Kachchh Camel Herders: Lockdown Last Straw?

Photo: Ritayan Mukherjee.

“I am selling some vegetables, but there’s not much profit in it. We all are sitting at home, idle, mostly. The local cement factory is running, but we aren’t going to work,” Karim Jat tells me on the phone from Mori, his village in Lakhpat taluka of Kachchh district. Karim Jat is a maldhari of the Fakirani Jat community. In the Kachchhi language ‘mal’ refers to animals, and ‘dhari’ means guardian or possessor. Across Kachchh, the maldharis rear cows, buffaloes, camels, horses, sheep and goats.

The vegetables Karim Jat speaks of are those he has obtained from nearby markets and villages – but he’s not getting a decent price for them, he complains. The cement factory is in a township just a few kilometres away – but the lockdown makes it very difficult for Karim and his fellow Fakirani Jats to step out. Besides, the factory already has many labourers – mostly migrants from West Bengal and elsewhere, several of whom have remained, unable to return to their homes. Relations between the migrants and locals have never been the most amicable.

Due to the lockdown, Karim Jat tells me he has missed out on a visit to the Savla Pir shrine near the India-Pakistan border, and the fair held there. “The holy month of Ramadan has already begun. And Eid is less than a month away,” he says, worried. “Eid will be different this time.”

The first case of Covid-19 in Kachchh was a woman in Lakhpat taluka, who had returned from an overseas trip. She was taken to Bhuj in March where she tested positive. Lakhpat is home to most of the camel pastoralists.

Soon after the lockdown announcement on March 24, most activities came to a standstill in Kachchh. Camel herders have since faced particularly tough challenges because they live and graze their animals in places quite far away from their homes. Also, the areas they live in are very close to, or on, the border – and therefore marked as highly sensitive zones, governed by ultra-strict security protocols. The sudden lockdown did not give many of the maldharis much time to either return to their villages or arrange sufficient food supplies for their families residing there.

Right now, they say, their animals are okay – since they are stuck out in the grazing grounds. But if the lockdown is further extended, feeding the herds could become a problem. And so could the heat of a fast advancing summer.

In Nakhatrana block, locals tell me on the phone, the police have visited some of the herders in the outlying grazing grounds and given them instructions not to move around. So if the pastoralists attempt to go anywhere at all, it is to their respective villages for rations or any other work. And that is proving difficult, too.

While men ​of the families ​manage with milk and rotis during their grazing rounds, in the villages the women and children need roti, rice and dal in their diets. The sudden lockdown has put those in isolated border villages in trouble. And several herders who have left their ration cards in their villages while they are on the grazing route are unable to access foodgrains from PDS outlets. Photo: Ritayan Mukherjee.

Many, like Gulmamad Jat, another maldhari from Lakhpat taluka, are finding it hard to access foodgrains and other essentials from PDS shops. “We keep our ration cards with us as identity proof,” he says, “but it never helps us to collect our quota from the ration shops, and this happens with several of the families.”

That will happen, explains Ramesh Bhatti, anchor of the Breeding Programme, Centre for Pastoralism, Bhuj. Many of the oont wale (camel herders), he says, work 10-20 kilometres away, near forest land or commons. “They have no contact with the villages or with government. Many of them keep their ration cards in their villages while they are roaming somewhere else… Now there are no buyers for camel milk and other products of the maldharis, so their income has stopped and they can’t buy essentials. They are also scared to go back home as in some villages, they will not be allowed in.”

And while the men in the families are able to ​ consume milk and rotis during their grazing rounds, the women and children back home, Bhatti adds, need food. Mercifully, he says, “some transportation has resumed these past few days. But they have already suffered severe losses.”

In such a situation, hunger is a very real problem. What the government has delivered simply has not been enough. “If a family of eight received 10 kilograms of wheat, how long would they survive on it,” he asks.

Sahjeevan, a Bhuj-based organisation running the Centre for Pastoralism, which works for the rights of the maldharisprepared around 70 ration kits in Bhuj for some of the distressed families these past two weeks. The kits include wheat, cotton oil, moong dal, sugar, onions, potato, rice, salt, spices, coriander powder, turmeric, and mustard – in quantities sufficient for a couple of weeks. “Thanks to them we got our rations at our doorstep,” says Karim Jat. “Based on that, we are surviving as of now, but if the lockdown tightens further, we will face more challenges.”

Of the government’s announcement of a gradual relaxation that will also allow resumption of some farming activity, Karim Jat says, “I hope so – they will have to do it. Or else what will the world eat? Everyone is anxious.”

With some rations arriving, a few are anxious about other shortages – among them is Jat Ayub Ameen, who my friends and I affectionately call ‘Ayub kaka’ (uncle). He is one of the great stalwarts of the Fakirani Jat community. “Yes, I have the rations to survive,” he says on the phone, “all thanks to you good people. But you know what the saddest part of the lockdown is? I am not getting my beedis.”

Many Fakirani Jats are habituated to smoking beedis and cigarettes, but with the lockdown there is little access to tobacco. Jat Ayub Ameen complains that this is ‘very frustrating’. Photo: Ritayan Mukherjee.

Ritayan Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based photographer and a 2016 PARI Fellow. He is working on a long-term project that documents the lives of pastoral nomadic communities of the Tibetan Plateau.

This story first appeared on People’s Archive of Rural India.