By using veterinarians to restructure the economics of small-scale animal husbandry, Dr. Pradip Sarmah is opening a new field of rural development in northeast India.
The New Idea
Pradip Sarmah sees an enormous opportunity to introduce commercial breeding of chickens, pigs, cows and other animals to northeast India, the most "backward" region of the country. He is creating a service whereby veterinarians, who are underemployed, stimulate the rural economy by helping farmers increase livestock production, and earn themselves a living at the same time. The vets train "paravets," local counterparts who provide ongoing assistance to farmers. Combined, Pradip's carefully planned pricing scheme, knowledge of the market, expertise as a vet, and awareness of local culture overcome the many stumbling blocks which have foiled so many previous development programs. In fact, no one has made a serious effort to introduce animal husbandry to the northeast, and surprisingly few attempts have been made in the rest of India, apart from the enormous growth of the dairy industry, the "white revolution," which has yet to reach the northeast. Government programs have failed because they lacked the economic incentives and technical support systems–cross-breeding, feed supply, immunization, marketing–that commercial husbandry requires. By using community microcredit groups ("self-help groups," in the parlance of rural development), Pradip builds participation and responsibility, and taps into a major trend in rural development.
Poverty in northeast India is the result of complex political and economic conditions. Insurgency and ethnic conflict inhibit outside investment and economic growth; migration from Bangladesh increases population pressure on arable lands; political turmoil, physical remoteness and cultural differences make it difficult for the central government to understand and relate to the people. It's no wonder, then, that rural development schemes have been scuttled by the usual torpedoes: corrupt and disengaged bureaucrats, failure to understand local ways, and the kind of half-witted, half-hearted planning that government and aid agencies alike seem to reserve for the sleepiest backwaters. Animal husbandry schemes have repeatedly failed because, for example, they advocate the building of expensive concrete sheds with zinc roofs for raising pigs, while the farmer lives in a cramped, leaky hut. The government imports cows with little resistance to disease to replace hardy locals. The government veterinary service is exposed and embarrassed in the national press for impressive feats of outright graft. Promised livestock never arrive; extra feed cannot be obtained; there are no vaccines; even when animals are successfully bred, middlemen seize the market and pay farmers a pittance.
Part of the problem is the state of the veterinary profession. Schools teach curative medicine, so vets work as animal doctors, rarely seeing their potential in promoting livestock production. This is especially true in the northeast, where the animals are not particularly productive, giving perhaps a tenth of the milk a good dairy cow produces, and so people attach a low value to their livestock. "Mad cow disease is not a problem here," quips Dr. Pradip, "Our cows are sane, they're just weak." Vets charge high fees for immunizations and other services, at least in part because they have so little work to do.
Nevertheless, all the right conditions exist to turn the situation around. The demand for eggs, poultry and meat is so high that daily flights deliver supplies from Calcutta and Andhra Pradesh: six hundred thousand eggs, three tons of pork, thirty tons of feed, and seven thousand chicks are imported to Assam alone every single day. Most of the people are farmers who, though they may have little land, have enough to sustain a few good animals. Local animals have the traits that allow them to survive in the demanding environment, but need crossbreeding with more productive breeds. Each year sixty to seventy young vets graduate from the northeast's two colleges of veterinary science, and with the right training and incentives, they could help themselves while helping others. The government and aid agencies have all joined the bandwagon in establishing village "self-help groups," poised and ready for microcredit schemes, though few agencies have figured out viable schemes for earning money.
Dr. Pradip's program, which has already been tested as a pilot and is now poised to expand, works by creating mutually beneficial partnerships among villagers and between the village and the vet. A veterinarian himself, Pradip starts by drawing in other vets. Working from Pradip's Vet-Aid centers, where they receive a base salary, veterinarians are introduced to rural development. Dr. Pradip's goal is to teach them that rural development is a beneficial and profitable career path. He wants them to see that "veterinary is their qualification, and social service is their profession." These vets visit project sites, learn community development theory, and learn to see farmers' economic perspectives. They begin to provide basic services for livestock, such as de-worming and inoculation, but they do it differently from the way other vets have worked in the past. They teach farmers about the physiology of their animals and about disease, show them how to keep simple logs, and–importantly–find ways to help farmers reduce costs for their services.
For example, vets used to happily charge a farmer for opening an entire vial of vaccine, at 100 rupees, even though his one cow would require only a 20-rupee dose. Pradip's vets encourage five farmers to pool their rupees and assemble their cows, thereby paying only for what they need, and wasting nothing. These little changes add up to a big shift from merely treating sick animals to actively encouraging livestock production. Eventually, entrepreneurial vets will not need to be subsidized: as demand grows, their entire income will come from service fees.
As animal doctors and the people begin working together, the next step is to train paravets, village-level extension workers who provide basic services and education in the vet's absence. Paravets will provide the first rung of animal care services to the farmers. Trained in primary care and management of livestock, these paravets will be linked to vets for referral and other services like vaccinations, artificial insemination, training and curative medicine. Because each vet will be assigned about ninety villages, the paravet will help to fill the vet's shoes, which helps the people raise animals, and maintain some contact between farmer and vet, which helps the vet preserve his client base. And, of course, by increasing local interest and expertise, this program begins to orient the next generation of veterinary students towards prevention, production and rural development. In the village, Dr. Pradip helps people organize into interdependent cells that produce livestock, supply feed and take the animals to market. As self-help groups, the villagers have access to small loans from government projects and aid agencies. The livestock cell includes the families that buy and raise chicks, for instance. They need good feed, which they purchase reasonably from the feed cell. When the chickens are ready for market, the marketing cell calculates transportation and other fees per chick. Breeders also pay vets for immunization. Since vets get paid by the chick, it is in their best interest to increase production; since breeders' profit is increased by healthy chicks, it is in their interest to use vet services. By developing all these functions locally, farmers eliminate the middleman and preserve their profit. In the forty-five day breeding cycle, after the breeders have paid for all these services and repaid their loan, they net about 1500 to 2000 rupees.
Through the effective arrangement of these elements, Pradip has designed a pure win-win system, by which underemployed professionals can earn a better living by applying themselves to rural development. Because the Vet-Aid centers fix standard rates, there is little chance that vets will overcharge; outside vets who do will face price competition from Dr. Pradip's corps. While hatcheries are a good way to begin, the vets will encourage different communities to experiment with different livestock. Cultural considerations, local markets, transportation costs, geography and other factors will help determine whether people choose to raise cows, pigs, goats, rabbits or even frogs. For cows and pigs especially, a well-planned breeding program is essential. Pradip envisions a "revolving livestock bank" that will offer a constant supply of good quality livestock to farmers who want to start animal husbandry. The key is to cross disease-resistant but thin or unproductive cattle with prolific but vulnerable imports. Pradip and his vets already possess the technical ability, but this venture will require a larger grant or loan, and Pradip is now courting major donors.
Dr. Pradip estimates that it will take three years to establish about six hundred husbandry self-help groups, and several more years to cover the entire northeast. To hasten this expansion, he has identified several points of multiplication. The first is the establishment of an institute to advance the new profession of veterinary science. He envisions this as a training and resource center, and feels that, given the increased interest and funding available to rural development in the northeast, he will find the partners to help make this happen. Veterinary colleges are also important multipliers. Rather than having to retrain graduates to think in terms of community service and entrepreneurship, Pradip hopes to introduce new elements into the curriculum that will produce graduates with a vision for rural development, as well as for their own careers. He has already begun visiting and lecturing at the college in Assam, the dean of which is on his advisory board, and is planning an internship program for students to be placed at Vet-Aid centers.
Northeast India in the late 1970s was a hotbed of student activism and political violence. Pradip was an activist who matched his involvement in politics with a love of science. With classmates, he founded the Student Science Society as a way to keep students engaged in their studies while learning practical technical skills. Eventually, politics and science came together when the Society, with Pradip as its head, began campaigning against Coal India's open cast mining. As an organizer, Pradip, who comes from the city, got the chance to travel around and study village economy. This experience shaped his outlook on his own scientific education: it was a way to get closer to the life of the poor farmer, rather than escape from it. He finished veterinary college in 1989. Though he held a juicy government job–and a good government job is the holy grail in the northeast–he quit, because he was fed up with the apathy and corruption and because he wanted to learn how civil society organizations function. The first vet in the region ever to join a development organization, he spent a decade working in villages, studying microcredit, and organizing self-help groups. And he came to understand how veterinarians and farmers have radically different views about the care and feeding of livestock. This experience convinced Pradip of the need for an all-round approach involving local people in promoting animal husbandry.