
Most people The Lede spoke to turned out to be traders themselves.
“Because there is no water there are no farmers growing crops anymore,” says Vanraj, a farmer from around Poigai.
“And without any crops there is no hay. This in turn means hay has to be bought which is costly.”
Vanraj was in the market to buy cattle, not for use in the farm. His plans were more ambitious than the traders’ themselves.
“I buy early in the morning and try to sell them before the market disperses itself. The trick is in spotting good cattle and knowing the right price. Sometimes you earn Rs 1000 in a few hours. I own half an acre of land. I was a farmer but with no water anymore, I do this every week now.”
Asked how he manages to buy the cattle he says, “I borrow money from someone and come here. Sometimes I am able to sell at a margin. But usually I try to get rid of them before market ends. That way I can return the money on the same day. That way there is no headache of taking them home either. I really don’t have any other options,” he says.
Vanraj was in the market with his son on a moped while the traders came prepared with pickup trucks.
After a good deal of searching The Lede did manage to get hold of one individual farmer who had there been to sell her cow directly.
Veliyamma from Mel Kavanur in Vellore district had come to Poigai to sell her cow.
“Here we will get a better price,” says Veliyamma.
“The cow is 17 months old and I am selling it as I need the money. I have two other cows at home,” she says as she stands outside the main area of the market, by the higher lands near the service road being wooed by many men who crowded around her, asking for the selling price.
“I had planted Thuvaram Paruppu (Pigeon Pea) on my land,” says Veliyamma. “There is no water in my land. Since I don’t have enough grass to keep three cows I have no other option than to sell.”
As she waited hesitantly far from the market, Govindasamy said, “You can always identify a farmer in the market. They will be standing alone. Even unsure of whatever is happening around them. Usually they need the money badly so they don’t negotiate much. They don’t know business either.”
There are no clear numbers available as to the number of cattle in Tamil Nadu. The Livestock Census 2019 is yet to release the state wise number of cattle in India.
While the overall numbers of cattle in India has increased marginally from 190.90 to 192.49, a change of 0.8%, there is nothing in the as yet released figures to conclude anything.
The 19th Livestock Census held in 2012 had marked a considerable fall in the number of cattle in Tamil Nadu. Compared to 2007, the number of cattle had then fallen by 21.2%, the highest fall in cattle numbers registered in the Census.
The total percentage of cattle held by the top 10 states in 2019 Census is 73.56% compared to 72.52% in 2012, a slight increase which would suggest at least some of the states at the bottom, one of which is Tamil Nadu, have lost cattle numbers.
With a change in the release of data of the top cattle holding states by reducing the number of states featured to 10 instead of the earlier 15 and by not providing actual state wise numbers yet, the Livestock Census 2019 is a pointless document in assessing the cattle numbers in Tamil Nadu as of today.
If anything, a clue to the fall in significance of cattle across the country in general could be concluded from the fall in % of cattle in 20th Livestock Census 2019 where it has fallen from 37.28% in 2012 to 35.94% in 2019, a miniscule fall. (But in the absence of actual official numbers these are all that we are left with to analyse.)
That a year since the key results were published, the actual results have yet to be published is not helping matters. Given that for the first time, livestock data were collected online in the 20th Livestock Census the delay is perplexing.
Thus as far as the numbers goes, the general trends witnessed on the ground where-in farmers have all been talking about having sold off their cattle or having reduced the number of cattle kept and the drop in percentage of farmers cited by cattle traders in the cattle market themselves have to be taken as a further reduction in the number of cattle in Tamil Nadu.
Notwithstanding the above, it is certainly a fact that farmers of Tamil Nadu are finding it increasingly difficult to keep cattle.
Grass from common lands and hay from harvested crops have all but disappeared and water in the possession of farmers is proving to be insufficient too. Farmers are increasingly sacrificing their cattle which were their first line of defence against any kind of unforeseen financial shock.
What will they liquidate going ahead when they face a financial crunch remain unanswered.