How the Khawa Cluster in Osmanabad Is Changing Lives En Masse
One of the perks of working in the development sector is gaining steady exposure to intricate, yet localised, problems that require a nuanced understanding of the complex interplay of state policy, environmental conditions and socio-economic practices prevailing in the area. A field visit to the Osmanabad district of Maharashtra provided me one such opportunity.
Located in the parched Marathwada region of southern Maharashtra, Osmanabad is in many ways a slave of its geography. Comprising eight blocks, more than half of its geographical area lies in the lap of the Balaghat mountain range. The forest cover of the district is merely 0.81% and can be categorised as a mix of dry mixed deciduous and thorny open scrub types. Major tree varieties found here include neem, peepal, banyan, mango, tamarind, etc., among which, afforestation drives have focused disproportionately on planting neem saplings as they are not relished by stray cattle. The Bhoom tahsil is particularly blessed with attractive geography which, at times, resembles the undulating green pastures of Switzerland. Therefore, the local population has gravitated towards animal husbandry as a financially viable alternative to traditional farming dependent on vagaries of monsoon rains, which are rather erratic and almost invariably, deficient.
This shift towards dairy farming was propelled by an abundant availability of cattle fodder in the Bhoom taluka as well as establishment of up to 45 chara chavanis (fodder camps) catering to more than 1000 animals each. They have been set up across drought-affected districts of Maharashtra, under a scheme of the state government, wherein farmers can leave their cattle at these camps during the lean months. Fodder, water and medical facilities available for the animals ensure their survival. While saving the lives of precious livestock on one hand, the assembly of thousands of milk-producing animals in one place also provided an opportunity.
Farmers started organising themselves in cooperatives and pooling their cattle for making khawa (milk solids) from their daily milk production, which has a better shelf-life compared to milk and also fetches a higher price. This led a massive proliferation of such cooperatives with 150 of them presently churning out 35,000 kg per day! However, peculiar negative externality of this industry emerged, which had gone unnoticed initially—the households were using wood-fired kilns to boil the milk and Osmanabad’s already meagre forest cover was being put under immense stress.
The genesis of this problem actually lay in the lack of alternatives available to the dairy farmers. The adoption of electric induction machines or diesel/gas-based machines was hindered by the cost factor and wood was the cheapest fuel available to them. As explained to me by Vinod Jogdand, chairman of the special purpose vehicle (SPV) running the Khawa cluster, the ratio of per unit of cost of diesel (Rs 50), gas (Rs 40), electricity at industrial tariffs (Rs 30) and wood (Rs 10) was 5:4:3:1, thus making wood the preferred choice of fuel and leading to an estimated loss of 500 trees per day! Deforestation in a parched land, with an existing forest cover of less than 1%, was turning out to be a recipe for disaster as the bio-geophysical effects of deforestation were further adversely affecting the monsoon rains. And this where the khawa cluster in Bhoom has made a surgical intervention to break vicious cycle.
Under the Aspirational Districts Programme, NITI Aayog is implementing its mandate of promoting convergence of various Central and state schemes so as to mobilise and creatively use all available resources. Therefore, Khawa Cluster Bhoom was established under the Government of Maharashtra’s micro-small enterprises—Cluster Development Programme—as a modern food processing hub. The SPV members visited the Amul dairy in Anand, Gujarat, to pick up the best practices and decided to procure electric induction machines run on solar power for making Khawa. Solarisation of the induction machines was essential to provide a viable alternative to farmers who preferred to minimise their input cost by burning wood. A modern testing facility and automated packing machines ensure that standard quality and proper hygiene is maintained, as per FSSAI standards. A state-of-art cold storage facility has permanently eliminated the problem of excess production leading to a crash in prices. A skill development centre is skilling more than 1000 youth every year and integrating them in the Khawa value-chain at different levels, even as self-employed individuals. Another under-noticed hazard of wood-fired kilns was the exposure of farmers, especially women in the family, to the toxic smoke of the kilns before which they had to sit for up to 10 hours a day to stir the milk. And perhaps most importantly, rampant deforestation has steadily seen a decline as more and more farmers are joining the cluster.
Jogdand and his colleague, Riyaz Pirzada, feel Khawa Cluster Bhoom holds the potential to rival the Amul Dairy in Gujarat. He feels the future of the cluster is bright as it has received unimpeded support from all actors—the district administration, the state government, NITI Aayog, corporations (through CSR funding) and the local population. The cluster’s next mission is to focus on building its brand and strengthening its milk collection network by replicating Haryana’s ‘Cow Clubs’ for improving the breeding and medical facilities of cattle. And when he told me that it took just under Rs 20 crores of fund mobilisation to establish the khawa cluster and positively affect the health and incomes of up to 40,000 households in Osmanabad, I learnt my biggest lesson as a development-sector professional: ‘small money and big impact’ can indeed be a reality if the problem is correctly diagnosed. The khawa cluster in Osmanabad has done precisely that.