From equity and livelihood perspectives, livestock rearing must be at the centre stage of poverty alleviation programmes.

Livestock rearing is a key livelihood and risk mitigation strategy for small and marginal farmers, particularly across the rain-fed regions of India. Livestock products comprised 32 per cent of the total value of agriculture and allied activities in 2006-07 which was a noticeable increase from 27 per cent in 1999-2000 and from 1980-81 when it represented 14 per cent of the agricultural gross domestic product. The livestock sector has therefore been growing faster than many other sectors of agriculture and if this trend continues then the sector will be the engine of growth for Indian agriculture that many have predicted.

Most often we see livestock as providers of essential food products, draught power, manure, employment, household income and export earnings. However, it is a very important fact that livestock wealth is much more equitably distributed than wealth associated with land. Thus, when we think of the goal of inclusive growth, we should not forget that from equity and livelihood perspectives, livestock rearing must be at the centre of the stage in poverty alleviation programmes.

There are two other important aspects: firstly, livestock rearing at the household level is largely a women-led activity, and therefore income from livestock rearing and decisions related to management of livestock within the household are primarily taken by women. Interventions in India have demonstrated that support for livestock rearing has contributed significantly to the empowerment of women and an increasing role in decision making at both the household and village level. Secondly, livestock rearing, particularly in the rain-fed regions of the country, is also emerging as a key risk mitigation strategy for the poorest. They face increasingly uncertain and erratic weather conditions which negatively impact crop productivity and wage labour in the agriculture sector.

Three overarching messages

A global analysis of the livestock sector by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was contained in the recently released State of Food and Agriculture and it highlighted three overarching messages that merit discussion in the context of India.

First, although livestock products make important contributions to food security and poverty reduction for many low-income rural families, the policy and institutional framework in many countries has failed to serve the needs of these poorest households and to get them onto the conveyor belt of development. A lack of public services in animal health that reach out to the poorest in rural areas and a failure to link small holder livestock keepers to better paying markets are but two examples of common failings. The institutional and policy frameworks tend to support intensive and commercial livestock rearing, both in the provision of services and also in facilitating access to markets.

Second, livestock producers, including traditional pastoralists and smallholders, are both victims of natural resource degradation and contributors to it. Corrective action most likely lies in a mix of public goods related to environmental protection, ecosystem services and through incentives for private investment to improve animal productivity, particularly in remote regions. In the case of India, there are numerous examples of community-led interventions where community management and sustainable use of natural resources has positively impacted small holder livestock rearing.

Third, animal health services not only combat animal diseases that cause mortality and reduce animal productivity, they also protect human health because of the risk of animal to human disease transmission. Animal health systems have been neglected in many parts of the world and this has led to institutional weaknesses that in turn lead to poor delivery of animal health services and higher risks to livelihoods and human health. In correcting this situation it must be recognised that the poor face different risks and have different incentives and capacities to respond than do intensive commercial farmers. Therefore, animal health service providers have the additional challenge of recognising the differences between their stakeholders and developing mechanisms to reach them all.

Moving forward on these key findings is not possible by relying either on individuals alone or a single string of actions. Progress requires attention from all actors in the social, environmental, animal health, human health and agriculture sectors; that means public, private and community organisations being actively engaged together. The livestock sector is far too important to accept anything less. — Courtesy: United Nations Information Centre for India and Bhutan.

(Gavin Wall is FAO Representative in India and Bhutan.)

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