On Independence Day, camel herders assert their place in India


It was not an Independence Day event that got any coverage in the mainstream media – camel herders in Pali district brought their camels too and some of the camels sported national flags and posters around their necks. Some of the banners that the camel herders held up mentioned that they could no longer afford to keep taking care of their animals. They blamed state government policy for making their traditional lifestyle unviable, and raised slogans saying they would leave the animals in the care of the government if necessary policy changes were not made.

In 2014, the camel was declared Rajasthan’s state animal. At that time, herders rejoiced that their way of life would get an impetus through this special recognition. However, life has since become harder for them. The Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration and Export) Act was passed in 2015 by the Vasundhara Raje government and enacted the next year. With this, it became necessary to get special permission from the government for camels to be taken beyond the borders of the state. This put paid to traditional routes that the nomads took, between Rajasthan and Gujarat, and even to other states, in search of fodder and water when the summer scorched vegetation in the Thar region. The male camels used to be sold, and it was common knowledge that a good number of them would be slaughtered for meat, even when the camel herders themselves never ate camel meat.

The herders have no use for the male animals since there are few carts drawn by camels these days; with the animals not used in agriculture and with caravans that travelled out into the desert with tourists also dipping since ever since the large number of windmills sprang up in the Rajasthan deserts 20 years ago, herders are keen to sell their male animals but find few takers. “Thirty years ago, a five-year-old healthy camel could fetch up to Rs80,000 each. These days, we think it is a good price if we get even Rs8,000,” said Hanwant Singh Rathore, director of Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan (LPPS), which works among camel herders in Rajasthan. LPPS markets camel milk and rugs made from camel hair, among other things. Camel milk is sought after for its medicinal qualities. Camels are wide-ranging animals that feed on leaves not grass – their diet is from vegetation that grows wild, and very diverse. This gives their milk special qualities, and in recent years parents of autistic children have been seeking out camel milk for the calming influence it has on children, reversing some of the symptoms of autism.

Camel herders at the protest on Independence Day sought freedom to graze their animals – some of their traditional nomadic routes have been cut off, after being declared forest lands. In other parts of the world, though, there is greater recognition now about how animals that clear vegetation also help contain forest fires. Animal dung serves to keep soil fertile, and pastoral people are traditionally known to help with seed dispersal, as dung from animals also contains seeds that need to be spread across vast distances. With forests being closed to camel herders who move with their herds, these ecological functions they traditionally performed are no longer part of the cycle of protected forest areas.

State policy is dictated by members of animal welfare groups who are influenced by the clamour for veganism and ethical treatment of animals, since members of the bureaucracy and the urban elite join their voice with such groups, says Hanwant Singh Rathore. Government seldom consults the camel herders themselves when framing policy that affects them. “No camel herder will ever approach a bureaucrat to seek special permission to move with his herd across the state border,” Rathore says, pointing to how traditional practices are criminalized by such ill-conceived laws.

The Pushkar and Balotra animal fairs in Rajasthan would attract herders from other states too, and were for long major tourism sites – in the past few years, visitor numbers have dropped and camels have not commanded an attractive price at these fairs. Camel numbers are in sharp decline. In 1991, Rajasthan had nearly 7.5 lakh camels; by 2019, when the last livestock census was held, that number had declined to 2.13 lakh. Bhanwar Lal, a herder from the Raika community, said his grandfather had a 200-strong herd; he now struggles to keep his few camels. “At this rate, our children will only be able to see pictures of camels in books,” he said, as he stood with fellow herders at the protest site on Independence Day.

Rosamma Thomas is a freelance journalist


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