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Odisha Odyssey: The Arcadian landscapes and tribal goat keepers of Mayurbhanj


In Mayurbhanj, Odisha, India, a youth proudly shows off a Harry Potter t-shirt and two of the family’s kid goats (photo credit: ILRI/Jules Mateo). 

Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles on
‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—
A dozen stories from northern and eastern India’.

PART 6: Odisha Odyssey:
The Arcadian landscapes and tribal goat keepers of Mayurbhanj

By Susan MacMillan, Jules Mateo, Pradeep Sahoo and Braja Swain,
of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

The International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is partnering the eastern Indian state of Odisha (formerly and still commonly called ‘Orissa’), located on the Bay of Bengal, to improve the production and sale of sheep and goats and their products as well as dairy products from cows. The overarching aim of this work is to reduce poverty and malnutrition by enhancing household incomes and livelihoods.

8 Mar 2016

The Indian state of Odisha has about one million sheep and goats and the added distinction of being the home of two famous goat breeds—the black Bengal goat and the Ganjam goat, the latter named after a district in Odisha border Andhra Pradesh. The markets for both goat breeds are good, fetching Indian rupees 400 (about USD7) for 1 kilo of dressed goat meat.
Dean of the College of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry of Orissa University of Agriculture and Technology

The livestock sector is not well promoted in Odisha State; veterinary services and fisheries are neglected areas of development here, so this is a good investment.
Shri Aditya Prasad Padhi, Chief Secretary and Development Commissioner of Odisha

Small ruminant animals—goats and sheep—are the ATM ‘instant cash’ for farmers throughout South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Jimmy Smith, ILRI Director General

ILRI is interested to conduct a livestock fodder project in Odisha that can enhance the state’s small ruminant and dairy value chains.
Alok Jha, ILRI Representative for South Asia

On 9 Mar 2016, Jules Mateo, my Philippines-based ILRI communications colleague, and I traveled with ILRI agricultural economist and project leader Braja Swain, who was born in India’s Odisha State and stills calls it home, several hours north from the state capital, Bhubaneswar, to the city of Bhadrak, where we spend the night in a small guesthouse. The following morning, with expert guide and ILRI agricultural consultant Pradeep Sahoo, another scientist also born and raised in this state, we drove another four hours north to reach the hilly and generally forested Mayurbhanj district, which is bounded to the north by the Indian states of West Bengal and Jharkhand.

The people here, as elsewhere in India, Sahoo explained, are categorized by the government into four social groupings:
(1) ‘general’, consisting of Brahmin (traditional Hindu priests and teachers), Karana (accountants and tax accountants) and Kshatriya (warriors)
(2) other (socially and educationally) backward classes (OBC)
(3) scheduled castes (SC) (formerly known as ‘untouchables’)
(4) scheduled tribes (ST), whose livelihoods depend on forests and other natural resources

Although these terms and definitions make me uncomfortable (politically correct they are not!), they have a long history as part of a so-called ‘reservation system’ of the Indian Government, which employs quota-based affirmative action to reserve government seats for specific groups, to increase opportunities for underprivileged communities, and to protect those communities from social injustice and exploitation. Mayurbhanj has the state’s largest physical area and as well as its largest population of tribal peoples, Sahoo reported. The 20–30 tribes in Odisha constitute 16–17% of the state’s total population. Nationwide, the Indian Government has been subsidizing food for people belonging to three of India’s four groups: other backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.


Mayurbhanj goat keeper Bipti Mahanta (photo credit: ILRI/Jules Mateo).

With expert guidance and translations from Pradeep Sahoo and a young local man he enlisted for our tour named Anup Mahanta, Jules Mateo and I sat down to visit with Bipti Mahanta, a goat herder tending her animals on the straw residues of a rice field after its grain has been harvested. The rice is grown here in paddy fields once a year, and the residue rice straw is free for villagers to use for grazing their goats and cows for 5–6 months of the year. Herders such as Bipti Mahanta are needed to prevent their valuable stock from getting bitten by dogs or stolen by thieves.

Mahanta takes the goats she and her village neighbours own out to graze each day at about 9 or 10am, returning to the village, carrying goat fodder collected from a nearby forest, about 1pm, when she and the other goat herders will bathe, lunch on ‘water rice’, and then take a siesta.

Mahanta says that her village prefers goats to cows: ‘In an emergency of for a festival, we can sell a goat to get the cash we need’. A 2–3-year-old male goat weighing 30–35 kilos will fetch India rupees 8,000 (about USD120).


A woman collects animal fodder from the forest to carry to her homestead (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Works and days
Two things are hard to portray here, in this bare reporting. The first can perhaps be glimpsed in the photograph above of Bipti Mahanta.

But first, some context. We’re off the grid’ here, in the forests and fields of Mayurbhanj. The modern information age (and economy and highway) have largely passed this part of the state by. (We’re as far from India’s tech tycoons and towns as it is possible to get, with few cell phones or other ‘disruptive innovations’ having yet transformed daily life and habits.) But it is clear that the remoteness of this district, with its tribal peoples and Arcadian landscapes, its demanding quotidian and seasonal agricultural rhythms, which may have helped slow development, have also conserved much to be admired.

I experience an almost vertiginous sense, for example, of being in the presence of a whole society that appears to be living within its means—a self-sufficient community of shared values and real, if basic, social security. The sheer lack of visible ‘stuff’’, and the local capacity for delayed gratification, enlivened me.

In stark opposition to the workaday minimalism here is the abundance of ‘natural capital’ viewed at every turn—the animals, of course—including cows, heifers, bullocks, bull calves and chickens and chicks in addition to goats and kids—but also the forests and waterways, the grasses and fields of paddy rice and rice straw. Communities here are managing a sustained, and sustainable, extraction of the natural resources they have at hand. (How many other societies can say the same?) And then there is the attraction of the great complexity underlying the ‘simple’ mixed crop-and-animal farming systems these communities are practicing.

As Bipti Mahanta tells us of her daily schedule, it’s clear that life’s pleasures come in the form of a morning spent out in the open, watching over her animals (free to move and converse with whomever she wants, says Mahanta proudly); a cool bath and nap back in the homestead after the morning’s fieldwork; the daily ceremony of a family midday meal of ‘rice water’; the arrival of a new-born (animal or human); and major events marking generational passage of one kind or another, always celebrated communally.

This is a community—a kind of ‘homeschooled’ culture—that works on many levels. The measured perspectives as well as ambitions within Mayurbhanj’s goat-producing communities and foodsheds tend to be dealt with sensitively as well as rationally. Maybe some reverse engineering would be in order for the rest of us, I think, to find our way back to ways of communal life that work.

Things of course are not at a standstill in Mayurbhanj: The ‘self-improvement’ gene of humanity is expressed here, as everywhere. But with living standards low (by most standards), few get-rich-quick schemes or great expectations are likely to survive. But—again ‘but’—while the district’s unremarkable economic prospects are likely to thwart the hopes and dreams of some young people for ‘the finer things of life’, I can’t help but think that many aspects of ‘the good life’ are already in their possession.

Such imagined realities, or pastoral illusions, of mine are as dangerous as they are presumptive, of course. The material privations here are real enough, and poverty, as well as the more restrictive mores of traditional life, here as everywhere can inflict pernicious, corrupting and enduring damage on individuals and societies alike. But I find it impossible to forgo the temptation to consider the benefits that would accrue from engaging Mayurbhanj’s political and economic as well as natural, social and human capital for ‘greater good’.

For example, while living frugally, with basic amenities and certainly within no feminist utopia, the tribal cultures of this eastern state seem to have achieved something exceptional. In Mahanta’s voice and stories, in her eyes, stance and walk, I saw qualities rare in women of any culture or country—a confident sense of her own purpose and usefulness, for example, a pride in her independence, and a freedom to operate—to exercise agency.

Perhaps this is one of those things that the scheduled tribes can teach the Brahmin, Karan and Kshatriya members of India’s ‘general group’, the country’s disadvantaged ‘other backward classes’ and ‘scheduled castes’—and all the rest of us.

Animal husbandry
The second thing hard to portray in this report is the unusual level of animal husbandry practiced by Mayurbhanj’s tribal people. The human care on display everywhere for goats and other animal stock is exceptional, actually tender as well as responsible. (Should I ever come back to life, I decided, I could do no better than to do so as a Mayurbhanj goat.) After a morning spent freely grazing rice and natural fields, the goats are brought back to the homestead, where the adult animals are lightly tethered and rest comfortably in the shade of the household’s inner courtyard, with their kids running about, free to frolic or to nibble on the green shoots of fresh fodder brought back from the forest that morning.


Two young chicks position themselves on the back of one of the household’s placid black Bengal goats for a grooming session (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

The goats are raised alongside cattle and chickens, with chicks climbing on the backs and heads of the goats, calves taking comfort from lying next to she-goats, and the (human) family members going about their daily chores and business, which include the business of tending to the needs of all these animals with which they share their homes (this being more ‘courtyard’ than ‘barnyard biodiversity’.)

Living so intimately with their living food animals, these tribal families are exemplars of modestly enterprising and enabling pastoral traditions. While the economic prospects here do not (yet) loom large, one senses something else, some ecosystem/human system integrity, some agricultural algorithms of enduring value, at work.

Perhaps, I think, the care these communities invest in their farm animals has a corollary in the dignity shown by their women folk.


Mayurbhanj goat keeper Dinabandhu Maharta (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Later, in the afternoon, we visit Ankura village and the farmhouse of Dinabandhu Maharta, a 65-year-old farmer and the other six family members of his household. They farm 2.5 acres of land, which support 29 goats, 38 chickens, 3 cows, 5 bullocks and 1 calf. Maharta takes his goats out for grazing for 6 hours each day and collects wood and animal fodder to carry home from the forest twice each day. Everyone in his household helps look after the goats and other livestock. He has sold no goats in the last 4 years because he needed to slaughter 28 of them over the 4-year period to feed guests at weddings of his son and daughter. He said that the selling price of these goats in total would be about Indian rupees 200,000–250,000 (USD3,000–3,758).

Maharta’s cows each produce about 1 kilo of milk a day. In recent years, he says he has seen improvements in veterinary medicines (including worm treatments) and vaccinations available in his area. And he says that his economic standing has improved with the greater number of animals he and his family are raising, some modernization of his farming practices, and the incomes generated by his two sons, one of whom works as a salaried auto mechanic. In addition, an increased availability of improved seed, fertilizer and pesticide has helped him to increase his paddy yields by 3–4 times, from 3 to 10 quintals (a quintal equals 100 kilograms).


Mayurbhanj goat keeper Judhistear Maharta (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

Still later in the afternoon, we stopped at another farm household, headed by 48-year-old Judhistear Maharta with his wife and their three children. This household keeps 39 goats, 1 cow and 4 bullocks on 6 acres of farmland. Maharta’s family has reared goats for the last 15 years. He sold one goat last year for Indian rupees 12,000 (USD180) and slaughtered another four for his son’s wedding celebrations. In years previously, he sold 3 goats for a total of Indian rupees 30,000 (USD451). He said his fields produced 18 quintals (1,800 kilograms) of rice the previous year and his family also grows onion, garlic and other vegetables.

Note on Odiya foodie culture


Odisha lunch (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

The ‘foodie culture’ of the Odiya people of India’s Odisha State is on display at a small popular restaurant in Odisha’s capital, Bhubaneswar, which serves, according the the menu, ‘Goat with masala gravy’ (‘Mansa kassa/Tarkari’), listed as costing Indian rupees 170 per serving and consisting of ‘tender mutton chunks cooked in thick Oriya gravy’. Except that, as most people here understand and my colleague Braja Swain explained, the meat in this dish is not from a sheep but from the black Bengal goat. I never got to the bottom of this discrepancy, except to understand (loosely) that mutton is somehow more acceptable than goat meat, even when served in a modest fast-paced restaurant frequented by locals. On the recommendation (read ‘strong recommendation’) from Swain, I ordered this ‘goat disguised as lamb’ dish—and, yes, I found it to be just as delicious as he advertised.

Read previous parts in this blog series
‘Curds and goats, lives and livelihoods—A dozen stories from northern and eastern India’

Part 1, Colourful convocation: Jimmy Smith addresses graduates of India’s prestigious National Dairy Research Institute, 30 Mar 2016.

Part 2: Elite buffaloes and other exemplars of advanced Indian dairy science at the National Dairy Research Institute, 31 Mar 2016.

Part 3: Culture of the cow: Curds in the city—Better living through smallholder dairying in northern India, 5 Apr 2016.

Part 4: Building better brands and lives through peri-urban dairying and smart crop-dairy farming, 6 Apr 2016

Part 5: Wonder women of Bhubaneswar, 12 Apr 2016.

View all photos of the ILRI delegation in Bhubaneswar: ILRI Flickr album.

Read more about ILRI’s work in Odisha:
Goat business is big business in India’s Odisha State—Bishnupada Sethi, 23 Feb 2016.
Indian farmers in Odisha, on the Bay of Bengal, face fodder crisis: Using crop ‘wastes’ as feed is one solution, 28 Aug 2015

On 8 Mar 2016, ILRI Director General Jimmy Smith, his wife Charmaine Smith, ILRI Representative in South Asia Alok Jha, and ILRI research project leader Braja Swain paid courtesy calls on senior government and university officials in Bhubaneswar, the capital of India’s eastern state of Odisha. The ILRI delegation met with the Chief Secretary, AP Padhi, and the Secretary for Odisha’s Fisheries and Animal Resources Development (F&ARD) Department, Bishnupada Sethi, to discuss the state of the livestock sector in Odisha and contributions ILRI could make in improving the lives of farmers dependent on livestock.

ILRI has recently submitted a proposal on ‘Feed and Fodder Production in Different Agro-climatic Zones and Utilization for Livestock of Odisha’ to F&ARD’s Directorate of Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Services (DAH&VS).

ILRI has been working in Odisha since 2013 in collaboration with Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology (OUAT), the Orissa State Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation (OMFED) and the state government’s DAH&VS and F&ARD to improve the state’s livestock productivity through better use of crop residues and locally sourced feed supplements within the framework of the CGIAR Cereal Systems Initiatives for South Asia (CSISA).

An international workshop on Improving Livestock Feeding Practice and Enhancement of Feed and Fodder Availability in Odisha was organized jointly by the Society for Management of Information, Learning and Extension (SMILE) and ILRI in 2015.

Based on the workshop’s recommendations, Odisha’s F&ARD Department is recommending the preparation of a comprehensive fodder development plan for Odisha.

Read more about ILRI work in India and work in India conducted by the ILRI-led multi-institutional CGIAR Research Program on Livestock and Fish, which works to improve the livelihoods of India’s smallholder dairy farmers by increasing participation of poor producers, processors and sellers in the country’s dairy value chains, improving access to markets by poor dairy producers and training small-scale dairy producers in more efficient production methods.

3 thoughts on “Odisha Odyssey: The Arcadian landscapes and tribal goat keepers of Mayurbhanj

  1. Could you explain how you assessed whether communities these communities you visited have a sustainable way of living? “Communities here are managing a sustained, and sustainable, extraction of the natural resources they have at hand.”. Based on a visit spread over a few hours or few days?
    The blog piece appears a romanticized portrayal of a reality that is somewhere in between. The kind researchers like Chambers will warn you against. Because there are completely alternate stories I could have written about Mayurbanj – the issues around naxalism and its contribution to increased restrictions on access to forest resources (including NTFPs), the high prevalence of malaria, the presence of micro-finance institutions and financial inclusion initiatives (through biometrics) linked to the employment guarantee scheme, questioning the interactions between goat keeping and forests (look up World Bank’s acknowledged failure in Madhya Pradesh – another highly forested state – where there was a negative impact from promoting goats).
    There isn’t an issue with the fact that you chose to look at your visit through a specific lens – but, the way it is written renders all others invisible. For instance, your claim about Mayurbanj being off-the-grid is questionable given financial inclusion pilots and off-the-grid energy pilots…not things that would be visible from a few days visit, unless questions are directed in that way.

    • To LK:
      Yes, I worried about all the points you raise. I tried to refrain from romanticizing, and to give a balanced view, in the following paragraph:

      ‘Such imagined realities, or pastoral illusions, of mine are as dangerous as they are presumptive, of course. The material privations here are real enough, and poverty, as well as the more restrictive mores of traditional life, here as everywhere can inflict pernicious, corrupting and enduring damage on individuals and societies alike. But I find it impossible to forgo the temptation to consider the benefits that would accrue from engaging Mayurbhanj’s political and economic as well as natural, social and human capital for “greater good”.’

      But I’m sure I did not entirely succeed. And you are right—I was in this part of the state only for a few days, not nearly long enough to grasp all the things you raise (e.g. Naxalism, forest destruction by goats, malaria).

      And I can see now that I should have said: ‘Communities here APPEARED TO ME to be managing a sustained, and sustainable, extraction of the natural resources they have at hand.’

      I have to say, though, that Bipti Mahanta was everything I said and more. And we did have two exceptionally talented, knowledgable and humanistic guides and translators for our field visits. One was from this local area. The other—Pradeep Sahoo—was born and raised in Odisha, where he now works. Perhaps Pradeep, who worked for ILRI in Odisha on this livestock project for two years, can add a note below to respond to your good comments.

      I do think it’s important on occasion to combine straightforward ‘reporting style’ writing about research work, as I used in the other parts of this blog article, with more personal views, which, however flawed, offer some direct sense of people and place not offered, or available, in most research-based reports.

      I’m going to continue trying to develop this other way of writing about ILRI-partner research, because I think it’s important that we change the narrative of such developing-country stories. But I’m sure to succumb to more pitfalls due to my ignorance. Your remarks will serve as a useful reminder to myself to get stuff checked and to not allow myself to get carried away by my enthusiasms (or any other passions).

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments. I hope to go back to Odisha for a longer visit in future.

  2. Susan, complements for a nice story which is near to the reality. The portraits that you have shown does not appear to be those of exploiter of natural resources but those who live with the nature. You have picked up a small part of big web of culture and livestock farming that spans the country which has history of cautions and precautions for sustainable livelihood. It is upto a person how he or she holds the lenses to get the best pictures of an object or reality in a fraction of seconds- though you spent a couple of days to capture them. Lessons to learn are more important than the facts that we may ignore if they do not help in moving forward for developmental goals. It would be great if new technologies and approaches from ILRI can make this ecofriendly livestock farming more profitable for these marginal farmers and the magic can turn the boy into an entrepreneur.

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