CWDCS is affiliated to the Sunderban Cooperative Milk & Livestock Producers’ Union and sells its products under the ‘Sundarini Naturals’ brand, an initiative of the West Bengal government. CWDCS is one of 70 such all-women run co-operative operating in the region.

The brand was feted earlier this year by the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB) for its high-quality dairy products. Apart from cow milk and ghee (clarified butter), eggs, honey from the Sundarbans and rice are sold under the aegis of the brand.

Covering 3500 women farmers, these DCSs record a peak milk procurement of over 4000 kilograms per day from seven blocks of the Sundarbans and function with NDDB’s guidance and technical support.

“Our milk is of high quality. They are from indigenous cows and we do not use antibiotics or hormones. Once we bring the milk to the centre, it is tested for fat content and other parameters. Based on those we get the price,” Deb Sharma said.

Donning a blue scrub apron and a hairnet, 31-year-old Madhavi Mriddha Mandal explains the rigorous quality compliance procedure.

“We test a drop of milk from each of the cans. If the fat content is not satisfactory then it is not used by us. Only the best quality milk goes out,” Mandal said with a justified gleam in her eyes.

Madhavi Mriddha Mandal helps load the van with the milk she quality tested and approved. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Each days’ quantity and quality parameters of the produce is registered digitally and the women members are paid every 10 ten days.

Between them, they manage to pour in about 50 litres of milk each day, chimes in Madhavi. Presently the co-operative has 95 members and depending on the availability of lactating cows and their numbers, 30 to 40 women at a time are active at the co-operative.

The cows are fed organically-grown corn, sorghum and a local variety of grass. The challenge to go 100 percent organic has spurred them to look for a suite of options within nature’s toolbox itself.

“For organic milk, the whole cycle of milk production has to be free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. So we use herbal concoctions as insect repellents. These are also used for veterinary purposes. The herbs come from herbal gardens we grow in our homesteads. Cow dung manure, liquid manure and even vermicompost are used by many,” Suparna Deb Sharma said.

An employee at the centre following procedures to ensure good quality of milk produce is passed on for distribution. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

In a 2017 study on socio-economic characterisation and dairy production system maintained by women milk producer cooperative societies in Indian Sundarban region, Sarbaswarup Ghosh, an animal science expert, had pointed out “principal constraint” was lack of green fodder production for dairy farming.

“Earlier, we had seen that the members suffered financially due to lack of green fodders. However, the scenario has changed and now milk union is supplying green fodder seeds in adequate amount to them,” Ghosh told Mongabay-India.

Ghosh lauded the members from upping the ante in digitising processes such as computerising the whole supply chain, from milk procurement to milk packaging.

“During my interaction with the women milk producers, I felt they are increasingly becoming more technology oriented towards clean milk production. As far as I know. recently they are producing organic milk, free from any drug/pesticide residue,” Ghosh said.

Waste to wealth

The co-operative has also taken care of wastage.

“Native cows do not produce milk in as much quantity as other breeds. Despite this there was wastage. Earlier we had to throw out milk that remained with us after consumption. I made all my children drink milk but we still had much to spare and I threw out the excess in the river or on the fields otherwise it would spoil,” Sabitri Mondal said.

“Now we contribute the excess milk to the co-operative and earn decent money,” Sabitri Mandal chipped in with a toothy grin. Her earnings total Rs 5000 per month, the same as Suparna’s.

Sabitri is investing in her children’s education and banking the rest of the money as her personal savings.

Falling in line after their initial meet-and-greet, Sabitri and her new friends quietly trudge up the wooden staircase to the computer-based set up where Madhavi and her colleague start the quality control tests. Acknowledgement slips are printed and passed on to each of the member.

Waiting for her turn at the counter, Rita, a stay-at-home mother, elaborates on the other benefits this co-operative has brought into their lives.

“This has become our ‘morning walk’. Earlier we never bothered to venture out much. Now we walk for a kilometre with our milk cans to the collection centre. I have forged strong friendships and we meet everyday at this centre not just to deliver milk but also to share our problems,” Rita said.

Rita is also contemplating putting the excess organic fertiliser she makes on the market. “If I can sell the surfeit of organic fertiliser I make, then it increases my income,” Rita said.

The online money-transfer system also works in the women’s favour.  “We don’t have to sell the milk to middlemen. Every 10 days we get our payment via online bank transfer and we withdraw cash via ATM. We are in control of our own earnings,” Rita stressed.

Organic ghee and honey, the other products made by the co-operative, on display outside the centre. Tourists heading to Sundarban mangroves halt here and purchase the various organic products sold by the co-operative. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

West Bengal’s neighbour, Sikkim is India’s “100 percent organic state”.

In 2018 Sikkim won the Future Policy Award 2018, also known as the “Oscar for best policies”, conferred by the Food and Agriculture Organisation for the world’s best policies promoting agroecological and sustainable food systems.

In 2003, Sikkim stopped imports of chemical fertilisers in the State and since then the cultivable land there is practically organic and farmers of Sikkim are traditional users of organic manure.

“Sikkim is the first organic state in the world. All of its farmland is certified organic. At the same time, Sikkim’s approach reaches beyond organic production and has proven truly transformational for the state and its citizens,” the statement said.

The Sikkim tourism sector has benefited greatly from the state’s transition to 100 percent organic as the number of tourists increased by over 50 per cent between 2014 and 2017.

Suparna, Rita and Sabitri are also hopeful that their small steps in organic dairy farming will also enhance sales through tourism.

“When tourists pass our small milk collection centre they often stop and ask us. We showcase our produce and they are happy to purchase them directly from us. We believe that we can scale up to increase our product base and customers,” signed-off Suparna.

Continue reading:

Part Two: Migration aiding Sundarbans youth, women adapt to climate uncertainties

Part Three: Tiger widows of Sundarbans: Navigating ecology, beliefs and mental health

Banner image: Rita, one of the many beneficiaries of the all-women Chowrangi Women Dairy Cooperative Society in Basanti, West Bengal. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Sahana Ghosh was in the Indian Sundarbans to do a series of stories as part of the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network Bay of Bengal Story Grants.

Article published by Sahana

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