No animal perhaps symbolises Rajasthan better than the camel. It pulls carts through the streets of Jaipur, carries tourists on safari around Jaisalmer and Jodhpur, and parades in glittering finery through the fairs of Pushkar and Bikaner. Its deep entrenchment in the region’s history and culture is reflected everywhere, in the images on T-shirts, bedspreads, tapestries. On dark nights, by the light of oil lamps, the wandering Bhopas sing the ballad of Pabuji, who brought camels to Rajasthan.

Many communities rear the camel in this state, but the animal shapes the identity of one particular caste: the Raikas.

In their charming creation story, Parvati created the camel and to tend it Siva created the Raika. For centuries, the daily routine of the colourfully-turbaned Raika men revolved around their dromedaries’ needs. They knew every animal by name, footprint, genealogy and temperament. They treated their wounds and ailments with plant remedies. The Raikas didn’t ride their camels. Instead, they walked great distances, leading their herds to the best foraging areas. When other communities died in great numbers during the worst famines of history, they survived on camel milk. When their daughters got married, they gifted them female camels.

This relation formed over centuries has undergone several transformations in recent times. It is threatened further by a bill passed by the state cabinet banning the slaughter of camels and their export to other states.

Loss in value

The shifts in the bond first began with the changes in the traditional nomadic system of animal husbandry. Traditionally, the measure of a Raika’s wealth was his herd of female camels. He earned his living by selling male calves as draught animals. Buyers used the animals to plough fields, pull carts loaded with agricultural produce, and turn waterwheels to irrigate crops.

Dromedaries are uniquely adapted to thrive in hot sparsely-vegetated deserts. For nine months of the year, through winter and summer, camels browsed weeds such as Indian globe thistle growing in fallow fields, and grateful farmers paid the Raikas in grain and money for the dung that enriched their lands for the next planting season. When rains arrived and the fields were sown with crops, herbivores were no longer welcome. The herdsmen retreated with their stock to common pasture lands, sacred groves and forests.

Technological innovations and government regulations, among other things, broke this cycle.

Water from canals and deep tube wells irrigated crops year round, so fields didn’t lie fallow. Readily available chemical fertilisers replaced organic animal manure. The Forest Department curtailed access to notified forests. Village commons and sacred groves were badly managed, and after years of over-grazing, they had little forage to offer. The state usurped some grazing lands for the army, and solar and wind farms. The Raikas and their camels had nowhere to go. With poor nourishment, camels became susceptible to diseases and produced fewer offspring.

If the loss of grazing grounds was catastrophic, the loss of market value was the straw that broke the camels’ backs. Farmers replaced camel power with tractors, and electric water pumps drew water. A dromedary-mounted contingent of the Border Security Force that patrols India’s border with Pakistan is said to be the only such cavalry left in the world. Even this may cease to exist as the military has begun to switch to all-terrain vehicles. No one wanted male camels any more. A few continued to give joyrides to tourists, and some graced festive occasions such as weddings. Camels are valued for only one thing now: their meat.

The vegetarian Raikas started to sell adult female camels to cut their losses. Dromedaries from Rajasthan were transported to Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, and even smuggled into Bangladesh. At one time, selling female camels was a crime that was punished with ostracism. Selling the animals for meat was a worse crime, but no one was in a position to blame others. They were all caught in the same dilemma.

Camel numbers fell from 746,000 in 1992 to 498,000 in 2003, a 33% decline in 10 years. Since late 2001, the Raika Herders’ Association and Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan, an NGO that champions the rights of pastoralists, have campaigned for a ban on the slaughter of female camels. Fourteen years later, the state has heeded their call.

The wrong treatment

On March 27, 2015, the state cabinet passed the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Bill, 2015. The bill, banning the export of dromedaries from the state, was drafted to check their declining numbers. However, not only does it slam the door shut on the only available revenue from camels, it deprives many of forage. Every year, Raikas from parts of Rajasthan walk to the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to find adequate pasture.

If there is no way to feed the animals and there is no market for them, how could the Raikas keep their dromedaries? Valued for its medicinal properties, camel milk already enjoys a niche market in local urban centres. Tea shops buy camel milk as a cheap substitute for cow’s milk, paying Rs 20 a litre. The government’s dairy cooperative society, Saras, could create a market by opening a camel milk unit that guarantees a better price.

Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan has developed a range of camel products such as dhurries from wool, paper products with dung, and ice cream and soaps made of milk. The group has demonstrated the possibilities but to ramp up the scale of production requires state support and investment.

Also, notwithstanding new markets for camel products opening up, there may never be space for hundreds of thousands of camels again. According to Hanwant Singh Rathore of LPPS, there are no more than 200,000 camels left now. Despite these problems, the Raikas are adamant that the state should ban only the slaughter of female camels. They insist they should be allowed to sell male dromedaries for meat.

Even if the state rescinded the bill, the biggest problem is lack of forage. The Raikas from Pali district have confronted the Forest Department and petitioned Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje to allow grazing in Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. But the restoration of village commons and sacred groves in other parts of Rajasthan is not an easy task.

If the state was concerned about the declining camel numbers, it has to solve the problems faced by the community of God’s own camel herders. Camels would automatically benefit. Prohibiting camel slaughter treats only the symptoms and not the disease.