The cooperative dairy sector of Gujarat - A case study in trade protectionism

This blog usually advocates free trade. However, a cautious approach is advised when it comes to sensitive sectors. Free trade doesn't mean zero tariffs everywhere. The costs and benefits needs to be balanced carefully. For example, when the dairy sector is protected, the milk and milk products might be sold costlier in domestic markets, leading to less consumption of an important source of nourishment in an otherwise poor low protein Indian diet. So it is important to understand the argument from both producers and consumers points of view. 

India sells milk at a price that is around 1.5 times the price in USA in absolute terms. So when we factor in the affordability (PPP) the figures become worse. Therefore the consumers are at a disadvantage in terms of price at which milk is sold in our country. India maintains steep import barriers to milk and the question is whether it is justifiable in light of the argument in previous paragraph. 

Gujarat and few other states in India run cooperative dairy model for collection of milk from farmers. This model depends on rural villages coming together to form village cooperatives, which then feed into district level cooperatives, and which uses an apex cooperative body for marketing purposes (GCMMF/AMUL, KMF/Nandini etc). The profits are shared back to the level of last farmer member of the cooperative after all operational expenses are accounted for. 

Overall, the dairy exports from India has been decreasing for the last few years, with a slight uptick during 2017. The below graph is self explanatory (UN Comtrade data: Reporter: India, Partner: World)

Image for Dairy milk product exports from India
Dairy exports from India

However, the above is not the complete picture. While India produces one of the largest amounts of milk, our share in world trade is quite low and we appear at 36th position in the list of exporters (2016 Comtrade data). In terms of imports, we appear at 94th position (with an imports of around 42 million USD per year), after countries like Latvia and Fiji. This is explained by the fact that dairy products (under ITC HS chapter 04) are heavily tariffed and the total duty on imports on these products range from 40 to 75%. So it's not easy to penetrate Indian dairy produce market from abroad. Apart from tariffs we have various restrictions and quality requirements which might be construed as non tariff barriers. 

I shall take the example of Gujarat now. As the Gujarat milk cooperative model is well studied, I shall leave the readers at the mercy of Google for further details. I shall focus on one such district cooperative (the 2nd biggest) in Gujarat and explain the operational model. Then I shall zoom out to bigger picture to make the argument. 

Sabar dairy is the second biggest dairy factory in Asia with a peak processing of around 30 lakh litres of milk per day, after Banaskantha Dairy in neighborhood dist which stands at no. 1 in Asia with a capacity of 60 lakh litres per day. Sabar dairy is one of the 19 district cooperatives dairies in Gujarat under the umbrella marketing brand of AMUL (GCMMF). The Sabarkantha Dist Cooperative Milk Producers Union consists of around 2500 village level societies (11000 such societies across Gujarat) which feed the milk into it. Sabar union owns 20% share in GCMMF. The sabar dairy plant employs around 1300 people on regular basis (including their Ice-cream plant at Rohtak Haryana) and around 4000 on contract basis. They have around 400 milk tankers on hire basis for ferrying milk from collection and chilling stations to dairy plant. The plant works all 3 shifts with varying load. A significant part of the plant is automated, with imported machinaries working along with manual packaging lines. There are around 10 lakh cattle (Buffalos + Cows) in Sabarkantha district as per 2016 census out of which two thirds are usually in milking stage. 8 lakh cattle are RFID tagged and insured. The jurisdiction of Sabar dairy extends to entire district. 80% of the farmers are small farmers owning less than 3 cattle per family. All contributing farmers are members of cooperative society. This way the majority of the rural population is covered by the cooperative.

The milk is procured at a price of around 40 Rupees/litre (Buffalo full 6% and above fat) and around Rs 35/litre (Cow, 4-5% fat). The total production and value additon costs make the price of milk go upto Rupees 72/litre on an average. The milk and various derived products are sold at around Rs 90/litre leading to a gain of around Rs 18 per litre of milk bought. The profits generated through the operations are used to support various rural initiatives and support services such as cattle feed plant, veterneriary services (Sabar union employs 120 veterinary doctors across the district), maintenance of chilling units etc. Whatever profits remain are redistributed to village cooperatives, retaining only enough for modernization purposes. Last financial year, Sabar union retained around Rs 18 crore and distributed the rest. The money is being used for procuring machinery and construction of new plant in the nearby premises.

Image for Leading Dairy Exporting States of India
Leading Dairy Exporting States of India - DGCIS data

The state of Gujarat has more than 11000 village cooperative societies. In a way, a major part of the entire gujarat rural farming sector relies upon this model for alternative source of income. While it is difficult to confirm officially, it is said that this source of income has help avoid rural distress in Gujarat to a great extent. But for this income, the situation of rural Gujarat could have been worse. 

Coming to consumer side of it, India is second largest milk producer in the world as per World Atlas

Image for Leading milk producing nations
Leading milk producers - World Atlas Data

However, when it comes to per capital consumption (FAO 2013) we appear at 72nd place in the list of countries in terms of whole milk availability and 97th in terms of skimmed milk. That's poverty among plenty especially in a country where sources of nourishment in normal meal is limited. Now, the good thing is that it has improved over last couple of decades (FAO stats) and appears to be stagnating (unfortunately) now. We need more data for later years to derive more insights. 
Image for Per Capital Milk Availability in India - FAOSTAT as on March 11 2018
Per Capital Milk Availability in India - FAOSTAT as on March 11 2018
Given that our children certainly need more milk (more proteins and more of everything) to get healthier, is it right to maintain such high tariffs on milk imports? Let's say we decrease the tariffs to zero. This might inundate world milk into India. In the process, it would depreciate the prices of milk in India and might dent rural incomes. But then, the amount of depression in milk prices may of the order equal to tariff decrease, that is around 50%. So the milk producing farmer would now get around 25 to 30 Rupees per Kilo of fat milk in place of 40 to 45 earlier. Would this lead to mass rural distress? I doubt. But then, it might just make the cooperative model unworkable. It might be the last pound that breaks the squatters back. 

I can go on making yada yada blah blah arguments for both sides...but you get the drift. It is a public policy nightmare. The policymaker is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Rural employment vs milk nourishment for children and citizens. 

The above are the facts. 

What would you do sir? Would you still advocate free trade with zero tariffs or keep Trumping this sector? And how do you defend it?