Nature does not discriminate. In the drought-hit Kutch, all living beings – man, animal, plants – are struggling to cope with its merciless onslaught. A large population of this semi-arid landscape are livestock breeders, or Maldharis, a community that often falls off the picture when drought is mentioned. Left with little choice, they have been migrating to other parts of Gujarat in hordes since last year to look for fodder and water for their animals. In response, the district administration has opened grass depots for cattles and buffalos and offered subsidies on fodder. However, on the fringes are nomadic communities who own goats, sheep and camels and who have been left bereft of any such relief. The animals they own do not feature in the administration’s relief material and these communities are parched – for water and for help.

Thirsty for help

Osmanbhai is one such goat breeder who has been severely affected by the drought. On a hot summer afternoon, as he was walking his small group of 30 goats in the Nakhatrana taluka, he said that he couldn’t imagine being so disheartened ever before. “Five of my goats died because they could not survive this lack of fodder and water,” he said, as a kid nudged him on his leg. “Who do I seek help from? I am just praying that the rains come and the rest of my goats survive this ordeal.”

About 50 km away, in the Tera village, 60-year-old Fakir Mohammad echoes a similar tale. “I have six brothers and we, along with the children and our relatives, make about 50 members. Together, we owned 500 goats and about 1,000 sheep,” he said. Sheep and goat are usually reared for their wool and meat and Fakirbhai said he had a good business. “Until the rains failed us last year,” he said.

“Over the last year and more, I have lost many of my animals. Many died because there is not enough food and water and some we have sold for a pittance because we have no choice,” he said, elaborating that he sold a goat, that would normally have fetched him Rs 8,000, for a quarter of the price, at Rs 2,000.

Fakir Mohammad who owns sheep and goats, is hoping for rains. His troupe of animals has reduced because of lack of water and food and no assistance from the government. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.
Fakir Mohammad who owns sheep and goats, is hoping for rains. His troupe of animals has reduced because of lack of water and food and no assistance from the government. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.

Fakirbhai’s troupe of animals has now reduced to 250 goats and about 600 sheep. Even with the lesser numbers, the financial implications have been devastating for the family. “We spend Rs 1,500-1,600 on buying fodder every second day. If the rains had come, the jungles would have fed them. But with both nature and the government not helping us, we have to fend for ourselves,” he said. Even farmers, who would usually let these animals feed on the agricultural waste after the harvest, are now charging a fee from goat and sheep breeders – “Rs 300 per acre of a harvested wheat field”.

“I am praying that the rains do not disappoint us this time,” he said. “It’s been two years since we have seen proper rains and if it fails us again, I shudder to imagine what would happen to us.”

Not all livestock are equal

According to the Kutch administration’s Animal Husbandry department, the district has 9,58,829 cows and buffalos, and 9,25,175 sheep, goats, and camel. While cattle and buffalo owners can get “grass cards” at the panchayat level, which lets them avail subsidised fodder, this facility has not been extended to other livestock owners.

The district administration, said the Kutch District Collector, Remya Mohan, cannot do much for the goat, sheep, and camel herders because the “government relief material does not mention these animals, unlike cattle and buffalo.” “Hence, we can provide subsidised fodder to the cattle owners (as drought relief) but not to the goat and sheep and camel owners,” Mohan told Mongabay-India.

This, said activists, is a big stumbling block. “If you look at the numbers, the number of goat, sheep, and camels in Kutch is by no means little – even as compared to the cattle and buffalos,” said Mahendra Bhanani of the NGO Sahjeevan which works with the pastoral communities. Neeta Pandya of the NGO Maldhari Rural Action Group further said, “When the government announces package for relief and rehabilitation, it is land based; or when it distributes grass cards and sets up cattle camps, it is aimed towards farmers or semi-pastoralists. Maldharis own little or no land, and there’s no aid aimed at sheep, goat, or camel.” The Animal Husbandry department, on its official website, is in concurrence when it says that “cows and buffalos are reared…mainly by farming community…Sheep, camel, goat, donkey and horse are reared mainly by nomadic tribes of Kutch.”

One theory about the bovines’ higher importance is their contribution to the state’s milk economy, but with camel milk now being marketed by brands like Amul, the gap may soon be closing. However, the present scenario has the camel breeders population struggling.

Socio-economic impact

Kama Vela, one such camel breeder from the Sanosara village near Bhuj said that ever since drought has struck, his camels’ milk-producing capacity has come down to half. “My brother and I own 60 camels and on average, they produce 40-50 litres of milk. Camels need water every day; in summers we usually give them water twice a day. But now there isn’t enough [water]. The community pond in my village has dried up. As a result, the camels’ milk-producing capacity has gone down. Now we get just about 20-25 litres in total,” Vela said. This has obviously had severe financial implications.

“With the dairy market opening up for camel milk, we had started getting good price [for the milk]. Earlier we would get Rs 20-25 for a litre, now we get Rs 50. But with less milk, the money has also come down. The effort to go looking for water, and even fodder, for them, has however increased many times,” Vela said, elaborating how they have to scout nearby villages and ask permission from the Panchayat leader to let their camel have a drink in their village pond.

Kama Vela is a camel owner. With lack of water, the camel’s milk-producing capacity has gone down and lead to financial implications for the owners. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.
Kama Vela is a camel owner. With lack of water, the camel’s milk-producing capacity has gone down and lead to financial implications for the owners. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.

Financially, some breeders have had no choice but to approach moneylenders, risking a fall into the debt trap. Raja Mangal, a camel breeder from the same village as Vela’s, is one of those who has taken loans from the local moneylender. Mangal has 30 camels.

Pankaj Joshi of Sahjeevan said that they had written to the Kutch district administration twice about the urgent need to “make some water arrangements in the 13-14 clusters which fall in the grazing route of the camels”. “The letter was written once in October last [2018], when we anticipated this condition, and now we have again sent it. The Camel Breeders Association had also met the district administration to express their problems and to ask for help, but no positive response has come as yet,” he said. On this, the district collector could only say that “directions are in place for the water supply department to fill the traditional wells from which cattle drink water”.

Highest migration in over three decades

Even with all the government relief, the rate of migration of Maldharis, including cattle and buffalo-breeders, in Kutch has been one of the highest in recent history. “The highest in the last 30-35 years,” said Pandya. The government had declared drought in Kutch in December 2018, but the suffering had begun long back. This, say locals, is one of the reasons for the high migration. The relief had come when a chunk of possible benefactors had already left.

“I have met Maldhari families on the road who said that they have been out of their homes for the past 10-14 months,” Pandya said, “Usually, Maldharis migrate for about eight months during the winters, mainly for fodder for the livestock, and return during monsoon. This time has been exception.” This stress has had a serious impact of the health of the Maldhari families, particularly their children, she added.

“Life is not easy for anyone, for those who have migrated and for those who have stayed back,” Fakirbhai said, “Cattle-owners who are here say that the help is not enough, but I say some relief is better than no relief.” Keeping a close watch on weather-related news – “the rains will come to Kerala on June 6,” he said, referring to the Indian Meteorological Department’s monsoon forecast – whether it’s Fakirbhai here, in this dry part of Kutch, or the others hundreds of kilometres away, all eyes are skywards now.

Osmanbhai with his goats. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.
Osmanbhai with his goats. Photo by Azera Parveen Rahman.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.