Just before Diwali last year, Pushpa Devi noticed that some of her 20 Rathi cows – a breed indigenous to Rajasthan that has adapted to the state’s harsh summers and severe winters – seemed to be eating less than usual. Over the next few days, seven cows developed lumps on their skin, confirming what Devi and her family were fearing: the cows had been infected with lumpy skin disease, a highly contagious viral infection among cows that saw its first outbreak in India last year.

They immediately separated the infected cattle from the rest. Devi’s village Balsarpur is nestled in Rajasthan’s Bikaner district, and is closer to the Pakistan border than it is to the nearest government veterinary doctor. So, as their first response, Devi and her family resorted to home remedies that were being circulated on social media. They bathed the infected lumps with neem leaves boiled in water, cleaned the wounds with phenyl to prevent maggots, and gave the cows steam of camphor to inhale. They then called a private doctor who resided close to their village, who recommended giving the cows Avil, an anti-allergic tablet.

Within three days of the treatment, three of the seven cows died. One of them was Devi’s favourite.

“I was sad for days, no other cow would be able to replace her,” Devi said, stroking the head of one of the surviving cows.

When the disease, often referred to as just “lumpy”, hit, the milk production in Devi’s house dropped from 40 litres per day to about 15 litres. “See, agriculture gives income twice a year,” Devi’s husband Bishna Ram said. “For the rest of the year, daily expenditure needs, like school fees or shopping for necessities, is supported by selling milk.” He added, “Since October last year, our household income has become unstable.”

Last year, Pushpa Devi and Bishna Ram lost three cows to lumpy skin disease. As they did not have easy access to a government doctor, they treated their animals with home remedies. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathur

Devi and Ram’s household was just one of many in India that lost cows due to the disease in 2022. Rajasthan was the worst hit with cattle deaths: of the 50 lakh infected cattle in the state, 75,000 died. Across the country, more than 1.5 lakh cattle died. In September, when the disease peaked, the state’s milk production crashed by 21%. Five months later, during the 2023-’24 state budget, announced on 10 February, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot announced a compensation of Rs 40,000 for every cow that died of lumpy skin disease.

Priti Thakur, a doctor at a government vet clinic in Bikaner district, believes that excess moisture in the region last year played a vital role in the spread of the disease. “While the first few cases emerged in April, lumpy died down a bit in the heat of the summer, which is common for viral diseases,” said Thakur, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, because she was not authorised to speak to the media. “But in July-August, its severity increased manifold, which is when the district saw more rain than previous years.” This observation was echoed by farmers across the district, all of whom spoke of how the increased “nami”, or moisture, seemed to have played a role in the rapid spread of lumpy skin disease after July.

These assertions are in line with what studies emphasise – that a “warm and humid climate” also supports reproduction of the insects that act as carriers of infections in cases of vector-borne diseases, such as lumpy skin disease, which spreads through the bites of flies. In the case of Rajasthan, the Indian Meteorological Department, or IMD, noted that between 1989 and 2018, the state has seen a “significant increase” in heavy rainfall days in the entire year, particularly in the western parts of the state. Last monsoon – which is when lumpy skin disease ravaged many parts of the country – western Rajasthan saw 56% “excess” rainfall, according to the IMD.

That a relationship exists between the spread of diseases like lumpy skin disease and the changing climate was also confirmed in a response to a question in the December 2022 Lok Sabha Session. The minister of agriculture and farmer welfare stated that “the emergence, transmission and establishment of animal diseases are also influenced by climate change” and that “climatic conditions influence the outbreaks of some diseases viz. Lumpy Skin Disease”.

Rathish R, assistant professor of veterinary epidemiology and preventive medicine at Kerala Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, also reiterated the role of climate change in the disease’s spread. “It’s difficult to attribute the cause of lumpy’s spread to solely climate, but climate definitely played a role,” he said.

Bishna Ram described climatic changes that he had been observing – rainfall was higher than before but erratic, the number of cold days were declining, and heatwaves were more intense. These changes had already impacted agricultural production and hit household incomes before lumpy skin disease struck. “Prakriti kuch badal rahi hai,” he said – nature seems to be changing.

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When the first symptoms of the disease started being reported around April, Thakur, the government vet, suspected that it could indeed be lumpy skin disease. “We sent samples to labs and when it was confirmed, we immediately started treating the viral symptoms, since no particular medicine or vaccine for lumpy existed,” she said.

She added, “We started giving antibiotics through injectables, but that ended badly – it caused numerous mortalities within the span of just a week.” She and her colleagues could not determine why these deaths occurred.

In the village of Bajju, about 90 km from Bikaner city, several cattle owners recounted how this played out. “When five of our 25 cows got infected, we immediately bought the injection,” Rakesh Bishnoi told me on a foggy morning, sitting by a fire. “But all those who were given this dose died, and the ones that we were treating with home remedies like alum, turmeric, and boiled neem leaves, recovered.”

In response to the high mortality rate due to antibiotic injections, the vets quickly changed their strategy. “We learnt from our mistake and then moved towards giving oral antibiotics to the infected cows, and that seemed to have helped in treatment,” Thakur said.

But, she explained, the failure of the initial injected treatment led to a hesitancy among people to adopt a later treatment, recommended by the government. This treatment, set out in guidelines released by the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying on August 31, entailed injecting the animals with the goat-pox vaccine, since that vaccine is also effective against capripoxvirus, the type of virus common to both diseases.

In any case, by this time, the majority of deaths had already occurred. “The government opened their eyes to this problem much later,” a compounder at a government clinic in the district said, requesting anonymity. Up till January 2023, when I met him, this clinic had administered 91,800 goat pox vaccines in its tehsil, and treated 7,400 cows for lumpy skin disease. “The number of cow deaths due to lumpy that the government is showing have been severely under-reported,” he admitted.

He noted further that staffers like him received insufficient support from the government to dispense the vaccine. “Employees like me spent our own money to meet daily targets of vaccinations to travel to the villages and fields to immunise the cattle,” he said. “I spent about Rs 10,000 on just petrol, and this was all personal money.” Thakur noted that the funds that were raised for medicines chiefly came from donations by MLAs and businessmen, and that without these, the government clinic would not have been able to maintain the necessary supply of antibiotics, vaccines, and tablets.

As household after household lost cows to the disease, they looked to the government for support – but most families that I spoke to said they did not receive sufficient or timely assistance. None of the 16 farmers I spoke with, nor several others who were part of group conversations, recounted government officials visiting them to share information about preventing the disease, or holding vaccination camps – both commonly undertaken measures during the outbreak of a disease. Most, especially those away from town centres, relied on home remedies, private doctors, or “jhola chaaps”, a term for unlicensed doctors.

In fact, Kishore Kumar even expressed frustration over how the administration responded to him. Kumar is a resident of 507 Head, a reference to a canal head – or an obstruction that regulates water flow – of the Indira Gandhi canal, India’s longest canal system, which brings water from Punjab’s Harike Barrage to western Rajasthan districts. When Kumar lost five of his 40 cows, he posted a photo of them on social media, expressing his dismay.

Within a few hours, he recounted, he received a call from the office of the subdivisional magistrate, “who requested me to take the photo down because according to him it would create panic among the people,” Kumar said. “I was appalled that the SDM’s first reaction was to take the photo down, instead of sending help over to us.”

The carcass of a cow that died due to lumpy skin disease in Bikaner district. Rajasthan was the state worst hit by the disease, with more than 50 lakh cattle infected, and more than 75,000 killed. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

He added, “Losing cows is tough. The economic loss is one thing, but the emotional cost is even more. We raise them like children.”

In and around Bajju, to fill the gaps in support, Bahula Naturals, a social enterprise, stepped in to help farmers they were associated with. Along with various other ventures, Bahula also operates a dairy in Bajju to which farmers sell their milk. “Every farmer that we were associated with faced a loss of at least one cattle, and our milk collection crashed,” said Akriti Srivastava, founder of Bahula Naturals. To offer quick support to the farmers associated with them, Bahula Naturals arranged a free vaccination camp for cows.

Even where cows recovered from the disease, the impact on their health continued. “We have seen numerous natural abortions and premature deliveries in cows that recovered,” the compounder said.

In the meanwhile, the milk business, and allied businesses in the region suffered losses. Vinod, a resident of Phulasar, buys milk from farmers to make mawa, a type of condensed milk used mostly for Indian desserts.

“During the peak of lumpy, the milk reaching us reduced from 22 quintals-23 quintals a day to just seven quintals,” he said. “For about 10 days we had to keep our unit completely shut. This was around Diwali time, which is when the demand for mawa is the highest. It turned out to be a big loss.”

When I visited Bikaner district in January, the impacts of cow deaths on livelihoods continued to be felt: some residents were applying for loans to buy more cows, some were working as labour, and others were depending solely on agriculture. “You will not find a single cattle-owning house in Bikaner that was not impacted by lumpy,” Bishna Ram said. “The Rathi cows that most people lost cost between Rs 35,000 to 40,000 each.”

These impacts were exacerbated by the vagaries of climate change. “For the last year, our debts have increased substantially,” Dandkalan village’s Paro Bai said. Not only did she lose four of her cows to lumpy skin disease, but she also had damaged crops due to erratic weather last year. “The previous winter was not as cold, which delayed the ripening of the mustard crop,” Paro Bai said.

This left her family with a poor harvest in the beginning of 2022, after which they had to grapple with the problem of lumpy skin disease. “Some family members started working as labour to bring money home,” she said. “It’s becoming more difficult to predict when rain will happen and how much, as it has become erratic compared to its previous patterns.” She noted that during these difficult times, she relied on income from a workshop that she had set up with the support of an NGO, where she trained women in the village in Sindhi embroidery, an art passed down in her family over generations.

The village of Nok, which falls on the Jodhpur-Bikaner border, had more rain than earlier years, but suffered economic losses because the rain was erratic. “In the beginning of monsoon, it rained well,” said Ashok Kumar, a resident of the village. But, he added, towards late September, when one spell of rain was needed to ripen guar, or cluster bean, it did not rain. “The majority of the crop failed,” he said.

Ashok Kumar, a resident of Nok village, lost most of his guar crop last year. He noted that a spell of rain that was needed in September to ripen the crop did not materialise, leading to the loss. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Nok falls in a part of Bikaner district that still largely practises rain-dependent agriculture just once each year, during the monsoon. Other parts of Bikaner rely on the Indira Gandhi Canal – Bikaner began receiving water from the canal in 1977, after which much of the district, which lies in the drought-prone Thar desert, moved to cultivating a two-crop cycle in the year.

But even those parts that receive water from the canal struggled, owing to restrictions on the water supply. Like Paro Bai in Dandkalan, Phulasar’s Om Prakash also suffered from the impact of a warmer winter, finding that his mustard crop’s ripening was delayed as a result. “What should have finished harvesting by late March and early April was only ready by the end of April,” he said.

But the canal administration based its plans on earlier years and, assuming that the harvest was completed by late March, stopped the water supply for 90 days of maintenance work. “With this, we missed the one last cycle of irrigation for mustard, leading to a lot of damaged crops,” Prakash said. “And then came lumpy’s losses.”

Even parts of the Bikaner that receive water from the Indira Gandhi canal struggled last year because the administration relied on old estimates of rainfall to decide release from the canal.. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Lumpy skin disease is not the only animal disease being impacted by the changing climate. Thakur pointed out others that their clinic had been witnessing. On the busy January day that I met her at the clinic, a goat rearer approached Thakur, describing the symptoms of his sick goats. While writing the prescription, she remarked to him that the illness was “bemausam” or “unseasonal.”

His goats had enterotoxemia, a disease that usually occurs in August and the following months, after monsoon rains. It is caused by bacteria commonly found in the soil that enters the goats’ digestive systems through the fodder they eat – when the bacteria reproduces quickly, it releases toxins into the animal’s body.

Thakur explained that last year, the monsoons were heavier than usual and had lasted till September, as a result of which the animals had a supply of healthy fodder up to December. Thus, the region saw cases even in January.

“Usually, we give the preventive vaccine for this after Holi, around March,” Thakur said. But the appearance of cases in January forced them to start vaccinating the animals at the beginning of the year, she added.

Camels, too, are affected by unseasonal diseases. In Nok, Ashok Kumar called out to Rinku, one of his camels, from a herd of 50. Rinku obediently followed the call, after which Ashok pointed towards the camel’s skin, which was infested with rashes and scabs. “In the last two years, we have lost at least 100 camels due to khujli,” Ashok said. Khujli, or itching, in this region refers to sarcoptic mange, a highly contagious, vector-borne disease amongst camels, which spreads by mites. The intense itching causes the camels to rub against harsh surfaces, often leading to deep wounds that become difficult to treat. It also weakens the camel and causes anaemia.

Lumpy skin disease is not the only animal disease being impacted by the changing climate. In the past two years, Ashok Kumar has lost at least 100 cows to "khujli", or sarcoptic mange. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

In a 2014 submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the International Livestock Research Institute noted that arthropod vectors, such as mites, tend to be more active in higher temperatures, and therefore feed more regularly to sustain the increase in their activities. This then enhances the chances of infections being transmitted between hosts.

Rajasthan has seen an increase in temperature over the years – according to one study, western Rajasthan, which included Bikaner district, saw an increase of average temperature from 32.2°C in 1971 to 34.6°C in 2010. “Climate change, like the increasing temperatures, could have played a role in spread of such vector-borne diseases,” Rajith R said. “But, since there is limited diagnosis in the field about these connections, it is difficult to attribute it to only climate.”

He added, “Other factors need to be also noted. For instance, in case of mange, livestock management, like keeping the infected animal away from the herd, is crucial as well.”

Some of Ashok Kumar’s camels also suffer from tibarsa, or trypanosomiasis, a disease spread by blood-sucking flies, which causes listlessness, anaemia, and in many cases, death. “We have noticed that if it rains more, like last year, the flies that spread this also increase,” he said. These diseases, shrinking grazing lands, and a falling economic viability of camels have all contributed to a drastic 37% fall in camel population in the country between 2012 and 2019.

Kumar also rears cows, 25 of which died from lumpy skin disease last year. I asked him if he plans to buy more cows to substitute for the losses, to which he said, “I have plans, but the money situation does not allow it!”

Apart from the changing climate, some shifts in land-use patterns – many of which have benefitted the district’s people and economy – are also having an adverse effect on the health of animals in the region. The most significant problem in this regard is the loss of grazing lands for a variety of reasons, which, in combination with erratic rainfall is dramatically affecting the availability of food for animals.

In Grandhi village, Genaram Raika, a member of the traditionally pastoral Raika community to which Ashok Kumar also belongs, observed that while khujli was a major concern for his camels, the availability of fodder was an even bigger problem. “Over last few years, at least a hundred of my camels have died due to starvation,” he said.

On a large tract of land around his house, he rears about 100 Bikaneri camels, a few sheep, goats, and cows. He lost 15 cows to lumpy skin disease last year, and like Ashok Kumar, his camel herd is also constantly under threat. “Cows and camels are our lives,” Raika said.

One of the most significant reasons that he and other residents of Grandhi and nearby villages have lost access to pasture land are the many large solar parks, which acquired and now function on orans, or sacred grazing grounds.

About the oran that he used to rely on, Raika said, “The oran used to provide the quantity of fodder that our camels needed.” But, with establishment of the solar park, he added, “we cannot access it anymore.”

Raika’s home is adorned with family heirlooms – carpets, ropes, bottle holders and bags, all made of camel hair by him and his ancestors. He has also received multiple citations and trophies presented to him for conserving the Bikaneri breed. “These awards do not mean much if they cannot satisfy the hunger of my animals,” he said, as he absent-mindedly hugged a one-day-old camel that was nuzzling Raika’s’s hair.

Genaram Raika, who primarily rears camels, said that the availability of fodder was a major problem. Over the past few years, he has lost at least 100 camels due to starvation. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

The other factor responsible for the declining fodder, Genaram said, was the introduction of the canal. Across the district, several farmers agreed. “Our grazing process changed a lot after the canal came in,” said Gulab Singh, a farmer and camel milk cheesemaker, who also oversees operations at Bahula Natural’s dairy in Bajju.

Since 1977, when the canal began supplying irrigation water in the Thar region, farmers have increasingly shifted from growing one cycle of moth, bajra, and guar, timed with the monsoon, to growing two cycles, of more lucrative crops – typically groundnut and wheat before the monsoon, and mustard and chana in the winter months. As agriculture began to provide strong economic returns, farmers bought and acquired more land for agricultural use.

The area of land under agricultural also increased significantly after the 1971 India-Pakistan war, when the Centre and state granted refugee families 25 bighas of land each in the canal area in Rajasthan as part of a rehabilitation package. Singh’s was also one such family, he told me on a foggy January morning, while collecting, weighing, and storing milk that had come in from various farmers in Bajju.

In and around Grandhi, many former pasture lands have been used to set up solar parks. After this, residents were denied access to the lands, reducing the supply of fodder they could rely on. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

Data from a 2018 paper confirms that Bikaner’s landscape has undergone dramatic changes. The paper analysed the change in the region’s barren land: specifically, hilly terrain, ravines and “wastelands”, a revenue category that includes grazing land and other commons. It found that barren land covered almost 50% of all land in Bikaner district in 1977, the year that the canal began supplying water to the region. By 2008, this had dropped to 27%, “at the cost of increase in agricultural land”. The share of agricultural land, meanwhile, had steadily increased, from 43% of the district’s land in 1997 to 57% by 2008.

Because grazing lands have reduced, all the farmers I spoke with explained that they now largely stall-fed their livestock, either with stubble from their fields, or fodder bought from the market at the rate of around Rs 1,000 per quintal.

While all the farmers I met had benefited from the change in land use patterns, specifically, through acquiring and farming more land, they also believed that this stall feeding had had a deleterious effect on the animals and reduced their “sahan shakti”, or immunity, to fight diseases, including lumpy skin disease.

“When we used to take the cows out to graze, they would eat whatever they like – sem, seval, dhudhel, and also some medicinal plants,” said Singh, referring to several species of grass. “This provided a lot of health benefits to the cow – their hooves would get naturally trimmed with the walking around, and the variety of plants they consumed would keep their immunity up.”

Anshul Ojha, chief executive of the Bajju-based Desert Resource Centre, a collective that works on pastoralism, desert ecology, and microenterprises, agreed with this assessment. “Now the cattle are mostly dependent on a limited variety of feed in the form of stubble, disabling the diverse feed in the grazing grounds,” he said. “This is affecting the natural coping mechanism that animals had, as well as their immunity to fight diseases like lumpy and others.”

Farmers pointed out that another crucial disadvantage of stall-feeding animals with the stubble of crops was that they ended up ingesting chemical fertilisers and pesticides that had been used on those crops. “Nahar ek nasha ban gayi hai,” the canal is like an intoxication, Singh said. “Now that there is more water, people want more urea, more pesticides, to bring crop productivity to the optimum.”

In Phulasar, Om Prakash, a young farmer, also noted that this was impacting cows’ milk quality. “Gaay ek prayogshaala hai,” the cow is a laboratory, he said. “It will produce what it is fed. We observe that when we take our cows to graze out during the monsoons in the limited grazing ground left, their milk has much higher ‘solids not fat’ content,” referring to the protein, carbohydrate and mineral portion of milk. He added, “The variety of grasses they consume also increases fat in the milk.” These two components of milk are high in nutrition and also determine the price that the milk will be sold at – higher milk fats and SNF bring a higher price to the seller.

A hundred and thirty kilometres away from Om Prakash’s home, residents of 507 Head said that open grazing saved their cows during the lumpy skin disease outbreak. Every monsoon, Ram Kumar Jhakad takes his 50 cows to their erstwhile grazing grounds, which the army acquired to create a firing range, but which locals are occasionally allowed to use for grazing animals. “We leave them there for two-three months and keep only the ones that are producing milk back at home,” Jhakad said.

When lumpy skin disease hit, the majority of his cows were in the firing range. Jhakad and his family treated the cows there with a combination of home remedies and antibiotics. “They all recovered,” he said. “But seven of the ones we had at home died. Perhaps the close space in the sheds we have for them was a factor for quick transmission of lumpy, while in the range, the cows had more space between each other.”

Since the inhabitants of 507 Had are not always assured entry to the firing range, they, and those of at least five other villages have relied on an invaluable alternate grazing ground. Adjoining the Indira Gandhi Canal, a lake – known locally as a jheel – spans across 800 hectares of land, and shrinks and grows depending upon the availability of water. In effect, the lake has served as a perennial source of water for cattle and migratory birds in the winter, while the grass around it has provided a rich supply of food for animals. “In this drought-prone area, the jheel always provided water security for our cattle,” said Roshni Jhakad, a resident of the village.

Many residents of 507 Head relied on a jheel, or lake, next to the canal for water for their cattle. The grass around the lake also served as a reliable source of food for the animals. Photo: Vaishnavi Rathore

But since 2021, under the Jal Jeevan Mission, the state and Centre have been considering a plan to convert the lake to one of four “escape reservoirs” along the canal, which will store excess water from the canal, and from which villages will be supplied. “A boundary wall with guarded entries will be made, and no grazing would be allowed once the reservoir is constructed,” said Shokat Singh, assistant forester at 507 Head. “Moreover, about 25,000 indigenous trees here will be cut. So far, the forest department has not given the no-objection certificate, but once that happens, the project will move with full speed.” Shokat also noted that this is a wildlife hotspot that attracts hyenas, blue bulls, deer, and wild boar, and that the plan could adversely impact their access to the jheel.

Residents of the village, and surrounding villages, noted that the administration had not yet made clear which villages would benefit from the supply from the escape reservoir. Last year, they staged protests and submitted memorandums to the district collector against the proposal – in response, the district collector announced that the administration would choose a different site for the reservoir. At the time of my visit, however, work was underway for the construction of temporary residential areas for labourers and officials involved in the reservoir construction.

“This might be the last time you see the jheel like this,” Roshni told me in January, as we sat on the ground close to what was left of the lake – it had shrunk because water flowing in from the canal had been stopped to prepare for the construction of the reservoir.

A few migratory pelicans swam across the water, and some distance away, a young boy tried to lead his flock of sheep back from the grazing area to his home.

During my visit, Roshni’s family told me that they were expecting a good harvest of mustard this winter. About a week after my return in mid-January, Ram Swaroop, her relative, told me over a phone call that most of the harvest had rotted, because of frost that accompanied an intense cold wave. “I have not seen such a cold spell in the last ten years,” he told me. “But it’s okay, we are like the Rathi cows – we will learn to deal with the extreme heat and cold both!”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.