In Madhya Pradesh, the bird is mainly reared by tribal communities in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts Image Credit: Shuriah Niazi

A rare chicken breed is changing the lives of poor and impoverished people in a conflict-ridden region of India. In the Dantewada district in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, the breed is now a symbol of hope and has come to the aid of rural people who previously lacked money to send children to schools or feed them properly. Here, income from paddy cultivation and from the collection and sale of forest produce was tenuous. Many of the villagers also worked as farm labourers but were paid a pittance for their work. Until recently, the per capita income in many villages in Dantewada district was a meagre Rs26,000 (Dh 1,389) and it figured on the list of the 50 most impoverished districts of India. Now, however, income from breeding and farming Kadaknath chickens is helping villagers escape the poverty trap and improve their lot.

Kadaknaths are native to the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, predominantly in the Jhabua and Dhar districts. The breed is also found in Rajasthan and Gujarat. It sells for Rs500 per kg which is about three times the price of a normal broiler chicken.

What sets the Kadaknath breed apart from other chicken is its iridescent black colour — its flesh is also black, which gives it an unusual appearance, and it is prized for its gamey flavour, is high in protein and low in fat and cholesterol, supposedly has aphrodisiac properties and nutritive values as well as high iron content. Many cooks prefer it for certain recipes and it’s noteworthy for its freshness and taste.

As part of a government initiative, rural women in Dantewada are rearing the chicken to eke out a living and earn extra money, and some 1,500 women are raising Kadaknaths in the district, either on their own or as part of about 150 self-help groups.

At district level, Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVK), the government-run agricultural science centres, encourage women to rear Kadaknaths and guides them by providing financial assistance for setting up and maintaining poultry operations.

KVK supplies 21-day-old chicks with subsidies as high as 90 per cent for the first batch and 75 per cent on the second. The level of subsidy is gradually reduced for subsequent batches with the aim to make women financially independent, before the subsidies are phased out.

KVK trains women in building and maintaining chicken sheds, preparing chicken feed, and explains how to protect birds from disease and predators. They also learn how to raise full-grown chickens from the chicks. Most are poorly educated and often illiterate, having worked in rice paddies or on small holdings or labouring for others.

According to Dantewada District Collector Saurabh Kumar, there is still a threat from Naxal activity in the district. The administration believes if villagers are happy, satisfied and earn enough money with a decent living standard, they will shun violence and will reject anti-social elements and Naxalites and their path of violence.

Kadaknath farming is empowering women and making them financially independent, tapping into the potential for poultry farming in the area. There are 229 villages in Dantewada and Kadaknath is reared in most of them.

Ratna Metam, 35, a resident of Dantewada’s Kirar village, didn’t go to school because her parents couldn’t afford the fees. Now, however, she is rearing Kadaknath chicks and life is looking up.

“I got the first batch of 500 chicks two months back at a fraction of the cost from Krishi Vigyan Kendra,” she tells Weekend Review. “Many other women are raising Kadaknath and earning handsomely. This motivated me to take up this work. The Kendra’s help has been key to our success. They have taken the responsibility of maintaining the poultry farm.”

“The chicks will take another month to reach the weight of 1.5 kg,” she says. “Against a regular chicken’s selling price of about Rs200-300 at farm level, each Kadaknath fetches between Rs600 and 900. But I’ll have to save money as the amount of subsidy would be reduced for the next batch of chicks.”

Aarti Bai in neighbouring Karli village has already raised two batches of chicks and is due to receive her third batch soon.

“I’m fast picking up the nuances of this business,” she says. “Earlier, I used to earn only about Rs150-200 a day while working as a labourer, and I did not get work every day. But now I earn over Rs30,000 every three months from the sale of one batch of 500 chicks. I had to quit school after completing High School due to a financial crunch, but I hope I would be able to save enough money from this business to pay for the education of my younger brother and sister and support my family.”

In Hirnar village, Champa Arya is the head of a 12-member self-help group. Standing outside her mud and brick hut, the 32-year-old mother of three proudly says that farming of the black chickens has taken off in earnest there.

“In the last two months, five more women have joined my self-help group and show a keen interest in raising and selling this protein-rich breed of chicken. After raising a few batches, the farmers save enough money and no longer depend on government subsidies.”

Most of the birds go to Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Vijaywada and Chennai in south India where they are in high demand. The demand for the all-black fowl is also growing in Delhi but transportation of the birds is a problem as many do not survive the 16-hour journey. As a solution, there is a plan to set up a slaughterhouse and cold storage in Dantewada.

In Madhya Pradesh, the bird is mainly reared by tribal communities in Jhabua and Alirajpur districts. State-run hatcheries in Madhya Pradesh produce about 250,000 Kadaknath chicks annually.

According to Bhagwan Manghnani, an official at Madhya Pradesh’s Animal Husbandry Department, the chicks are supplied to rural people and mostly tribal families are engaged in its farming.

The Madhya Pradesh government has also developed a mobile application to market the Kadaknath. The app connects poultry farms that produce and sell Kadaknath with people from across India, who can then place bulk orders for the poultry.

Shuriah Niazi is a writer based in central India.