The clucking of hundreds of ducks fills the air as R. Rani opens the gates of a fence in the morning. The birds, guided by a few men with long bamboo sticks, waddle excitedly into a nearby field and forage it for invertebrates, insects and fish, and leftovers from a harvest. As the men lead the birds from one field after other, a temporary camp of duck farmers in Parakkai in Kanniyakumari is left with a few women, who set out to prepare the food for the men and children.
“I have been moving from one place to other since I was a child. Now, I am tired and I have already told my husband to dispense with duck farming to concentrate on farming. My grandchildren are attending school and I have to settle in a place permanently,” says Ms. Rani, a native of Tirupattur near Vellore.
Her husband Ravi, and their four sons, regularly move from one part of the State to another. One of them, Prabu, drives a truck, too.
Duck farmers regularly camp in regions where rice is cultivated, including in the districts of the Cauvery delta, and in Kanniyakumari, besides neighboring States like Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Traders buy eggs from the farmers for ₹7 or ₹8 apiece, depending on the demand for them. They also sell the ducks for meat about 2.5 years after the chicks are born.
Ms. Rani’s married daughter Priyanka now lives in Velachery in Chennai, but has joined the camp with her two-year-old daughter and month-old infant girl. “My husband is a call taxi driver and I came here when my baby was 15 days old. I had a Caesarian section delivery. I will join him [her husband] after the camp and the summer holidays are over,” explains Ms. Priyanka.
Summer vacation have allowed Ms. Priyanka and her four sisters-in-laws and their children to live in the camp. They have gathered here on the invitation of a local contractor, who arranges for family visits after harvest. “I am happy since we are used to it,” says Ms. Priyanka, though her mother, Ms. Rani, has become disenchanted with duck farming for a while.
“All our children are attending English-medium schools. They will go back once the vacation is over,” says Ms. Rani, even as she supervises her daughters-in-law while they make pooris and duck masala for dinner. The presence of children is a reason for variety in the camp meals.
In the nearby camp of Pasumpon, a native of Puliyankulam in Theni district is cooking rice while her husband Veerappuli is away in the field with their ducks. “Even last night I told him to give up duck farming as I am not able to move from place to place. Of course, ducks helped us mobilise money for marriages without forcing us to sell family property. My sons are capable of doing other work too, and I don’t want them to continue with duck farming,” says Ms. Pasumpon. Unlike Ms. Rani’s family, she says her’s camps only in Tamil Nadu.
When asked if they could not find a job that would allow the family to remain in one place, as the women preferred, Mr. Prabu and his brothers said they did not know of any other profession. “It [itinerant duck farming] will end with us. Our children will not follow us and roam around the landscape like this,” says Ilayaraja, another son of Ms. Rani.