Each week on this blog, we meet International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) staff members, partners and projects in Asia to learn about their work, challenges and the opportunities they face to leverage livestock knowledge in Asia.
As a native of the state of Assam, Rameswar (Ram) Deka is better placed than most to be ILRI’s main scientist on northeast India from his base of Nalbari, Assam. Now in his seventh year with ILRI, Ram takes time out to discuss the unique challenges facing the livestock sector in India’s northeast, and how regional collaboration is playing a greater role in ILRI’s work.
As head of ILRI’s ‘Northeast Center’ in India, can you briefly detail what your work entails?
My primary responsibilities in this role relate to both conducting, and managing the research activities of ILRI in northeast India. I also represent ILRI in various forums, whilst also corresponding with our various stakeholders in the region and continuing to explore new opportunities for ILRI projects and partnerships in the northeast of India.
With India being such a diverse country agriculturally, do you feel that the challenges and opportunities facing the northeast are more similar, or disparate from the rest of the country?
Similar to the other international regions where ILRI works, livestock here in northeast India plays a very important role in the livelihoods of poor livestock keepers. Not only does it offer a means of income generation and capital accumulation, it also offers a way to diversify risk whilst also meeting the unique socio-cultural needs of the livestock keepers.
However in northeast India, the combination of consistently uneven topography with relatively ineffectual infrastructure has given rise to a unique set of challenges for the agriculturalist here. Take for instance the commonly adopted approach to crop management here known as jhum. It is essentially a ‘shifting cultivation’ or a ‘slash and burn’ approach that is unique to this region of the world. In the past, this approach has proved to be effective, however the startling growth in population here has led to a continual decrease in the intervals between jhums. The result has been a clear degradation in soil health and productivity, which, when combined with the limited scope for irrigation, fertilization and farm mechanization in this hilly terrain has resulted in an agricultural system which has, and continues to be poorly remunerative.
Under this challenging environment, livestock continues to play a crucial role in the livelihood improvement of smallholders within the region, with 20-30% of household income generally attributable to livestock. Excellent market demand for livestock products, continually increasing returns, and a burgeoning niche market for local livestock products continue to offer excellent opportunities for investment in the region’s livestock sector.
Unlike the rest of India – with specific mention of the north and west of the country – more than 90% of the population here is not vegetarian. Thus the region has, and will continue to exhibit a relatively high demand for meat, and meat products. Another distinguishing characteristic of the region lies in the livestock sectors capacity, or should I say – lack thereof. The industry here is still quite undeveloped, to the extent that the smallholder production system here fail to meet local demand. To date, this supply-and-demand deficit has been mainly serviced through supply sourced from the livestock sectors of northern and southern India states. Thus, there is a large market potential for local producers to meet this demand in the future.
The highly diverse population structure, in terms of caste, ethnicity and religion has resulted in a local demand for the full range of livestock products. This broad-ranging level of demand is unique within India and only adds to the region’s positioning as a livestock hub.
The livestock sector here really does offer more dissimilarities than similarities with the rest of India – specifically in terms of livestock species, breeds, feed availability, farm sizes and market demand. For instance – throughout the majority of India, milk is by far-and-away the dominant livestock product – due in large part to the highly vegetarian populace. However in northeast India, milk does not hold such a dominant position. In a similar line of logic, northeast India’s strong preference for pork also sets it apart from the rest of the country.
To these unique challenges and opportunities, you can further add the following, which in my opinion are the main issues facing livestock keepers in northeast India:
- Incredibly low productivity/reproductive performance within the available indigenous livestock population;
- Inadequate availability of breeding farms, and breeding stock;
- Relatively high price for feed concentrates;
- Poor veterinary and extension delivery services;
- And a lack of industrial livestock farms to create a conducive environment for sector growth
We’ve noticed you recently presented at the ‘South-South Pig Symposium’ in Hanoi. Can you briefly discuss your presentation, and your thoughts on links between the regions?
Yes, I delivered a presentation in Hanoi that provided a comparative assessment of pig systems between South Asia and Southeast Asia. In both regions – pigs play a very important socio-cultural role, and on top of that – there are many basic similarities in terms of feeding, breeding, housing and the overall management of pigs between the regions.
Of course, that is not to say that the degree of similarity from specific country-to-country does not vary. The major difference would undoubtedly be in the smallholder pig systems, and specifically how larger areas of Southeast Asia have transformed to small/medium pig industries, especially the industries located near the urban centers in the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. There is also a growing trend in Southeast Asia of private companies heavily investing in the pig industry, either directly, or through contract farming. The result has been a vibrant pig production and marketing system there, which is unseen in South Asia.
Further compounding this in South Asia, where pigs are considered to be a relatively insignificant livestock species due to religious, and social taboos, government policy focus is very negligible when it comes to pigs. This is in contrast to Southeast Asia where the significant role of pigs is reflected in greater policy support.
Beyond these however, there are a few less discernible differences between the regions, such as:
- Feeds: greater cultivation of maize, sweet potato and tapioca etc. as a source of pig feed in Southeast Asia as opposed to South Asia.
- Indigenous breeds: the indigenous pig breeds of Southeast Asia (e.g. Mong cai, Ban) are relatively more productive than those found in South Asia.
- Transportation: motorbikes in Southeast Asia predominantly transport live pigs, whereas transport in South Asia utilizes larger-scale means such as auto-vans, mini trucks and multi-utility vehicles.
- Market conditions: the market systems in the rural areas of both regions are quite similar in regards to the low levels of hygiene, however Southeast Asia has a greater ‘high-hygiene’ niche in the urban areas.
- Market price: unlike Southeast Asia, there is little variance in the market price of pig products originating from industrial producers, as opposed to small-scale producers in South Asia.
We noticed you’re involved in a new OPEC-funded project in northeast India. It seems to be built upon previous research ILRI has participated in?
The project, titled ‘Generating evidence to support enhanced traditional dairying in India’ is actually a follow up project to an earlier ILRI pilot initiative under the “Knowledge to Action: Enhanced Traditional Dairy Value Chain in Assam” implemented in 2008 – 2010.
The initial project assessed the quality and efficiency of milk producers, vendors, sweets makers and and cottage producers through a baseline study on the knowledge, attitudes and practices of the actors in a traditional dairy value chain. The project also helped in assessing the bacteriological quality of milk marketed by different actors involved in the traditional dairy value chain. The study adopted a participatory approach to research that helped in producing a customized set of training manuals for milk producers and vendors via a rigorous iterative process. Building upon these training manuals, ILRI provided technical, and facilitative support to the Dairy Development Department, the local government in Assam. There we piloted a training, certification and monitoring scheme for milk vendors in Guwahati city in collaboration with the local Health Department, Veterinary Department and Guwhati Municipal Corporation under the World Bank sponsored Assam Agricultural Competitiveness Project.
Based on this work, the new project will see us study the impact of the training programme of milk producers and vendors, through assessing the physical and bacteriological quality of milk in Guwahati city. We will also be reviewing the knowledge, attitudes and practices of the value-chain actors by using the same tools and methodology utilized in the initial baseline survey. Based on this review, a before and after comparison will be put together vis-à-vis intervention vs. non-intervention, and from there, it will help ILRI and our partners assess the suitability of this approach in other regions of India.
Moving forward, where do you see ILRI impacting India’s agricultural sector in the longer term?
With the Indian livestock sector comprising the largest bovine population and producing the most milk in the world, I think ILRI will continue to have a role here. Especially given the fundamental challenges still facing the sector here and including:
- Predominantly low productivity animals;
- Poor feed quality and efficiency;
- Substandard health and hygiene standards;
- Inadequate access to farm inputs, credit, knowledge and market services
- Poor awareness on food safety, zoonosis and emerging diseases
- Inadequate coordination among the relevant research and development agencies
- Poor policy environment for the growth of smallholders
I believe the challenge facing ILRI and our partners is in assisting the sector to effectively transform from a subsistence farming system to a more market-orientated farming system. We can achieve that in part by working at an interface between research organizations and development agencies, helping to bridge linkages between the parties for greater coordination and cooperation.
ILRI also plays a vital role in that we bring other relevant stakeholders into the discussion, such as social scientists, economists, gender experts, public health experts, quality control organizations, other non-government organizations and civil society organizations. This helps in making the policy makers here frame people-centric policies and programs for the development of the livestock sector. It is important to shift the paradigm away from a livestock technology driven approach, to a more people-centric approach where high quality science can collaborate for the benefit of Indian smallholders.
In northeast India in particular, ILRI is currently trying to improve the livelihood of pig smallholders through several action research programs on areas ranging from breed improvement to feed improvement to disease control. However at the end of the day, the key will be to influence policy makers here to adopt policies that provide greater support to livestock smallholders.
Finally Ram, what does the remainder of 2012 have in store for you?
With ILRI planning to start some new activities in India as part of a dairy value chain study under the new CGIAR Livestock and Fish program, I will be dedicated parts of my time to establishing the relevant research projects there. Otherwise, I will be working on studies of food safety and zoonotic diseases in northeast India under another CGIAR program – Improved Nutrition and Health.
Ram (second from left) on the way to a consultation held in a remote village of Meghalaya in northeast India
For more information on Ram, please view his ILRI profile page
View publications by Ram on Mahider