Gujarat elections: Dairy cooperatives shape rural contest

Updated on Dec 02, 2022 12:37 PM IST

In Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, Nagana is a sleepy but well-developed village. A vast majority of the homes here are part of the village cooperative that collects milk for Banas Dairy, Gujarat’s biggest district milk union.

As many as 3.6 million families across Gujarat sell milk to cooperatives every day. (HT file) PREMIUM
As many as 3.6 million families across Gujarat sell milk to cooperatives every day. (HT file)
By, Palanpur/mehsana

In Gujarat’s Banaskantha district, Nagana is a sleepy but well-developed village. A vast majority of the homes here are part of the village cooperative that collects milk for Banas Dairy, Gujarat’s biggest district milk union. IT is also home to 65-year-old Navalben Chaudhary who has sold milk worth 1.41 crore to the dairy over the past year, the highest for any individual household in the country, a feat that saw her felicitated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2022.

About 50 metres away from the village, which lies in the tehsil of Vadgam, is Chaudhary’s DK Farms where more than a hundred cows and buffaloes ruminate under three tin-covered sheds equipped with fans, coolers, basins for feed, and cemented floors. She has half-a-dozen workers, who each get paid 1,000 rupees a month per animal they take care of, and half a litre of milk every day. “My monthly wage bill is about 2.5 lakh,” she said.

Navalben’s prosperity, and the health of Gujarat’s village cooperatives that deal in milk, are a central issue in the region’s politics.

Navalben belongs to Chaudhary subcaste, a farming community that wields substantial political influence in the northern Gujarat districts of Banaskantha, Patan, Mehsana , Himmatnagar and Sabarkantha. A decade ago, she said she only owned 10 cows. “With income from farming decreasing, I decided to expand the milk business which provides a stable income because of the cooperatives.” From 100 litres of milk a day a decade ago, Navalben now produces 1,200 litres a day, making an annual profit of 10 lakh.

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This year, Navalben expects a similar profit, despite a 15-20% fall in milk production because of the Lumpy Skin Disease that affected cattle throughout parts of India since August 2022. While the Gujarat government has little data on how many animals were affected, in an election year, its 18 district milk cooperatives increased the prices of milk by approximately 65 per kg of fat since January 2022. “We increased the prices to ensure that milk producing families don’t suffer because of rising prices of animal feed,” said Sangaram Chaudhary, managing director of Banas Dairy, adding that for every rupee they earn, 82.7 paisa goes back to milk producers.

MILK POLITICS

Like Navalben, 3.6 million families across Gujarat sell milk to cooperatives every day, making it the biggest milk producing state in the country. Gujarat has 18,545 villages, each of which has its own mandali or cooperative society involved in milk procurement, micro-finance, and providing agricultural inputs to farmers, linked with Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF), which runs the cooperative brand Amul.

But apart from the spread of cooperatives in Gujarat, what is politically significant is their composition. More than half of the bank accounts into which money for milk is transferred belong to women. When Navalben was felicitated by the Prime Minister, this was a key part. “I had a long conversion with Modi ji and he appreciated the work being done by women associated with milk cooperatives,” she said.

Locals in north Gujarat claim that cooperatives have been crucial to the BJP’s outreach to voters, especially women. “Earlier, cooperatives and elections were never directly mixed. But now the BJP runs its campaign through cooperatives – to get more people to vote, and to convince them about the good work done by the BJP,” said Tejash Patel, former Agriculture Producers Marketing Committee (APMC) chairman in Petlad, and director of Amul, based in Anand.

A BJP leader in Palanpur, the district headquarters of Banaskantha, said on the condition of anonymity, “It is a micro-level operation, often not visible on the surface. More than 70% of village cooperative office-bearers are with us.”

The BJP has wrested control over Amul, once considered a Congress turf. The federation has 18 milk unions, and politicians affiliated to the BJP now control all of them . The last non-BJP chairman, Ramsinh Parmar of the Kaira milk cooperative in Anand, left the Congress to join the BJP in 2019.

BJP backers such as Navalben say that this dominance is well-earned, through a concerted effort. “Even though they were started by the Congress, no party has done more for the milk cooperatives than the BJP,” she said, pointing to round-the-clock electricity, well maintained roads, loans to buy cattle, and insurance for animals. “During Congress rule, we had pot-holed roads, no bus services to villages and poor electricity supply,” she added.

Amitaben, secretary of the milk society in Padgol village in Anand, concurred, and said she actively explains to women voters how the BJP helped. “I tell the women voters that Modi ji has made the state safe while ensuring easy availability of loans. If they accuse the BJP of corruption, I explain how it is the lower tiers of administration that are responsible. Modiji is our Prime Minister and our biggest pride,” she added.

In 2022, rural Gujarat is a key battlefield. The BJP is hoping that its push in the dairy cooperatives will help regain ground from the Congress and the new challenger, the Aam Aadmi Party. In 2017, the BJP swept 36 of the state’s 42 urban seats, but won only 55 of the 127 deemed rural seats; the Congress which won 71.

Also read: Verdict sealed for 89 seats in Gujarat’s high-stakes Phase-1

The BJP, however, is confident that farmer anger, noticeable in 2017, has now been subdued through decent procurement prices for important crops such as cotton and mustard, for instance the price for cotton has increased from 76,000 per candy in 2019 to 97,000 per candy in 2022, even if there is still some residual anger over rising input costs. “We have countered any possible farmer unrest through loans from cooperative banks and milk cooperatives,” said a BJP strategist, not willing to be named.

Of the 127 deemed rural seats, political observers say that the cooperative sector directly influences as many as 88 rural seats.

“From 10,500 village cooperatives in 2003-2004, today there are more than 18,500. dairy unions have increased from 11 to 18,” said BJP spokesperson Bharat Pandhya.

Election Commission data shows that women voters have increased by 4% compared to 2017, and the BJP hopes that its “Nari Shakti” push will pay dividends. In July, Modi inaugurated projects around milk and dairy projects worth 1,000 crore, as well as the Sukanya Samriddhi scheme to benefit girls who are part of the Gujarat’s milk revolution.

Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi accused the BJP of politiciSing the cooperative movement. “Although the cooperatives have been operational since Independence, the Congress never interfered in their functioning. But the BJP has brought in politics to wrest control,” Doshi said.

Back at Nagan, Navalben agreed that cooperatives should stay free from politics, but added that the Congress first used them for politics, a practice the BJP adopted. Regardless, it is the cooperatives that have allowed her to educate her two sons, and provide her family a better life. “Every woman working with the cooperatives believes that milk has changed our lives for better,” she said.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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