DANTEWADA — Three times a day, Bharthi fetches grain and water in clean aluminum buckets to feed her black chickens. She unlocks the grilled doors of the rectangular cage, which at around 20ft (6m) long is occupied by 260 noisy young birds. After filling a dozen bowls scattered across the cage floor or placed on the waist-high cement pillars that double as perching spots, she checks the chicks, counting them and gauging their well-being. She pays special attention to the ones whose behavior has been out of character in the previous few weeks.

Together with 10 other local women, Bharthi runs a farm in Dantewada in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which helps them earn a decent and, more importantly, an independent living.

The birds, locally called Kadaknath, are completely black – from their beaks to the tips of their wings, and even their eyes, feet and claws. They are a rare and endangered breed of chicken predominantly found until the past decade in the central Indian states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh.

Their numbers were pushed to the verge of extinction due to the demand for their black, lean meat, which is high in protein and extremely low in fat and cholesterol. However, the breed has been revived by local poultry farmers and the kind of government-supported schemes to which Bharthi subscribes.

The Kadaknath breed of chicken has black meat, bones and even dark organs. — Photo: Wikimedia

Until two years ago, Bharthi, aged 25, Asmati (30), Sachhi (26) and Kamala (19) would toil on their family farms in and around Dantewada. At the end of each season, the proceeds from the farms would be divided among the male members of the family, to be spent as required, saved or invested, leaving little for their wives and daughters. Ownership rights of houses and farms in India still fall for the most part to the men in the family – as do the earnings they generate.

For the women of Dantewada, this changed entirely in 2016 when, motivated by a group of youth officers (state-employed social volunteers), they decided to branch out on their own into farming. Some took loans from the district administration to install rice mills that made the onerous task of pounding grains easier. But a few took the decision to rear Kadaknath chickens, thanks to a program devised by the KVK, the region's local agricultural support center.

Once we gained their trust and confidence, there was no stopping them.

"The big idea of rearing the Kadaknath came from a scientist at the KVK in Dantewada," says 26-year-old Chaya Ishwar, a youth officer from the area. Inspired by the simplicity of the scheme, Ishwar took the program on the road, visiting women around Dantewada to convince them to start their own ventures. "It took some time and effort to convince them to come out of their homes and join these initiatives. These are hard-working women, but conditioned in their ways for too long. But they had mostly realized the need to be upright and independent." And, says Ishwar, "Once we gained their trust and confidence, there was no stopping them."

Women who were ready for the challenge were divided into groups of 10–15 and taught the five golden rules of creating a self-sustaining agricultural enterprise: "Meeting; saving; dividing the proceeds from the tasks; the timely return of any money borrowed; and maintaining their register and records – all on [a] weekly basis. These are imperative and the foundations of success for such groups," says Ishwar.

The KVK provides 600 hatchlings in two installments for the women to rear for six months each. The women are free to sell them in the village markets or, at the end of six months, when the chickens reach their full size, the KVK buys them back to sell in other states. It pays the women's groups the going rate of 350 rupees (around $5) per pound.

Women gathered in the Deogarh morning, in Orissa, India. — Photo: Wikimedia

Champa, 26, from the village of Hiranar, was the first in her district to take on the Kadaknath deal two years ago. When she managed to make a success of it, she became an example for others to follow. "I was given 300 hatchlings of Kadaknath to start with, along with some basic training and funds for building the cage. I spent 6,000 rupees [$80] on my own," she says. "This work is good and doesn't need too much menial labor. I sell about 100 chicks every six months," she says.

A chicken grows up to 5–6lb (2–2.7kg) in the first six months of its life. "Since demand for these are so high because of nutritional value, they fetch a very high price," says Ishwar. At present, there are nearly 1,500 women raising Kadaknath in Dantewada, either individually or as part of the district's 160 self-help groups. For a group working together, this amounts to 600,000 rupees ($8,300) in earnings every six months. The women then divide that between themselves to help them save for their children's education, marriage and other necessities.

Encouraged by her earnings over the past six months, Asmati is saving to pay for the education of her four children. She has also bought a piece of gold jewelry for her mother-in-law. "I don't need to spend long hours here because we take turns to do the chores. I work much harder in my farm, growing vegetables and rice," she says. "This Kadaknath initiative has come like a blessing in our lives."

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