Fresh milk suppliers in Chennai struggle in the face of lockdown curbs and fodder scarcity

With the continuing lockdown and a general fear among the people over coronavirus spread, dairy milk farmers selling fresh milk in the city find their businesses affected badly.

With little takers for fresh milk from cows, Lingesh* (name changed on request), a cattle rearer and milk producer in Selaiyur, sold five out of his 35 cattle for Rs 1 lakh three weeks ago. More than a month has gone by under lockdown and his losses are mounting. 

“During normal times, selling a cow would fetch me at least Rs 35,000. As the lockdown has affected my finances badly, I did not have a choice but to settle for whatever the buyer offered,” he said.

A large number of people in the city prefer buying milk from these milk vendors, instead of going for pasteurised milk. Such customers can enquire about the source, and also value the freedom to visit their farms to check out production standards and practices in person. Many residents prefer fresh cattle milk over packed ones due to their health benefits and quality.

“I am undergoing treatment for ulcer and my doctor advised me not to consume pasteurised milk, as they contain preservatives which are bad for healing,” says Parvathi, a resident of Tambaram, who relies on fresh cattle milk vendors.  

The lockdown, however, has dealt a big blow to the business of fresh milk. Fully covered, with masks and gloves and maintaining social distance, milk vendors roam the neighbourhoods every morning and evening, hoping to sell to their regular customers. But most gated communities and apartments, and even some houses, no longer allow them entry for fear of contracting the virus; the vendors are therefore in a limbo.

Lingesh’s case is a typical example; he has witnessed more than 50% drop in his regular customer base, because of the prevailing paranoia. In some places, customers themselves have gone back to their native places. One month of lockdown has translated to a loss of around Rs 40,000 for him. With no alternative source of income, Lingesh had no choice but to sell the cattle to pay his loans and make ends meet. 

The demand for milk in Chennai is also largely dependent on restaurants and tea shops, besides individual citizen consumers. As the mercury levels rise, the sale of smoothies and milkshakes increases and so does the demand for milk. So, with the closure of dine-in restaurants and cafes, and curbs on vehicular movement, the milk vendors’ distribution chain has taken a hard hit this summer.

Weak demand

Treading in the footsteps of their ancestors, over 300 families in Triplicane maintain their own dairy farms. For over five generations, cattle and milk business has been the only source of income for many of these people. However, the outbreak of the coronavirus disease has resulted in extreme distress among the community.

Many milkmen from the neighbourhood farms say they had to dump fresh cattle milk down the drain.  “I had zero sales for several days after the lockdown was announced. I froze the milk and tried to sell it in residential areas, but there were no takers. I had no choice but to just throw around 400 litres of milk,” said R Raja, a milk vendor from Triplicane. Raja’s customer base consists primarily of commercial chains such as bakeries, hotels and restaurants.

There was a brief glimmer of hope when the Chennai Corporation lifted the restrictions on hotels (only take-aways) and bakeries. “We had decent sales for a few days. But then the sales dipped again because of the intense lockdown,” says Raja.

As demand dips, Ramkumar, a milk supplier from Avadi, has another battle to fight. “My delivery boys have to pass through highways to supply milk to our customers. Even though we come under essential services, the cops harass and delay them for no reason,” he said.

Every day, 25 lakh litres of milk are supplied in Chennai. The cooperative society, Aavin, procures milk from six lakh dairy farmers hailing from districts like Thiruvannamalai, Dharmapuri and Salem in Tamil Nadu. The overall share of Aavin in Chennai is 40-45%.

Aavin supplies around 12.5 lakh litre of milk to the households in Chennai every day through its 210 outlets. The private dealers distribute around 13 lakh litre, which also includes commercial entities. The share of other dairy farmers, who sell directly to customers, is minuscule, and they sell 10,000-20,000 litre of milk every day in the city,” says SA Ponnusamy, founder and president of Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Employees’ Association.

Distributing excess milk

Suresh, another vendor, used to sell milk daily to a tea shop in Selaiyur. With the COVID-triggered lockdown, the shop remains closed. “Eighty litres of extra milk is produced every day. Instead of throwing it away, I let the calves drink the milk and distribute the rest among the poor and needy. Even though many cannot afford to pay for the milk, I do not mind. I can at least be happy that some people are benefitted,” he added.

About 30 families living in Suresh’s locality are dependent on the same livelihood and are sailing in the same choppy waters. Milkmen in Triplicane say that they freeze the excess milk and distribute it in slum areas the next day at cheaper rates.

Milkmen living in containment areas are the worst affected of the lot, for they cannot even step out of their houses. “Four of my relatives live near the burial ground in Krishnampet, which is a contained area, and their business has just come to a complete halt,” said V Balaji, another milkman from Triplicane.

According to Ponnusamy, founder and president of Tamil Nadu Milk Dealers Employees’ Association, the government should immediately procure the milk and sell through Aavin. “However, allocating chilling centres during the lockdown will be a challenge. But it is essential that the government does it for their welfare. As hotels and tea shops constitute their primary customer base, maybe tea shops, like hotels, should also be opened up for limited hours, under restrictions,” he added.

Soaring prices of fodder

Interactions with several milkmen revealed another cause of worry: the exorbitant prices of fodder. A sac of husk and bran is now Rs 1,600, whereas it was Rs 900 last month. A bundle of straw was Rs 150 and now Rs 250. “Vendors in the market say that the godowns are not working and transportation curbs are the reasons for limited fodder supply,” said Ramkumar. 

Suresh needs three sacs of bran and husk a day to feed his 30 cows, but he is given just one sac. “The vendor is limiting only one sac per person due to the unavailability of stock. I also regularly include urad dal husk so that the cows stay healthy. But, getting one variety itself is a big deal now. It pains me to see my cows struggling with insufficient feed every day,” he rued.

The milk producers demand that the curfew should be relaxed to ensure that fodder supply is smooth. As for the surplus milk, their only request is that the excess amount should be procured by the government. While several suggestions have been floated to mitigate the crisis, implementation needs careful thought and planning and dairy farmers feel it may take a long time to recoup their business.

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