Sustainability and rural empowerment drive this geneticist, her father’s daughter ​

Sustainability and rural empowerment drive this geneticist, her father's daughter

Dr Chanda Nimbkar’s contributions to animal breeding, notably in enhancing the genetic features of local sheep and goats, have greatly improved the livelihoods of people from rainfed areas of rural Maharashtra

By Shailaja Tiwale

| Posted on  August 28, 2023

Growing up with her older sisters in Phaltan, a rural town in Maharashtra, Chanda hadn’t planned for a day when she would carry forward her Padma Shree awardee father’s name and legacy. Though always an earnest student, Chanda was known for her determined and rebellious nature and chose to study commerce after high school, in defiance of the expectations that she would pursue science. After all, her father was a pioneering agricultural scientist Bonbehari Nimbkar (BV Nimbkar), renowned for his contributions to animal husbandry and the founding of India’s first private agricultural research institute in 1968, the Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Phaltan. 

Chanda graduated with a gold medal in statistics from Pune University in 1981 while simultaneously working as an articled clerk in a chartered accountant’s office for two years. She found the job unsatisfying, so she returned to Phaltan and began learning about farming under the guidance of her father.


Dr Chanda Nimbkar and BV Nimbkar with NARI Suwarna twins

Seeking an intellectual challenge after being immersed in crop agriculture for a year, Chanda left for the US to pursue her master’s in economics from Brown University in 1984. Upon her return to India, Chanda’s interest gradually shifted towards her father’s research. BV Nimbkar’s advocacy for improvement in sheep and goat rearing led to the formation of the Sheep and Goat Commission of Maharashtra in 1989, with him as the chairman. Chanda accompanied him on many journeys across Maharashtra and other parts of India to study the issues related to sheep and goat rearing.

Genetic improvement of goats and sheep is the best way to sustainably increase their production and improve the earnings of goat keepers or shepherds. But productive ewes (female sheep), rams (male sheep), bucks (male goat), does (female goat) and semen to breed better progeny were unavailable in Maharashtra at the time,” Chanda recalls.

The turning point that sealed the deal

In 1988, renowned geneticist, livestock consultant and former deputy director of the Animal Breeding Research Organisation, Edinburgh, UK, Dr Gerald Wiener, visited India.

This marked a turning point in Chanda’s life and set the stage for her remarkable contributions to animal breeding and genetics in India.

Dr Wiener spent about a month at NARI outlining strategies to enhance sheep breeding in Maharashtra. His report highlighted the potential benefits of artificial insemination (AI) and the genetic characterisation of sheep capable of giving birth to twins.

Dr Wiener also suggested that somebody from the organisation pursue higher education in animal breeding to lead NARI’s sheep improvement program. Despite not having a background in science, Chanda’s eagerness to learn led Dr Wiener to help her secure admission to the University of Edinburgh for an MSc in Animal Breeding in 1989.

Studying genetics was a new and challenging endeavour for Chanda, and she worked diligently on her postgraduate studies. Her excellence earned her a PhD scholarship at the university, but she declined the offer and returned to India in 1990. Chanda wished to immediately put her newfound knowledge to use.

In 1990, NARI officially established its Animal Husbandry Division (AHD), which Dr Chanda now leads as the Director. Later, in 2005, she completed her PhD at the University of New England in Australia.

The beauty of genetics

Dr Chanda and veterinarian Dr Pradip Ghalsasi, under BV Nimbkar’s direction, developed the NARI Suwarna strain of Deccani sheep through intensive research and cross-breeding. They found that the genetic traits of Deccani sheep in Maharashtra could be improved by studying the Garole breed, which naturally produces twins. They took two Garole ewes from West Bengal’s Sunderbans to Phaltan and, funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, created a novel variety that produces twin lambs almost every time. This not only enhanced lamb output, but it also confirmed the breed’s durability in Maharashtra’s harsh weather conditions. 

NARI continued its work in collaboration with the University of New England, Australia, and the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, to improve Deccani sheep genetics from 1998 to 2007.

Dr Chanda Nimbkar in group meeting with goat rearers of Bihar

Dr Chanda and Dr Pradip Ghalsasi with NARI Suwarna twins and their shephards

“Being a sturdy breed, the NARI Suwarna was widely accepted by the shepherd community,” Dr Chanda shares, adding that they also disseminated this breed to small sheep holders or shepherds in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The introduction of genes from the Madgyal and Awassi breeds to NARI Suwarna further enhanced meat quality, milk yield and growth rate, making the breed even more appealing to farmers.

“After a decade-long effort, the genetic merit of our animals developed and we are now able to sell directly to shepherds. This popular breeding program is self-sustaining, even without funding. We have been riding on the sheep’s back,” the geneticist says with pride. 

In 2007, Dr Chanda and her team received the Science and Technology Innovations for Rural Development award from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for their ground-breaking work.

“Genetic improvements are permanent, as they are automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. Genetic modification also reaches remote areas without too much effort because, once the animal goes there, it is replicated every year. That is the beauty of genetics,” Dr Chanda remarks.

Rural women at the helm

In 1997, NARI initiated training courses in AI for goats, allowing for controlled breeding and genetic improvement. Dr Chanda also developed training modules specifically tailored for rural women associated with the Mann Deshi Foundation in Maan Taluka, Satara district, Maharashtra. This helped raise and spread good-quality goats, including Boer and Osmanabadi.  

She shares, “Initially, the women were frightened to enter villages because men would jeer at them.

Over time, they learned how to handle adverse situations and have been carrying out AI in nearby villages for the last six years. We’ve observed that women are more skilled in AI, as their routine work involves more use of their hands.”

Dr Chanda’s involvement extends to larger-scale projects such as the development of the Osmanabadi goat breed since 2009, in collaboration with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). This project involves over 500 goat keepers across seven districts in Maharashtra, and has improved milk yield (1–3 litres per day), growth rate and kid weight.

She also contributes to a community goat breeding program by the Aga Khan Foundation in Bihar. 

This program involves training village women as Pashusakhi (Animal Health Workers) to enhance the genetics of Black Bengal goats. Her next project is aimed at establishing a community-based gene bank to conserve and restore endangered livestock breeds. “We must conserve and develop breeds to adapt to the changing climate, survive and be economically viable to rear,” she stresses

Dr Chanda with visiting Australian scientists 

Dr Chanda Nimbkar felicitated by CSIR Award by former Prime Minister of India , Dr Manmohan Singh for NARI Suwarna project

'I am often the only woman at conferences'

Dr Chanda’s work as a geneticist is revolutionary because of the gender disparity that persists in agricultural science in India. “Even after 30 years, I am often the only woman at national conferences and board meetings. The situation is different at international meetings, where 50% of the participants are women,” she notes.

While the number of female students in agricultural institutions has increased and many have joined research institutions, their family responsibilities and mobility constraints often lead to career derailment. However, Dr Chanda sees a gradual shift in this landscape. 

Dr Chanda has published over 30 research papers and served on numerous national and international boards and committees, including the ICAR, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya, and the editorial advisory board of the Animal Genetic Resources Information journal published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. 

Her efforts have been recognised with awards such as the Vocational Excellence Award from the Rotary Club of Pune and the STREE 2020 national award from Shakti, a women’s organisation inspired by Vijnan Bharati.

'I ask questions, so I’m a troublemaker'

On her challenges, Dr Chanda says, “Running an institute and finding money was tedious all these years. I did not take a salary from the institution as I have economic support from my family.” She also acknowledges the moral support she has received from her Australian life partner, Gavan Bromilow.The self-confessed perfectionist candidly says, “Everybody knows me as a troublemaker because I ask questions and suggest doing more in-depth work, which people usually want to avoid.” 

On her courage and confidence, Dr Ghalsasi shares, “Once, when the then chief minister Sharad Pawar visited the institution with directors of various departments of state, one of the directors spat on the floor. Chanda immediately reprimanded him and said, Do not spit here. She is never afraid of speaking the truth on any platform.” 

Dr Chanda Nimbkar’s intensity is fuelled by her desire for excellence. Her resilience, dedication and pioneering spirit serve as an inspiration for both aspiring scientists and those seeking to challenge the status quo in their fields.

Dr Chanda at a training camp in Osmanabadi 

About the author

Shailaja Tiwale is an independent journalist with a decade of experience covering public health, primarily as the Health Correspondent for Loksatta, a leading Marathi daily. She is a recipient of several prestigious fellowships, including UNICEF Media Fellowship for reporting on nutrition, REACH Media Fellowship for reporting chronic respiratory disease and tuberculosis, and Schizophrenia Research Foundation’s ESSENCE Media Fellowship for  reporting on mental health. She has completed a National Foundation for India fellowship for reporting on socioeconomic issues in the public health sector and is currently a Laadli Media Fellow reporting on gender.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked (required)