Sunday, October 24, 2010

Self-help groups or helpless groups? - Sreelatha Menon

The Tru dairy project was started to help poor women, but it raises many questions

When Verghese Kurien pioneered the dairy cooperative movement, millions of poor women in Gujarat became owners of a billion dollar brand. A similar model of giving milk providers the ownership of the brand has emerged in Punjab under the label of Tru milk. However, it raises questions related to profit-sharing and unpaid labour.

In Ludhiana, Macro Venture Pvt Ltd, started by Jassi Khangura, a Congress MLA from the Qila Raipur constituency, does not procure milk the way Amul does. He keeps the 15,400 cattle bought by about 3,080 women at the milking parlour-cum-processing plants he has set up in 22 villages.

The role of the women is limited to taking bank loans to buy expensive international breed cows, five per woman, and feeding and milking them daily. So, the women provide the cows to Khangura, and provide food to the cows from their pockets. They are not free to walk out with the cows but must work in the dairy till their debts are paid off. In return, the women get Rs 2,500 a month, accordng to Khangura. For the milk, they get the cooperative rate of Rs 18 per litre, from which they buy fodder, pay bank loans, and so on. Khangura sells the milk at Rs 34 a litre after spending Rs 7 per litre on processing. It is like an all-costs-paid business for Khangura rather than a project that empowers the women.

Khangura has organised the women into self-help groups of five women each. These women have been provided bank loans through the SHG linkage programme to buy five cows each at the rate of Rs 45,000 per cow. The women leave the cows at the shed and the processing plant set up in their village over four to five acres leased by the company. Kangura has invested Rs 3.6 crore in each of these plants, a total of Rs 100 crore, using his personal wealth and some loans, about the same as what these women have invested in the cows and continue to invest in fodder and in the form of free labour.

The women work in four-hour shifts for six days a week, taking care of the 25 cows in their group.

But all they get for the milk and for their work is a mere Rs 2,500 a month (according to Khangura). This despite owning five cows and sale of 1,50,000 litres of milk daily. Khangura says each woman is also paid about Rs 2,000 per month for repaying the loan.

Dairy experts say this is a win-win situation for Khangura, who has hedged his risk by getting women to invest in the cows. Even if a cow yields only ten litres a day, and if the milk is sold at Rs 20 a litre, the women can earn about Rs 1,000 daily from the five cows. Rs 4,500 a month is nowhere close to that, it is pointed out.

Bhaskar Goswami, agriculture economist, said international breed HF cows yielded up to 45 litres a day and that would mean an income of about Rs 5,000 a day from five cows (at Rs 20 per litre).

According to Khangura, the yield of the 15,400 cows is 1,50,000 litres a day, or 10 litres per cow. Khangura says this model is the future. But it means free cattle and free workforce for the owners, with the cattle owners getting nothing. The women who work four hours daily for six days a week don’t even get paid for their labour.

Khangura says the women are not workers but owners. However, he adds that they cannot exit the scheme till the loans are repaid. He denies any exploitation here and says these women opted in because they saw an advantage in it.

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