Till recently, the poor women from the marginalised sections in the villages in Darbhanga suffered unbearably and bore huge economic losses due to high climate exposure. These women turned their fortunes around by starting a women-centred Farmer Producers Company (FPC) engaged in goat-keeping with the help of a grassroots organisation Mithila Gram Vikas Parishad (MGVP) and support from Heifer Foundation, NABARD and GIZ. Today, this award-winning enterprise is on the vanguard of providing a sustainable business model empowering women and securing their livelihoods.
Rekha Devi (name changed) is shaken when she recalls the ravaging Kosi floods during the 2017 monsoons that left over 500 people dead in their wake. The river embankments were breached by stormy waters. The resultant flash floods had submerged her village in Ghanshyampur block in knee-deep water. She had stayed up on the embankment with other villagers for over three months in trepidation as the lashing rains and raging waters threatened to sweep away their homes.
A landless woman, she had managed to take her three children, a few clothes, and five goats with her. Upon her return to the village as the flood waters receded another tragedy struck as she was trying to rebuild her fragile life. Within a week’s time, her goats perished due to gastro-enteric infections contracted by grazing in contaminated flood sewage and mud slush. She was devastated.
Darbhanga –exposure to flash floods and gender vulnerability
Yet, Rekha Devi’s plight was neither new nor unique. As it were, Darbhanga district in the northern Bihar region, where her village lies is comprised of alluvium plains that are vulnerable to at least five major flood-causing rivers, including Kosi and Kamla Balan– that flow southward from the Himalayas. Embankments constructed half a century ago on these rivers to prevent flood situations have now become part of the problem causing artificial floods annually during the monsoon period. Climate experts have recently warned that Darbhanga has maximum exposure to extreme flood events in India, making its poor and marginal communities particularly vulnerable (Council on Energy, Environment and Water 2021).
In Ghanshyampur, Kiratpur and Gora Bauram blocks, recurring floods and heavy rains threaten to exacerbate the precarious livelihoods of the uneducated, landless, and poor Dalit, Muslim and backward women who often keep a few goats for improved economic resilience. Locally, goats are referred to as “ATM (Automated Teller Machine) money” as these can be sold off quickly to meet urgent cash needs. Notably, most of these women head their households as the husbands migrate to faraway urban centres in Delhi and Punjab for work. Living in a patriarchal society they have to single-handedly face the overwhelming burden of climate risks.
A climate resilient business model
The region reveals high exposure to climatic hazards. Heavy rainfall and floods during monsoons inundate farmlands and grazing lands, destroy the Kuccha and semi-pucca houses, and damage unstable goat sheds. Standing crops are exposed to waterlogging as flood waters might take up to 2-3 months to recede and farmland takes even longer to dry up enough to become suitable for farming. Besides, the goats remain vulnerable in the post-monsoon period to life-threatening infections as they graze in the open. The lack of adequate grazing land and unavailability of fodder adversely affect the weight and health of the goats.
Overcoming hurdles – improving coping and adaptive capacities
As it were, goats are a natural adaptation in the region. But there were concerns due to its high mortality and the reduced climate resilience of existing goat breeds. Furthermore, mobilising low-income and landless women with limited coping capacity in face of climate adversities to organise in self-help groups as part of an FPC in a business model appeared implausible.
Yet, over time, the comprehensive approach of KFPC brought a sea change to how goat keeping began to be conceived as a women-centred enterprise aiming to bolster their livelihoods sustainably. Goat keeping transformed from being a source of emergency cash into a women-led business operation to sustain and profit from. KFPC set out to standardise the goat dealer market that was overrun with agents who procured goats at throwaway prices based on a rough estimation of weight and quality. It engaged directly with the goat dealers and standardised live goat sale based on live body weight on behalf of its women members.
The economic vulnerabilities of the goat farmers were addressed by addressing the coping capacity of the goat. Breeding of Black Bengal, a small-sized local goat adaptive to local conditions, was incentivised. To make the company self-sufficient, women members were trained as pashu sakhi (para medics) to supervise disease management, vaccination, and nutrition of goats. Infections among the goats were minimised through introduction of raised sheds and stall-feeding which has further reduced exposure. Following a comprehensive approach, KFPC widened its ambit of business by engaging in the procurement of agricultural inputs (fertiliser and seeds), encouraging members to invest in kitchen gardens and procure lands for sharecropping to ensure fodder for goats and support livelihoods.
Positive change in the fortunes of brave women goat farmers
Seven years since KFPC took its first baby steps, today over 3650 women spread over 63 villages are its stakeholders. It supports goat and seed businesses, works with dealers and retail buyers, manages its own financial documents and registers profits every year. Its annual turnover in the year 2020-2021 was over 9.2 million. The company retains a three percent commission on the sale value of each goat, both from the women farmers (1.5 percent) and the butcher (1.5 percent).
Encouragingly, the board of directors of the company are drawn from Scheduled Castes, minority groups and other marginalised women in key positions.
Today, Rekha Devi prides herself on being its member. However, when she joined it in 2017, her husband and neighbours ridiculed her for ‘daydreaming about doing business’. She started out with two goats in 2018 that were gifted to her by a KFPC member as a return of ‘social debt’. During this period, she has sold over 20 adult goats and at present, has over 15 goats. She is a trained pashu sakhi (para medic), regularly de-worming goats, providing edible mineral blocks, handling goat deliveries independently and counselling goat keepers on disease management and nutrition support in neighbouring villages. Her critics have since changed sides and many women have joined the Kamla FPC, inspired by her success story.
The long road ahead
The Kamla FPC has received several accolades from the state of Bihar including Bihar Government. It has been recently recognised by NABARD as a prominent FPC with a sustainable business model empowering women and making their livelihoods climate resilient.
Nonetheless, there are still several unique issues related to goatery that need to be addressed by KFPC. These are crucial to safeguarding goat business and value chains against the changing climate. The consultative workshop with the KFPC members and climate and goatery experts has foregrounded possible adaptation measures to bolster climate resilience in the turbulent ecological niche of Darbhanga. Some of these additional measures include, raising bamboo platforms with cement pillars (that can be lifted away to safe place in case of flooding), good hygiene practises and control of pests and insects that which may increase due to flooding and waterlogging; the need for a stall-fed intensive system of management and improved and goat feed. The possibility of diversifying the product portfolio by venturing into dairy products was also considered.
As KFPC moves forward with its restive spirit and feet on the ground, it hopes to emerge as a major goatery player in the region. It is not surprising that they have recently invested in a pickup truck so that several goats and large quantities of agricultural inputs could be moved with ease and built a collection centre for agricultural inputs- enclosed and secured from dampness and fire. Kudos to the unwavering ethos of these women, determined to weave a success story by improving the adaptive capacity of their company and making their livelihoods climate-resilient!
Author(s): Shailendra Dwivedi, Director- Climate Change & Circular Economy, GIZ India
Minati Dash, Consultant working on the issues of development governance and climate change