The Kadaknath has been in the news because of an ownership tussle between Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. MP won, but it is in impoverished Dantewada that the fowl has become a symbol of hope.
Dantewada has found its golden goose, except, it’s a chicken. An iridescent black, from eyes to wattles, with slate-grey feet and protein-rich black meat, they call it the Kadaknath or kariakukdi. And it’s changing lives in this impoverished and conflict-ridden region of Chhattisgarh.
The chicken sells for Rs 400 to Rs 900 a piece, at the farm level — against Rs 150 to Rs 300 for a regular chicken.
As part of a district-level initiative, women are being given Kadaknath chicks at a fraction of the cost, and with the money they are making from rearing and selling them, they’re rain-proofing their homes, paying for siblings to go to college and, in one case, buying a motorcycle.
The tale of how the Kadaknath came to their aid is part of a larger story of change in Dantewada that now encompasses a free wi-fi zone, e-rickshaws, an education zone, and the district’s first BPO.
The Naxalite threat remains — the last attempted attack on CRPF officials was less than a month ago. “We are not Naxalite-free, but we hope to be,” says district collector Saurabh Kumar. “It won’t be an armed victory. We will achieve victory when villagers repose their faith in the administration. When they start believing that if they have a problem, they can approach the authorities and we will listen to them. That day, we will have won.”
- Native to the Jhabua and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh, the Kadaknath is also found in adjoining areas of Gujarat and Rajasthan.
- Its meat is considered a delicacy for its gamey flavour, unusual appearance, aphrodisiac properties, and more recently for the fact that it is high in protein and low in fats, including cholesterol.
- Both MP and Chhattisgarh had been tussling over ownership; both applied for a Geographical Indication or GI tag. MP’s application was recently accepted.
There are nearly 1,500 women raising Kadaknath in Dantewada, either individually or as part of the district’s 160 self-help groups. The women receive 21-day-old chicks from the government’s district-level Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK).
Each batch of 500 chicks needs a 450-sq-ft shed. They are fed three times a day, checked on regularly for any signs of illness. It’s also become the norm to hang bamboo swings for them to play on.
In three months, the chicks generally reach the target weight of 1.5 kg and are sold either to local traders or to a company that has tied up with the district administration to buy the chickens in bulk. And then it’s time for the next round of chicks to arrive.
The district subsidises 90% of cost for the first batch of chicks, and 75% for the second batch. KVK helps with training and basic infrastructure like construction of the sheds and chicken feed.
Most of the birds go to markets in Hyderabad and Vijayawada. There is now demand growing in Delhi too, but it’s difficult for the birds to survive a journey of 16 hours. So there are plans for a slaughterhouse and cold storage in Dantewada.
Eventually, the subsidies will be phased out, the farmers encouraged to buy incubators (the Kadaknath does not hatch its own eggs) and the farming of the black chicken will, hopefully, take off in earnest.
Most of the women are aged 18 to 45; high-school dropouts, former farm labourers, widows and single parents.
Champa Atami, 24, is both a dropout and former labourer. “I used to earn Rs 172 a day, on days when I could find work,” she says. “Since May, I earn a steady Rs 30,000 every three months.”
A new tin roof glints on Atami’s mud home. Where her parents – paddy farmers – couldn’t afford her school fees, she is now saving up so her sister Ranjeeta, the youngest of four siblings, can graduate.
In Kasoli village, a sparkling Hero Splendor stands in Jhunni Netham’s courtyard. The 40-year-old mother of four has earned Rs 1.5 lakh over seven months, thrice as much as her husband, Sukalu, makes in a year from his millet farm.
The bike, bought last month, is their prized possession. “I earn only once a year,” Sukalu says proudly. “Kadaknath grows fast and is ready for sale within three months. So we can now earn through four cycles a year. In the absence of public transport, we needed a bike to run errands and now we have one.”
In Karli village, about 7 km away, Lachhan Dai’s family eat paneer twice a month, courtesy the clucking birds. “With the money we earned from farming, we used to live on dal-rice and sometimes leafy greens from the forest,” says the 40-something Dai, who is now helping support her two brothers and their five children.
Elsewhere, savings are accumulating in banks. “Since October, we’ve earned Rs 30,000,” says Asmati Arya, 33, head of a 10-member self-help group in Hiranar village. “We plan to start a kirana store.”
Dantewada district is divided into four blocks – Dantewada, Geedam, Katekalyan and Kuakonda. Together, they hold five towns, 14 iron ore mining reserves (of which three are active), and 229 villages with a combined population of 2.83 lakh.
Until the black chicken, the main source of income here was paddy cultivation, foraging for forest produce and poultry farming. This gave the villages a per capita income of Rs 26,000 (as of 2006-07), putting the district in the bottom 50 in India.
In 2015, the union government introduced District Mineral Foundations (DMF) in states affected by mining activity. Funds collected from mining companies as royalty went into the DMF to be used for development and welfare programmes. Dantewada receives Rs 70 crore annually under this scheme, since 2015.
With this money, collector Kumar identified gaps in the public sector and began allocating funds for projects. There was no public transport in Dantewada, so he offered e-rickshaws on subsidy to women who were willing to learn to ply them. Women now ferry locals about in 144 battery-charged autos in the district.
Women are also growing mushrooms and operating mini rice-mills at home.
“Dantewada’s agricultural productivity is about half the national average,” says Kumar, an IAS officer who served as sub-divisional officer and assistant collector of Dantewada for two years before taking over as collector in 2016. “Instead of trying to raise it, which we wouldn’t be able to do anyway, we decided to differentiate the district on the basis of product. That’s how the exotic bird came to be introduced.”
- The market for Kadaknath is concentrated in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai and Pune, and it’s not on a lot of menus.
- In Delhi, it was one of Guppy’s winter special. Kadaknath eggs are being whipped into omelettes at Greater Kailash 1’s Yellow Eye until the end of the month.
- In Mumbai, you’ll find it at Bandra’s Arth, all outlets of Indigo Deli and Toni Daa Dhaba along old Mumbai-Pune Highway.
- At Arth, Bird In A Nest (Rs 475 plus taxes; above left), stars Kadaknath cooked for four hours in a sandpit, flavoured with black sesame and served on purple yam idiyappam.
- Indigo Deli serves it as a slow-cooked Black Fowl and Root Vegetable Stew (Rs 950 plus taxes; above right).
- Hyderabad’s Ulavacharu serves it in two forms – as pulusu and vepudu (Rs 540 plus taxes each). The former is an Andhra-style curry-like stew; the latter is a fried chicken preparation.
The black fowl crossed over from Madhya Pradesh in 2013, when the Kanker KVK procured 300 chicks. MP had been rearing the breed, native to the state’s Jhabua and Dhar districts, since 1978.
“In the early 19th century, Kadaknath was hunted as game, and for its aphrodisiac properties,” says Delhi-based culinary historian Ashish Chopra. “I tried it for the first time at a dinner hosted by the royal family of Panna, MP, in the early 1980s. Over the years, it became tough to find it, even in the forests of Madhya Pradesh.”
The breeding project was MP’s attempt to preserve the bird. “When we set up the first Kadaknath poultry farm in Jhabua, we found barely 300 birds in the region. That was a wake-up call,” says Bhagwan Manghnani, the department’s additional deputy director.
Today, the state has nine poultry farms and produces 3 lakh birds a year. These are sold in markets locally and as far away as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
Kadaknath reached Dantewada’s KVK in 2015 and the birds were distributed for rearing last year.
“When the birds lay eggs, the women bring them to us. We have a hatchery machine because the Kadaknath doesn’t sit on its own eggs. That’s one reason its population was declining,” says Narayan Sahu, senior scientist at KVK.
“These initiatives are concentrated in certain parts of certain blocks, and a few centrally located villages. Real change will happen when they are expanded to the grassroot level,” says tribal rights activist and local AAP leader Soni Sori.
Sadly, several parts of Dantewada district are still out of the reach of most of these initiatives. “When we tried to set up self-help groups in the interiors of Katekalyan, Naxalites threatened to chop off our feet off,” says Chhaya Ishwar, 25, of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission.
In the market area of the district headquarters, though, there’s a free wi-fi zone, an Education City houses a polytechnic institute, a school for children with special needs, and Livelihood College for courses in fashion design, carpentry, cooking.
Next door is Yuva, the district’s first BPO, launched in January in partnership with Hyderabad-based Sixth Generation Technologies, where 300 employees work on data entry, earning Rs 8,000 per month. Hindi voice training is underway too.
Up next: Homestays and tour packages that offer the authentic tribal experience – living with Murias, seeing their tribal dance forms, and gorging on red ant chutney.
“These initiatives are concentrated in certain parts of certain blocks, and a few centrally located villages,” says tribal rights activist Soni Sori, now a local leader with the Aam Aadmi Party. “Real change will happen when they are expanded to the grassroot level – to the many villages in each block that are 20km away from the centre and still disconnected.”