Photo story: The changing face of pastoralism in Kutch

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 camels look on towards the mangroves on the other end of the creek. The windmills can be seen in the background. The landscape is dotted with industries, salt jetties, Prosopis Juliflora, and windmills.

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.

“This area used to be filled with mangroves when I was a child but the seawater came in and a lot of mangroves got destroyed. The salt jetties across the field also destroyed many mangrove trees.” Abdul, now in his late twenties, thinks it has become harder to sustain his way of living.

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.”

The camels mostly graze near the village during the summer season due to the heat. The pastures have declined over the years and the camels and other livestock face shortages during the summer. The pastoralists have to buy fodder from the market. The fodder prices too have been increasing in recent years, adding a further burden to the pastoralists’ livelihoods.

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.

The Aadvik Dairy, one of the largest corporate houses in the camel milk market, closed its collection centres in the Nakhtarana and Abdasa regions last year citing a decline in demand due to the pandemic. KUUMS organized a meeting on 2 October 2021 to solve this problem. After democratic debate and discussion, it was unanimously decided that they will double their supply to Amul, the other large dairy in the area, at around 2000 litres to 4000 litres per day.
In the Vayor block meeting held in October 2021, maldharis discussed the issue of camel disease and plans to set up a camel milk collection centre. There was a veterinary doctor present at the meeting who helped maldharis understand the causes of camel disease, and also informed them about subsidized government clinics (seen here in a plain white shirt on the far left corner).

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.

Various scientists and researchers presented their work on camel milk and its importance. There was also a general discussion on the ways in which camel milk can be marketed. Ramesh Bhatti, Sahjeevan, concluded in the end “We have to market it as medicine and not milk.” He also pointed out the need to protect mangroves and other species so that camel gets proper pastures and nutrition. “If we protect the camel, we also protect its environment and vice versa. Both are connected to each other.”

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.

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