Four years after hybrid cattle came to Mandwa under the Prime Minister's relief programme, the village has paid the price.

Mandwa is still trying to recover from the Prime Minister's relief package. This Adivasi village (population: 550) got 36 hybrid cows under Manmohan Singh's 2006 programme to help Vidarbha's struggling farmers at the height of their crisis. The cows (and sometimes buffaloes) did not come free. “We paid Rs.4,500 and the government Rs.13,500 for each cow [a 75-per-cent subsidy],” says Devidas Kishtareddy Gangulwar in the village. “Most of the members of our [all-male] self-help groups got two cows. Meaning each paid Rs.9,000”

Four years after the hybrids (cutely called aadha Jerseys, or half-Jerseys) came to Mandwa, the village has paid the price. Of the 36, 20 have died, 12 were sold off at huge losses to the “owner-beneficiaries” and four remain, ornaments providing little or no milk at all. But not before twenty poor Kolam and Gond Adivasis had lost close to Rs.3,00,000 on them by way of their share of the purchase cost, transportation and maintenance.

It's a story replicated across the crisis districts of a region plagued by large numbers of farm suicides. In a modestly titled section, “Unfruitful subsidy under Prime Minister's Package”, a Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) notes that a scrutiny in just three of the six crisis districts proved startling. It showed that “509 animals were dead, 473 were sold and 1867 could not be verified” as still being with the stated owner. That's nearly 28 per cent of “10,210 animals distributed during the package period” of 2006-07 to 2009-10.

Then there's the “unfruitful subsidy” on the same count arising from the “Chief Minister's Package.” That, too, saw a distribution of over 6,000 milch animals in the same districts. The score: 466 animals dead, 517 sold and 1266 “non-traceable.”

The Chief Minister's package was merged in November 2006 with the Prime Minister's. Many warned at the time against giving costly cattle to poor farmers who had neither fodder nor water. Nor was there training for people who had never been cattle breeders, as in Mandwa's case. Yet, over Rs.50 crore was splurged on the purchase of livestock.

There is not one working hand pump in Mandwa. “We fetch our water from more than a kilometre away,” says Mr. Gangulwar, just as a cart rolls in with a big drum of it. “Fodder? Just go out and try buying some.”

“While the cows lasted, we spent far more on them than we could afford,” says Ayya Baheru Atram. Breeders say looking after such animals properly takes between Rs.150 and Rs.200 a day. “Which one of us could spend more than Rs.40?” asks Sonerao Meshram, another beneficiary. “And that, only for a few months till we went bankrupt.” Mr. Sonerao is the proud owner of one of the four survivors and all gather round it for a group photograph.

Frequent ailments plagued the hybrid animals (a few were “aadha Holsteins”) which simply could not cope with conditions in this hillside village. “They were shaking in the 45 Celsius heat,” says Devidas Gangulwar. “We had to take them often to the veterinary doctor,” say a chorus of voices. Ultimately, “the vet's income went up, ours went down.”

But surely, there were benefits from the sale of milk? There are rueful smiles. “The milk was very thin and there were no takers,” says Shyamrao Ramulu Akulwar. “The first month, the cows actually gave eight litres a day. But there were no buyers and the market is pretty far off, too. So we had a brief glut of milk here.” Most had really hoped they would get sturdy bullocks from the offspring. This is a rough terrain to plough. The manure would also have helped. “As we ran out of money and stopped feeding them even that Rs.40 worth, they stopped giving us even that thin milk,” says Mr. Shyamrao.

Ayya Atram “held on to the cow for two years but the milk lasted four months.” Its required diet missing, the cow shrank and the one calf it produced died. We could have, the Adivasis say, “handled local breeds. These animals were aliens to us.” They could also have handled poultry well, but were never told of the option. Somebody had cows to sell.

There's a drama behind the Prime Minister's missing cows, and the ones that were sold-off. One the CAG report obviously cannot enter. And not restricted to Mandwa. The beneficiaries did not profit from what turned out to be high-eating low-yielding cows. “We sold when the damn things drove us bankrupt,” complains one villager. Those who sold, got a fraction of the Rs.9,000 they had spent. Others failed to sell before the animals died, losing out totally. In several villages, people simply gave the animal away, unable to feed it, unwilling to kill it. And, says one activist in the region, “a few were consumed in one or two hungry villages.”

There is also a less recorded drama of where the cows came from and how the programmes set the cash registers ringing somewhere. Some of the aadha Jerseys and half-Holsteins, insist activists, were from Ahmednagar district. A couple of dealers in Vidarbha also seem to have made a killing. Mandwa's beneficiaries were taken to a cattle sale in Wardha and asked to choose from a specific dealer there. They also paid all the considerable transportation costs themselves.

Meanwhile, the package has wound up. Mandwa now seeks relief from the package's effects.