Rajasthan’s Pushkar Camel Fair is one of India’s most beautiful festival in the country, attracting thousands of camels and visited by over thousands of foreign tourists each year. More than thousand camel herders arrive with their livestock at this annual fair. Most of them come from Pali, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan. For centuries, the Raika community of Rajasthan has been herding camels. But, today these herders’ livelihood is in trouble.
Nowadays this community faces restrictive grazing laws, social hostility and falling incomes. Camels are essential to herders because they can survive the heat, require little water, and offer their milk and hair in return but the Raikas find themselves struggling to survive. Keeping camels is hard work and demands a lot of skills. Raikas are the only people who are able to communicate with their camels with the slightest tilt of the head or hand.
Narain Singhal, a herder of Bijapur village in the Pali district of Rajasthan, came to Pushkar fair with five camels. As he said, they are not even getting the right price for trained camels. “Last year I was unable to sell any camel. I am not optimistic about doing good business this year. The price of cattle remains low for the past few years. We are now breeding fewer camels because there is no demand as we cannot sell outside of the state,” said Singhal.
Luck favours few herders like Setang Ram of Ramdevra village of Jaisalmer district. He came with 60 camels and sold a camel for Rs 11,000 on the first day of the fair. He is quite hopeful this year, and he is ready to sell even at lower prices as he doesn’t want to return with all camels.
Previously, the Raikas used to sell only young male camels the fair. That isn’t enough anymore. They get Rs 10,000- 15,000 for each camel and the price will be little higher if it is a trained camel. But it is difficult after the state government enacted the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 2015, providing severe punishment for selling camels for slaughter, for taking them outside the state, for castrating them and even for using the nose peg. At the same time camel was declared the state animal of Rajasthan in 2014.
New laws and policies, supported by some environmentalists and animal rights’ groups, have curtailed the movement and altered the lifestyle of the Raikas. National parks like Kumbhalgarh now restrict access to camel herders, limiting their old migration patterns. With these restrictive laws making it difficult for camel herders to access land and resources, some Raikas have been forced to sell even female camels at the Pushkar fair to supplement their earnings. Until 2000, only young male camels were sold. Few animal rights organisations had asked the government to ban female slaughter to try to preserve the species. Since March 2015, the state government called for a blanket ban on the slaughter of both male and female camels – thereby eliminating a steady source of income for the Raikas.
The income opportunities from camel herding are getting zero. As a result, many left the community looking for alternative livelihoods and migrated to other states. Amar Dewasi of Jodhpur came with his father Jaitaram to sell their only camel at Pushkar fair. Camel husbandry was their traditional occupation, but now he works in a hotel in Goa as he said, “I cannot continue to do a 24/7 job without earning any income. Raikas have no livelihood options in Rajasthan.”
Aman Raberi, an eighth generation camel herder, owns 100 camels and grazes his camels on the outskirts of Pura Ka Mohalla in Ajmer for up to 12 hours a day for most of the year. His son works in Bangalore as he doesn’t find this traditional camel husbandry a profitable business anymore. Aman said, “We have no grazing grounds, and we don’t get good prices for camels. Why would anyone keep them? I’ll keep because I love these animals and it’s a tradition.”
Raikas have no options other than the dairies that pay only a small amount for camel milk. The Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI) has not even permitted marketing camel milk in the state. However, in countries like Suadi Arabia, Somalia, and Mauritania small-scale industries have developed around camel milk products. Even in Europe, camle milk is sold as a health food.
Ilse Köhler -Rollefson, a veterinarian and author of the book Camel Karma, said, “There is a need to bring changes in the livelihood of Raika that will certainly benefit them socially, culturally and economically. The next generation is interested in trying to maintain some of their traditions, but the profession becomes unprofitable. Then how can Raikas survive? Even grazing lands are decreasing day by day. The Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) act affected them seriously.”
She further explained that when a herder comes with 70 camels and sells only one camel, it will be a big heartbreak for him. Pushkar fair has seen a sharp decrease in camel sales in the past few years. About 2,948 camels were sold out of 6,953 in 2012-13. In 2013-14, 3,349 camels were sold out of 9,934. In 2014-15, 9,934 camels brought to fair and only 3,349 were sold. Similarly, 3,030 camels sold out of 10,048 in 2015-16 and 2,554 camels sold in 8,375 in 2016-17. The decline was the sharpest in 2017-18, where only 827 camels were sold. The government is not even interested in listening to the Raikas. In October 2016, the government of Rajasthan launched a scheme to protect the camel and camel herders. Under the Ushtra Vikas Yojana (Camel Development Plan), the government will now provide Rs10,000 cash incentive to camel herders on the birth of each calf, but in reality, it hardly impacts them. Ilse Köhler -Rollefson and her team are advocating for marketing of camel milk. “While demand for camel milk is rising, developing and marketing camel products like dairy products, soap, wool, and paper made from camel dung could be Raika’s camel-dependent way of life,” she asserted.
This time the major problems that the camel herders are facing are the construction of a helipad in the fairground which was made for Prime Minister’s visit for Rajasthan assembly election and camels finding it difficult to settle there. Ashok Tak, an activist and member of Camel Safari Association, said, “This place used to be dune 12 years ago but the state government decided to build a road in the desert, and now a helipad has been constructed. The hard surface will hamper the resting places for camels those stay for two-three weeks at Pushkar camel fair.” Camel herders also got upset and said, “It is sad to see that the resting area of camels has been reduced. This hard surface can create injury in camel’s hoof and knee.”
When the government is concerned about declining camel numbers, it should have solved the problems faced by the community. The Raikas have a tremendous amount of traditional knowledge about managing camels in balance with the ecosystem if they sell them against their cultural beliefs, it is only to save their livelihoods.
About Author: Tanmoy Bhaduri is an independent photojournalist and writer based in Kolkata. He covers issues on development, women and child rights, human trafficking, natural disaster, indigenous rights, climate change, strikes and conflicts.