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Meet the ’pashu sakhis’ of rural Bihar

A group of women trained in up-to-date goat-rearing techniques are helping generate livelihoods and upend patriarchy

Across Bihar, women look after the rearing of goats; and Gudiya keeping a record of her daily door-to-door visits in Titra. Photo: Alamy
Across Bihar, women look after the rearing of goats; and Gudiya keeping a record of her daily door-to-door visits in Titra. Photo: Alamy

The floral patterns on Gudiya Khatoon’s handbag don’t give the slightest hint of its contents: an antiseptic, a pair of reusable gloves and stainless steel pliers. As she pulls them out, a group of girls, aged 6-8, wearing darned skirts and hand-me-down T-shirts, look on fascinated. Two of them have pinned a goat kid to the floor. The animal has seen the pliers too and is getting restless.

“First, I wear the gloves," begins Gudiya, offering a running commentary at my request. “Then, I clean the pliers with Betadine," pouring a few drops of the mud-brown liquid on the clamp and cleaning it with a cloth. “And then..." She sits on her haunches, positioning the clamp around the young goat’s testicles.

What follows is painful to watch. As Gudiya puts the pliers to work, the goat kid yelps pitifully. The girls look away, their faces scrunched up, hands still firm on the kid’s neck and torso. Within half a minute, the castration is done. Gudiya wipes the pliers again with the nonchalance of a professional who has conducted over 600 such assignments. As it is released, the kid gets up and scrambles away. “A few minutes until it’s well again," Gudiya tells the girls. “But it might be afraid of me the next time it sees me. They often are."

Gudiya pulls out a tablet from her handbag and enters the details of the procedure. For her services, she has earned 50. “Done," she says, turning to me. “Anything else you want to see?"

Gudiya Khatoon is a pashu sakhi—a livestock nurse—the only one in Titra, an agrarian village over 10km from Muzaffarpur, Bihar. Three years ago, she learnt goat nursing skills under Project Mesha (mesha is Sanskrit for ram), a programme run by the Aga Khan Foundation and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aims to generate employment among women in rural areas. Gudiya is among the 225 women from Muzaffarpur trained to be pashu sakhis. Today, she tends to the resident goats in over 200 households—nearly half of her village.

Shahida Khatoon is among 225 ‘pashu sakhis’ in Muzaffarpur. Photographs by Mansi Midha
Shahida Khatoon is among 225 ‘pashu sakhis’ in Muzaffarpur. Photographs by Mansi Midha

Every morning, Gudiya sets off to do the rounds of the tiny mud lanes, dressed in a colourful salwar-kameez, her head covered, looking for potential clients. She offers a range of services: deworming ( 5), vaccination ( 8) and castration ( 50). She can also help in preparing nutritious feeds and building goat sheds, so the kids grow up healthy and fetch a good price.

Livestock rearing is the principal source of livelihood for nearly 3.7% of the agricultural families in India, as per a 2019 census. In agrarian states like Bihar, where the average size of landholdings tends to be small, most supplement income through livestock rearing. Usually, goats feed on scraps and are ready to be sold within a year, making them a convenient alternative to cattle. The 2019 livestock census pegged the goat population in India at nearly 150 million. In Bihar, it works out to between three to four goats per household.

“What makes goat rearing unique is its association with gender," says Tinni Sawhney, CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation India. “In most cases, the women of the house look after the goats. Their impetus to sell them is driven by household needs more than market forces. To buy seeds for a vegetable patch, for example. Or if the man needs a ticket to go to Bombay for work."

Bihar has the third largest population of goats in India. However, the methods of goat rearing are rather rudimentary. “When we conducted a baseline survey, we noticed that the mortality rate among goats was as high as 40-50%. There aren’t too many animal hospitals in Bihar, and calling veterinarians at home for treatment was too expensive for some. Additionally, while women were involved in goat production, their control diminished in the higher levels of the market." The pashu-sakhi programme was thus seen as prudent to provide last mile services, generating an additional source of revenue among rural households and promoting women’s empowerment.

Starting 2017, the officials at the Aga Khan Foundation started training a group of women through three training modules lasting five days each. “It was difficult to find trainees at first," says Sawhney. “But once our first cadre was ready and working, many women approached us saying, ‘We want to be like them.’"

The pashu sakhi initiative proved successful in empowering women in other parts of the country as well. There are an estimated 4,712 pashu sakhis across 16 states, reaching over 250,000 small livestock farmers.

Today, Gudiya earns up to 3,000 a month for nearly 2-3 hours of work every day. It’s not much, but the financial autonomy it offers, she says, is priceless.

Titra is home to nearly 2,000 people, most of whom work in tobacco and wheat fields around the village. They live in skeletal houses of brick and hay, in homogenous clumps of caste and community. It’s a peaceful coexistence, they insist, but the one couple that married and broke the caste ranks a few years ago hasn’t been able to return to the village since. Just like the walls of the local schools and public offices, papered with paeans to naari shakti, even when the realities of the village don’t reflect the same.

The women in the village are mostly homemakers. When they work, it’s the kind that doesn’t require them to venture too far from their homes: Some of them work at the local school, on farms or run small stalls outside their houses, stacked with biscuits and bidis.

Take Savita Devi, the sarpanch of Titra. She attends the weekly panchayat meetings every Monday, as is mandated by law. But it’s her husband Surender Ram who dispenses justice on her behalf; he is the one locals call upon for urgent matters, such as the theft of a cow. Ram sees value in such divisions of labour. Besides, he adds, “Ghar ke kaam se fursat milegi toh na baahar jaayegi (How can she step out when she’s busy at home)?"

“Look at the big picture," argues Deepak Kumar, a farmer and landlord from Titra. “Bihar mein yahan patni ko sabse jyada mahanta deta hai. Khud kamaane jaata hai, patni ko ghar mein rakhta hai (In Bihar, we respect our wives the most. The husband goes out to earn, the wife stays back at home)."

Growing up, Gudiya, the youngest child in a relatively affluent family of businessmen in Muzaffarpur, didn’t think she would have to work either. It all changed when, at age 15, she eloped with Iqbal, her schoolmate and neighbour. Their families were against their union: Gudiya’s father was a fruit merchant, dealing with local specialities like lychees and mangoes, Iqbal was a mechanic at his father’s electronics repair shop. The two of them stayed “underground" for a couple of years, eventually moving in with Iqbal’s family in Titra, who didn’t accept them as much as allowed them to live with them.

The switch from a city to a village in a conservative Muslim neighbourhood wasn’t easy. “A lot of people would come to see us," says Iqbal. “Accha bura, jo chahe woh bolta tha (Good, bad, they would say whatever came to their mind)". It was, the two realized, one of the pitfalls of being part of a close-knit community. “Like right now, people are seeing us talking at a chai shop," says Iqbal. “They will think, who are you, why are you here, how do I know you? They will tell 500 others... Jillat ki zindagi agar hai to woh apna Bihar mein hai. Shatranj ka chaal chalna padta hai, tabhi reh paoge, kama paoge (It’s a tough life in Bihar. You can only work if you plan your moves, like you would in chess)."

As Iqbal tried to get his own electronics repair shop running from scratch, Gudiya was expected to lend a hand in domestic matters, occasionally taking the cattle out to graze. “I started crying the first time I was asked to sift grains," says Gudiya. “I didn’t know how." It led to tiffs with her mother-in-law, still upset at her son’s decision to pick his own bride. Worse, Gudyia was unwilling to join her mother-in-law in hand-rolling bidis and selling it to workers at a nearby brick kiln.

Three years ago, Gudiya heard of officials from the Aga Khan Foundation scouting for trainees for the pashu-sakhi programme. This, she decided, was a way out of domesticity.

The days of training were liberating. Interactions with other pashu sakhis revealed that many were like her, venturing out of their homes to work for the first time. Along with the training for goat rearing, they also attended sessions in gender sensitization: the value of their work, negotiating space in the household, realizing their full potential. Each of them was given a tablet to keep an electronic record of their treatment and services, which would eventually be uploaded in the central database.

After the training, Gudiya started doing rounds of her village. “Initially, I would get a lot of flak," Gudiya recalls. “People would say, idhar udhar bhatakti hai, mard logo se baat karti hai (She roams the village, speaks to random men)." Increasingly, however, she has seen signs of change in the way people perceive her. Some of the didi-log (her clients) openly admire her work. “They say, you are a women and still do castration?" says Gudiya. “But I say, what’s the big deal in that? There’s nothing a woman cannot do."

Gudiya’s story is similar to that of several pashu sakhis I interacted with. Gunjan Kumari from the neighbouring village of Kodigama recalls facing censure from her community initially. “They call me ‘bakri ki doctor’ today," she says. Her colleague, Shobha Devi, says the work has given her a distinct identity, quite independent of being “the daughter-in-law of my house".

Buoyed by the success of the initiative, the Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, also known as JEEViKA, is working with the Aga Khan Foundation to scale up the pashu-sakhi programme across 13 districts where it is underway. Rakesh Kumar Singh, state project manager at JEEViKA, says they now have 651 pashu sakhis, servicing nearly 80,000 households. The next step, he adds, is to create an organized market for goats, for both dairy and meat, like an Amul or Venky’s.

“At the moment, most of the goat market is cornered by middlemen," says Singh. “So our immediate priority is to set up a bakri bikri kendra (goat sellers’ association) every few blocks. By next year, we intend to formalize the goat producer industry."

Today, Gudiya spends her money on her three children, sending them to English-medium private schools and coaching classes. “My eldest son (age 9) is so smart, he recites numbers in English, not Hindi," she says proudly. Over time, she’s also started investing in the Sukanya scheme, a government programme to help educate the girl child, and wants to invest in LIC and the Atal Pension Scheme.

On the day I met her, Gudiya had earned 200 in a couple of hours. But like many pashu sakhis, she doesn’t tell her mother-in-law or her husband her exact monthly earnings. Iqbal, for one, doesn’t seem to mind. “After all," he smiles, “the children don’t come to ask me for money for chocolates any more."

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