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Counting their chickens

Bavita with her grown birds. (Express photo by Prem Nath Pandey)

Most of Bavita Devi’s time these days is taken up by her chicks. By 6.30 am, the 35-year-old is up, despite the cold and the dark outside, in village Tisotra in Uttar Pradesh’s Bijnor district. In half-an-hour, she must do her first round of feeding her 29 chicks. “We don’t let them out of their enclosure till the sun is out,” she says, pointing to a small, dark room where the birds are kept at night.

Getting the timing right can be crucial. Bavita was given 50 chicks on October 5 under a state government scheme to fight malnutrition and to empower women, of which only seven survive now. “Most of them die suddenly. Sometimes, even the medicines don’t work, and they just die,” she says.

The Uttar Pradesh Animal Husbandry Department launched the scheme in October, under which 50 chicks each are given to Dalit women with a one-time incentive of Rs 450 to help rear them. Of the approximately 1.5 lakh beneficiaries in the state, 200 got the chicks in Bijnor.

As per a recent survey of the Uttar Pradesh Child Development Department, of Bijnor’s 3.26 lakh children, around 15 per cent were severely malnourished. The chicks are supposed to help fight malnutrition by providing the women and their children eggs, and later meat.

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However, chicks have a high mortality rate, and beneficiaries like Bavita are struggling against this. A neighbour, Manjeet Singh, who has dropped in, says his family lost 21 chicks over three days. His wife Sapna (25) is also a beneficiary.

“Five-six would be dead when we open the cage in the morning. Now, we have only 11 left out of the 50 given to us,” says the 29-year-old father of two, who has completed B.Tech and is preparing to sit for an examination for a government job.

Sitting in the courtyard outside her house, Bavita points out one trick that she has learnt: finely chopped onions. “Choojon ko yeh kachcha pyaz pasand hai (The chicks love raw onions). It was by chance that I realised it.”

A similar National Rural Livelihood Mission scheme, launched in 2013-14 and meant for economically deprived women, charges Rs 2,250 to give 25 chicks after the birds have been reared for a month by the NRLM. Those chicks have proved hardier, and the villagers don’t mind paying the money as each bird can grow up to fetch Rs 500-Rs 1,000 each. Of the 25 chicks Bavita got under the NRLM scheme, 22 have survived.

While the state government scheme is run in coordination with the NRLM, Suresh Kumar Gola, who is the District Resource Person for the NRLM, says the state scheme does not take into account vaccination of the chicks. “They need four vaccinations,” says Gola. The most common diseases to hit the birds are Ranikhet and Gumboro, resulting in boils, and both are contagious, he adds.

Listing the benefits of the birds, Gola adds, “Chicks can sell for around Rs 900. Those reared at home have a higher nutritional value and hence are in demand. Same for the eggs. They go for around Rs 10 per egg.”

Gyan Singh, the Deputy Commissioner for the NRLM, Bijnor, says they gave basic training to the women on how to rear chickens for six days. However, he adds, the option of rearing the birds for a while before handover, like in the case of the NRLM, is not possible as of now in the state scheme. “The scheme’s budget for each woman is Rs 4,000. If we give them one-month-old chicks, we would exceed the budget. The Rs 4,000 budget includes a cage, 50 chicks, and Rs 425 aid for the families,” says Gyan Singh.

Bavita’s family mostly consumes vegetarian food, what she calls “saada khana”. “We have eggs maybe once or twice a week and meat only when guests come, perhaps once a month. Meat is quite expensive,” she says, chopping methi leaves for dinner.

The chicks could help change that, she agrees. “But officials should do regular inspections to check if our birds are fine.”

Sending Sakshi to get some medicines for the birds, Bavita says five-six have Ranikhet disease. She sometimes uses a “jugaad” medicine her mother-in-law told her about, she adds. “It is mustard oil, heated and mixed with the ashes I collect from the chulha after making chapatis. I apply it to the chicks when they get skin allergy and they generally get better in a day or two. More of my chicks would have been dead otherwise,” she says, smiling.

It is now almost 4 pm and the sunlight has shrunk to a corner. Soon, Bavita will start preparing the dinner of methi saag, rotis and leftover rice.

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Bavita says she can’t imagine killing the chicks she is rearing for food. “We feel bad every time one dies. We sell them and don’t see them being cut in front of us. Apne bachchon ki tarah paalte hain unko, kha kaise lenge, aap hi batao (We rear them like our children, how will we eat them, you tell me),” she says, turning around to usher the birds back into their enclosure with a ‘hurr, hurr’ as the sun sets in the background.