Animal healing leads to social change

Livestock production cannot be viewed as an independent activity divorced from its surroundings, says Anthra

A revolution is taking place in parts of Andhra Pradesh, where women are being trained as animal healers - a role traditionally done by men.

This content was published on January 3, 2002 minutes

The training is the work of an organisation called Anthra, which is supported by the Swiss Development Agency, and the move has ramifications far beyond animal rearing and breeding.

In the villages themselves, issues of gender, caste and class are being questioned as never before.

Balamani is an animal health worker from the village of Romachandrapur in the Medak district. Using local herbal medicines she can generally cure about 80 per cent of the common livestock ailments including foot and mouth, diarrhoea, pneumonia, fever and fractures.

"Custard apple leaves and neem leaves are used for skin diseases like scabies," she said, as we walked through the fields, pointing out the medicine chest which nature has provided.

"You cut up the leaves, make a paste, add salt and turmeric powder and apply to the affected skin for five days. It's the same for sheep, goats and cattle. It's just the dose which differs."

Working with women

Anthra's director, Sagari Ramdas, said the crucial role of women in livestock production had been largely neglected.

"In rural areas, most of the livestock work is done by women; almost 80 per cent of day to day work - management, care, feeding - and most of these women never have access to any information, any new techniques, new skills."

To really understand the problems of rearing livestock in India, it has been vital to work with women and to understand their role and constraints, she said.

Ramdas cited the case of Anjamma from the village of Thimmapur, who set up a local women's group three years ago. For eight months her husband refused to live in the same house with her. Although he's now back home, he hardly talks to her.

Away from its lush coastal deltas, much of the interior of Andhra is rocky and dry. The thin red soils support a meagre subsistence crop, but some 65 per cent of the state's population is still employed in agriculture.

Confidence building

Shyamamma is from Kondapur, a village of some 80 households, also in the Medak district. The villagers keep cows, sheep, goat and oxen. Their principal crop is rice. Shyamamma, another Anthra-trained animal healer, said she typically deals with cases of pneumonia.

"The farmer brings the animal so first I have to diagnose what's wrong. You can tell pneumonia from the symptoms. The animal is watering from the nose, its breathing is heavy, it's got a fever and it doesn't want to eat.

"Then I collect the medicine. For pneumonia, I use three kinds of herbs, including common garlic. I mix them in water and grind them into paste and then administer them to the animal twice a day. By the third day, it's normally cured."

Shyamamma's father-in-law was a healer and she has always worked with animals. But since learning from Anthra, three years ago, she has been far more independent.

"After getting trained, I came to know about new diseases, how to diagnose them and how to treat them," she said. Before that, I was helping my father-in-law but now I've got the confidence to do it on my own."

Shyamamma said she faced initial discouragement from the menfolk in the village, but has now gained widespread acceptance. She said the knowledge she has is fairly basic and that she is keen to learn more.

Water management

In the village of Thimmapur, Golla Pochiah points out a tank or small reservoir which now lies empty and overgrown with vegetation.

Traditionally rainwater was stored in these tanks so it could be used throughout the year as drinking water for animals and for irrigation. Now that the water management system has been neglected, crop yields are declining and there's not enough fodder for the buffaloes.

"Earlier, the water from this tank used to irrigate about 50 to100 acres of land," said Pochiah. "Now everyone has dug bore-wells, the water table has gone down and there's no more water stored in the tank. No one's bothering to manage it and it's fallen out of use.

"As people continue to dig bore wells, the ground water level is going down and down and they have to dig deeper and deeper. Twenty years ago, you could dig a bore well about 50ft (17 metres) and get water. Now you have to dig about 150 to 200ft (50-65 metres).

Lack of water has also had an effect on plant species. The animal healers have discovered in the past few years that their medicinal plants are becoming harder to find and they have to forage further and further afield to find them.

Available resources

As far as Anthra is concerned, the issues of livestock and water and gender and caste cannot be looked at independently but need to be viewed as a whole. "Livestock production cannot be divorced from its surroundings," said Sagari.

"The kind of livestock reared is very much related to the larger resources available - the amount of water, the soil, and the kind of agriculture which is practiced in the region. When you plan development for livestock, you have to keep in mind these various interactions."

For example, different castes have been traditionally associated with the rearing of different kinds of animals and although the situation has changed dramatically in recent years, any work with livestock will almost certainly raise questions of caste.

On another issue, Anthra questions the appropriateness of promoting exotic crossbred cows in regions which have few natural resources. Far better to stick to low yield but also low maintenance indigenous breeds which are best suited to the conditions.

Poultry breeding programme

Whether setting up nurseries to grow medicinal plants or documenting local practices and making them available in written form in local languages, Anthra has achieved some notable successes.

One concerns a poultry programme in the tribal or Adivasi areas of the East Godavari district where backyard poultry is one of the major sources of income.

Five years ago, almost 80 per cent of the poultry was dying because of contagious diseases. A combination of traditional herbal medicines and an effective vaccination programme has slashed the mortality rate to five per cent.

It is the sort of integrated approach - local practices combined with mainstream treatment - which has become Anthra's trademark.

by Vincent Landon

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