Professor R A Hazarika
As part of the PERIMILK study, PHFI/RCZI has partnered with Assam Agricultural University, Guwahati to conduct assessments, field surveys, testing and analysis of milk samples with the larger objective of bringing about improvements in public health, livestock health and overall sustainable development in peri-urban livestock farms. In an interview with “On the Fringes”, Professor R A Hazarika, Head, Department of Veterinary Public Health, Assam Agricultural University, Guwahati, shares the experience of the department, faculty and students on being part of this unique and innovative study.
Q: Can you provide the scenario for Assam where peri urban dairy farming is concerned?
Assam is characterised by all the problems associated with a mountainous environment, such as low availability of cultivable land, lack of diversity in economic activities, low accessibility, low productivity, meagre infrastructure, inadequate employment opportunities, alarming rate of out-migration of skilled personnel and low levels of social and political articulation. Livestock and poultry husbandry has emerged as a source of livelihood for families engaged in peri urban dairy farming. More than 85% of them are from Nepal and Bihar. Some have been in Assam for 2-3 generations having migrated from neighbouring states of Meghalaya and Nagaland. The farms are small- to- medium in size with an average of 5-10 cattle. Few of the more established dairy farmers who have consolidated their commercial business have 15-20 cows. Most preferred breeds are Holstein Friesian and Jersey crosses. Most of the milk in Guwahati, comes from these peri urban areas who provide milk directly to households or to cooperatives, traders, hotels, sweet shops and small restaurants. Farmers use inherited traditional knowledge, common sense and tips picked up from peers to manage their farms. Modern scientific understanding and knowledge of government schemes eludes them.
Q: Do they have any knowledge of antibiotics and do they use them frequently?
Those who deal with veterinarians have learnt to identify certain antibiotics and their use. While many will not admit to self administering, they use them occasionally to treat their cattle and to enhance milk yield. However, most are illiterate and therefore totally dependent on the local vet who they rely on for medical emergencies of their cattle. These vets are often from the government system but working part time privately.
Q: How has the University benefitted from its partnership with PHFI/RCZI and specifically the PERIMILK study?
The University’s Department of Livestock Production and Management has in the past collaborated with organisations like ILRI on specific aspects of peri urban dairy farming. These include research on whether farms are male or female led; is dairy farming their primary source of livelihood etc. The Department of Veterinary Public Health is for the first time collaborating on a project with PHFI on a study that entails research on diseases. The experience of working with PHFI/RCZI on collecting milk samples and having them tested for Brucellosis and Tuberculosis has seen us develop protocols and finalise the research approach and methodology. The Department has benefitted with practical know-how on approaching epidemiological studies, complementing classroom theories with field work and providing exposure to veterinary and animal husbandry practices. Access to standardised tests, research methodologies, study designs and field testing techniques is a value-add that also opens up a window for studying other diseases using a trans-sectoral research methodology.
Q: Did the University’s researchers face any challenges in the data collection phase of the study?
Motivating students to give extra time to a committing assignment is a challenge. Often trained Research Assistants/Senior Research Fellows leave mid-way because of other pressing engagements. We have to work with a back-up plan. In such partnerships, communication and transparency are key because inspite of guidelines and protocols, as the study progresses, there are reviews and mid course corrections that need to be instituted without deviating from the research methodology. We have to be quick to respond to the donor agency’s queries, and adapt study methodology based on findings from the initial formative research. Yet, inspite of being time consuming and challenging, the rigour of conducting such research is hugely beneficial to the University, faculty and students.
Q: Any suggestions that can be incorporated in strengthening such partnerships?
Training is a key element and has to be imparted at all levels, right from Head of the Department to Assistant Professors and Research Assistants/Senior Research Fellows, who are a vital part of the team. Organsiations like PHFI can play the role of a bridge, bringing together faculty, students, government agencies, NGOs and international donors to strengthen on-ground realities of marginalised communities like peri urban dairy farmers. More cutting edge research is needed with findings and recommendations feeding into government programmes and policies.
Watch video interview with Professor Hazarika on the nature of peri urban dairy farms in Northeast India