Wading Over the Muddy Fields
“On a hot sunny day, when I was travelling for work across the paddy fields of East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, which is famous for its lush green paddy fields. The sight of the vast expanses of the water filled paddy fields, stretched up to the horizon, iridescently glistening under the bright tropical sun. The fields all around looked as if they were harvested recently and the entire area is littered with stubbles sticking out of the glinting water. At a distance I could observe a few farmers briskly working as if they were already gearing up their fields for the next crop.”
Suddenly, a sharp cry of a diminutive human like figure drifting across the distant fields caught my attention. It was of a young girl, barely nine years old, holding a long cane twice her height, seen running after a moving mass of a few fluffy little things scuttling across the muddy paddy fields. This made me pause and discern the ongoing action – better to say, a cacophonic commotion. By now, I could clearly hear that the young lady was communicating with someone loudly in an illegible colloquy, in the background of some really loud squawking noises. Further scanning of the horizon reveals two adult-like figures, perhaps of a man and woman moving in together from the opposite directions, as if they are closing in on something. Upon looking closely, I realised that all three of them are trying to bring something large and wayward together; it was a large feathery mass of ducks, which they were carefully aligning together in an orchestrated manner.
As the flock unites, the air resounded with the noise of splashing water, flapping wings, dabbling feet, of hundreds of squawking and squabbling noisy birds. While ducks are now busy going about their business – feeding, all the three of them had sigh of relief on their rather tense weather-beaten faces.
The trio is a family of Mr. Venkat Rao (40), his wife, Mrs. Subbamma (30), duck farmer and their nine year old daughter, Devi (name changed to protect the identity of the minor), who lends a hand to her parents in taking care of the family’s ducks. Upon inquiry, it was revealed that the family belongs to the Erukula community (a Scheduled Tribe), and hails from Ongole district of Andhra Pradesh. The family is well over 350 kilometers away from their hometown (The family usually covers a distance of over 1200 kilometers in a round trip between North Tamil Nadu and North Coastal Andhra Pradesh). But, why did they come all the way here? And the ducks – hundreds of them? Why did they bring them here?
In addition to the sale of birds at the end of season, the family also earns a regular income from sale of duck eggs at the nearby markets. Each duck lays about 250 eggs in a year and usually at night but occasionally during the day. Collection of eggs is a laborious process, nevertheless, it is very remunerative. Eggs are usually sold at INR 5-6 rupees a piece at the local market. If we do the math, each bird earns the farmer about INR 1250 a year from eggs. A farmer with a flock of 100 ducks can easily earn INR 125,000 a year, provided all conditions remain favourable and constant.
Such seemingly lucrative duck farming has its own challenges and constraints. Moving and transporting huge flocks of rather delicate creatures like ducks is not only a laborious task but also needs utmost care and caution. As a precautionary measure against the loss of birds to accidents, farmers prefer to transport their flocks in trucks. However, hiring charges are often quite expensive. Truckers usually charge INR 16 rupees per kilometre for transporting the flock. Logistics blow a huge dent into the income of duck pastoralists but it is better than getting the flock run over by vehicles on road and losing birds. Despite the best efforts the family has recently incurred a few unfortunate losses, when a few birds were killed by the stray dogs. Also, loss of birds to diseases is quite common and the family lost about 800-1000 birds during an virus outbreak. Amid the recent COVID – 19 induced lockdown, the duck pastoralists paid a huge price due to restriction on movement.
“Being a duck farmer is tough,” says Venakat rao. “We lead a rough lifestyle and our survival depends on the wish and whims of the hosting landowners and villagers. We often arrive at villages without any prior relationship with the locals. We then build relationships and make friends with the locals. We erect temporary shacks to store our belongings and rest at nights.
“Landowners usually are happy to invite us to feed the ducks at their farms as they eat grubs and pests and aerate the soil by peddling. Duck droppings is an excellent natural fertilizer as it has a balanced 2.8:2.3:1.7 NPK ratio (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium), which is very close to the evenly balanced 3:2:1 NPK ratio.
Relocation is difficult and every new camping site is different, few are easy and few are very tough. We often run out of breath from relocation, hauling, packing, and unpacking our luggage takes a toll on us.
“We prefer hiring a vehicle for translocation of our ducks. We regularly keep in touch with the truckers over cell phones. It is a herculean and miserable task to organize and haul hundreds of ducks and our luggage from village to village in search of suitable feeding grounds to feed the ducks and setting up our temporary camps.
“Once we land at a suitable site and erect our shacks, our day begins before sunrise. We cook, have breakfast, pack our lunch and bring the ducks to the feeding ground before 7:00 AM. We should constantly watch out and keep on our toes while the ducks feed to prevent any untoward incident. The ducks feed until dusk and we return to the camp around 6:00 PM. The ducks are secured in a makeshift enclosure made of tarpaulin sheets pegged to poles. No matter how careful we may be, there is no guarantee that the number of ducks returning to the camp in the evening will be equal to the number of ducks left the site in morning. Inevitably, a few birds fall prey to dogs and other predators, run over by vehicles while crossing the road. As outsiders, we often remain powerless to protest any mistreatment or loss of birds, as our survival hinges up on the support and mercy of the locals.
“We often do not have proper access to veterinary services for prevention of potential virus outbreaks. We buy the same vaccines that are given to chickens (no vaccines are available specifically for ducks) and vaccinate the birds on our own.
“We own around 1.5 acre of rainfed agriculture land in Ongole district but what can we cultivate on such a small piece of unproductive land without irrigation?” Laments Subbamma.
“My mother takes care of our land and house at the village. It pricks our heart when we think of our land and home and lead the life of migrants, moving from one village to the other. ” joins Venkat rao.
“Here, it feels nice to walk over the soft muddy fields, then walk on rock hard and parched fields at our land. Ducks love water, they cannot live without it. We must ensure that these little critters find a good place with plenty of water and food to live happily.” says Subbamma.