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The last herders of Pushkar

| Updated on November 22, 2019 Published on November 21, 2019

A low turnout at the famous Puskhar fair highlights the declining interest in the once-popular profession of camel herding

The Pushkar Fair, held annually in Rajasthan’s Ajmer, is known as one of the world’s largest cattle fairs. It also celebrates the age-old traditions of the pastoralist camel-herding Raika tribe. On November 4-12, more than 1,000 of the community’s camel herders arrived with their livestock at the fair. They came from Pali, Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer districts.

After centuries of herding camels, the community’s livelihood is threatened today. Restrictive grazing laws have led to falling incomes. On top of that, camel sales have fallen drastically at the annual fair in recent years. The decline was the sharpest in 2017, when only 827 camels were sold compared to 3,349 in 2015.

The situation worsened last year, with buyers reportedly quoting prices as low as ₹500 to ₹1,500 per camel, which earlier cost ₹15,000 or more. Setang Ram, a herder from Ramdevra village in Jaisalmer, said, “Last year I was unable to sell even a single camel. The price has remained low for the past few years. We are now breeding fewer camels because there are fewer buyers.”

Declaring the camel its state animal in 2014, Rajasthan passed a law banning its slaughter, trading and unauthorised transportation.

This has badly impacted the Raikas, leaving them with no other source of income other than from the sale of camel milk, which doesn’t fetch much revenue. Unlike in many other countries, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India has not permitted the marketing of camel milk on a technical fat standard applied to all milk products. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, a veterinarian and author of Camel Karma, commented on the plight of the Raikas, “The next generation is trying to maintain some of their traditions, but the profession has becomes unprofitable. Even grazing lands have decreased.”

In October 2016, the Rajasthan government launched a scheme to protect camels and camel herders. Under the Ushtra Vikas Yojana (Camel Development Plan), the government provides herders with a ₹10,000 cash incentive on the birth of each calf, but this has proved inadequate. The number of camels in the state declined from 3.26 lakh to 2.13 lakh from 2012-2019, as observed in the 2019 Livestock Census.

Tanmoy Bhaduri is a Kolkata-based photojournalist

 

Published on November 21, 2019