by Rohit Jha, Amadh Padeyar, Shibaji Bose, and Shilpi Srivastava
Main photo: Abdul Bhai looks on as his camels (seen in the photograph below) think of swimming across the creek towards the mangrove on the other end. All photos in this piece are by Rohit Jha.
As Abdul Jat waits for his camels near the creek, he tells us about the time when mangroves were abundant in this area. “They used to be full here”, he says, “but they have declined over the years.”
The western Kutch region is home to the Kharai camel – a unique breed, specific to this area, that swims in water. These camels have been in decline over the years for several reasons, the most important of them being uncertainties exacerbated by climate shocks, industrialization, securitization, and drastic landscape change in the region.
This dire situation has led to a decline in access to mangroves and other natural resources for the Kharai. 70% of the camels’ diet depends on mangroves. The decline in access, previously, had led to Fakirani Jats selling their Kharai camels to the Raikas of Rajasthan.
Abdul belongs to the Fakirani Jat community who have been taking care of Kharai camels for the past 500 years. Abdul told us that he loves his Kharai camels. But the cascading effect of climatic, ecological and socio-economic uncertainties on his livelihood is daunting. “If the situation continues like this – if we don’t get mangroves or fodder – then I don’t think we will able to keep camels.”
Organising to make a difference
However, in recent years things are slowly taking a turn for the better. The pastoralists of Kutch have now begun to take matters into their own hands.
The formation of KUUMS (Kachchh Unt Maldhari Sangathan) in 2011, with the help of the NGO Sahjeevan, came at a crucial juncture. The organisation has procured identity cards for the pastoralists to access the mangrove islands and grazing lands; they have also appealed to a green tribunal for the protection of mangroves, and they have begun to register the Kharai camels for numeration. KUUMS has given visibility and voice to the concerns of the maldharis of Western Kutch.
In addition to this, the opening of the camel milk initiative has been a welcome move. The pastoralists who traditionally did not sell camel milk are also making their way into the camel milk market. The recent KUUMS meetings in October 2021 set in motion the proposal to set up more collection centres in remote regions of the district.
At the same meetings, KUUMS also addressed the issue of livestock healthcare. It was unanimously decided that veterinary training camps will be held in each village, with young pastoralists volunteering to get registered as trainee vets.
On 31 March 2022, a workshop on camel milk organized by Sahjeevan highlighted the market value and nutritional value of camel milk.
The first day witnessed various people from the field of hospitality and food industry come together to celebrate camel milk products like cheese. The second day was dedicated to nutritional value of camel milk. Various actors were present at the meeting, including both government and private industry; the pastoralists were represented by some of the members of KUUMS.
All these constructive changes have been the result of the collective organization on the part of both the civil society and the maldharis (pastoralists). This co-production ‘from below’ has been transformative, as it has built a platform like KUUMS for the pastoralists to voice their demands.
These transformative networks are therefore trying to make the invisible visible, the inaudible audible. The future remains cloudy, but many pastoralists are enthusiastic about these new changes.
About the research
The research is co-produced by TAPESTRY with the NGO Sahjeevan and the local community association of camel breeders (KUUMS).
The TAPESTRY project has been working in three different ‘patches’ across India and Bangladesh, creating opportunities for interactions with people in marginalised environments to co-produce transformative change. These people are on the front line of climate change and other uncertainties, including those from industrial development, pollution, urbanisation, and other forms of economic and social change.
The research on the camels of Kachchh is part of this project. Other research explores the traditional fishing communities and mangroves in Mumbai and local people’s innovations in food production, and their responses to climate uncertainties, in the Sundarbans delta.