The milk project had revealed the chasm in the thinking and culture between the Raika and rural life in Rajasthan on the one hand, and academically trained animal experts and urban India on the other. These two were worlds apart. Ideas that sounded good in a proposal and appealed to funding organisations were likely to turn into the ridiculous in the local context. Events in Sadri usually unfolded in a unique and entirely unpredictable way and these concepts often did not make sense to the Raika. It was difficult, and occasionally totally impracticable, to run projects in Sadri under the aegis of an organisation in Jodhpur.

After mulling this over, Hanwant and I concluded that a new organisation was needed, based in Sadri, and closer to the ground, one in which the Raika could be more immediately involved, and which could better convey and address their needs from their own perspective. So in the later stages of the milk project, we had started exploring the modalities of setting up a new voluntary society and looking for supporters. We needed to have seven members in order to be able to register the society and I, as a foreigner, could not be one. Obviously, we were keen that the Raika themselves be actively involved as members, but this was not as simple as it sounded.

The earlier attempts by Dr Dewaram at setting up a society composed of Raika had failed due to fundamental contradictions inherent in the idea. The focus of the society was to be on livestock keeping but, paradoxically, this was not something any of the more educated Raika, who could grasp the concept of a voluntary society, were interested in or willing to support. In fact, when the educated Raika spoke at caste gatherings, they usually exhorted the herders “to stop running behind the animals” and drop livestock keeping altogether.

On the other hand, the livestock keeping Raika whom we wanted to help, having had no education in the conventional sense or any exposure to the wider world, were completely unfamiliar with the idea of a voluntary society.

The fact that they could not read documents and could sign only by means of their thumbprint was a minor aspect compared with their lack of understanding that a voluntary society would work with them selflessly, a proposition that was difficult to grasp if not totally alien. Unlike in other areas of Rajasthan, in Godwar there was no NGO working for social causes and upliftment, so the idea of outsiders coming to help local people and communities was a first and aroused suspicion. Rumours to the effect that I was scheming to take all their animals to Germany or hijack their children by plane kept surfacing periodically. While the idea of social work and mobilisation was new, there was a strong tradition of charity in the form of handouts, such as free food or medical treatment. Mostly, such good works were practised by religious trusts and they were, more often than not, focused on animals.

A favourite strategy of the affluent Jain community, who often acted as patrons of the Raika community, was to build and run gaushalas, homes for unproductive, ailing, and old cows that had been abandoned by their owners. Other wealthy people fed stray dogs, supported the construction of animal hospitals, or financed veterinary treatment camps. For any kind of activity carried out in the guise of religious salvation, there was abundant money around as was evidenced by the large number of temples that sprouted everywhere. There was also a tradition, continuing from the feudal days, for the Raika to ask the Rajputs, with whom they had close relations, for help and support and, very often, for money. There was a definite obligation for these patrons to do their best to grant such requests – and gain status and followers in the process. Because I was likewise perceived as rich and powerful, I initially also received a flood of pleas for loans of money or for outright financial support. Almost as soon as I had a friendly word with anybody, they would turn around and ask me for money, often substantial sums of it.

To begin with, this upset me greatly because I felt that people were friendly to me only because they thought I was a walking money bag, rather than because they appreciated me in my own right as a person. Gradually, I came to realise that these requests did not only happen to me as a foreigner, but to Indian people as well, including Hanwant. By giving loans one established respect, power and obligation for reciprocal support that could be mobilised in times of need. The established approaches for giving or receiving help, thus, were either through religion-motivated charity or due to historic patron–client relationships. For outsiders, such as us, to help people by making them stronger and enabling them to shoulder responsibility was a new experience. We had determined that it was precisely this kind of social mobilisation that was needed.

The Raika should once again take pride in their occupation. I was tired of hearing the Raika described as backward. True, socially, they were extremely conservative. They practised child marriage, but since couples did not start living together until they were mature, the situation was not that different from arranged marriages standard throughout India. But the animal husbandry practices of the Raika were sound under the given circumstances, whether they related to camels, sheep, goats, or cattle.

In a situation of unpredictable rainfall patterns and water scarcity – evident from the wells that had run dry around Sadri, from which farmers had drawn water for irrigation with diesel pumps, leaving the land fallow – grazing livestock was the best and most sustainable way of making use of the land. Maintaining mobile livestock required experience and skill – who else but the Raika would be able to control large herds of animals just by means of their voice or steer them through traffic or along the side of highways with just a bamboo stick? Who else had knowledge of where grazing was likely to be available in a particular season and what were the likely effects of the grazed vegetation on the animals – on the taste of their milk, their fertility, on their health in general? Who else knew the name and life history of each animal and that of its forefathers and mothers, or could identify each one of them, or have such a close bond with them that they responded to being called by name?

Besides the advantages of the Raika animal husbandry from the perspective of ecology and animal welfare, there was also its significance for the economy of Rajasthan. The camels they bred and sold at Pushkar provided a livelihood for many poor families who used them to transport goods, both in cities as well as in rural areas. But this was only a relatively minor aspect compared to the importance of sheep breeding in which the majority of the Raika were involved. The mutton they produced was a key export item that generated substantial amounts of foreign currency. Others raised goats which satisfied the growing liking for goat meat among middle-class Indians. In some areas, the Raika were breeding cattle which were famous for disease resistance, character and productivity, yet these were yet to be formally recognised as a breed.

It seemed to me the Raika were animal breeders par excellence and not only should they be proud of it, but all the other communities of Rajasthan should too. Rajasthan prided itself on its heritage, but by heritage, it usually meant the forts and other architectural remains of the maharajahs. To me, it seemed that the Raikas’ relationship with their animals was equally worthy of conservation as a uniquely human heritage.

Excerpted with permission from Camel Karma: Twenty Years Among India’s Camel Nomads, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Speaking Tiger Books.