Updated: November 16, 2021 10:56:34 am
Rattiram Raibari absent-mindedly pets a camel decorated with colourful beads and strings before he rues the fact that he has already sent back his own herd of nine camels back to his village near Jaipur, after failing to find buyers for them at the Pushkar cattle fair.
Inside the vast, sandy expanse of the venue where the fair is being held after a gap of two years, most camel rearers and breeders share similar stories.
“Jootiyon ke paise paida nahi ho raha (We aren’t even getting enough money to buy shoes),” says Rattiram, pointing at his pair of shoes.
Faced with a shrinking market, red tape surrounding camel export and sales and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Pushkar fair this year – the state’s largest camel market – is a sombre affair.
A resident of Dhoola Raoji village in Jaipur district, Rattiram and his family members had walked over 200 kms with their herd of 12 camels in the hope of a good sale at this year’s fair. He had to send back his unsold herd a week ahead of the fair’s culmination.
“Of the 12 camels I brought here when the fair started on November 8, only 3 camels could be sold – one female and two young camels. We can’t keep more than one male camel in a herd because they end up fighting and might even kill each other. Earlier, when the camel was not declared as the state animal of Rajasthan, even young camels would be sold for at least Rs 20,000. Now, even camels of good breeds are being sold for less,” Rattiram told The Indian Express.
Around him, camel herders — mostly from the raika and raibari communities — sit in loose clusters, mulling a shaky future and reminiscing about the past when one camel would fetch prices as high as Rs 90,000.
Steering the discussion is Mahant Raghunath Das, the religious leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Raibari Samaj. He is vocal about the loss of livelihood for the traditional camel herding community.
“The Raika-Raibari people are traditional camel rearers. Ever since the previous BJP government in Rajasthan declared the camel as the state animal and made a law prohibiting its transportation outside the state, our livelihood has suffered immensely. Earlier, the male camel would be bought by purchasers who would come from different states. That has stopped now, leading to our economic devastation. Earlier, we would sell camels for as high as Rs 90,000, but now, the prices have fallen to as low as Rs 50,000,” says Das.
In 2015, the then Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government in the state had passed The Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act, 2015.
It prohibits the export of camels for the purpose of slaughter and regulates temporary migration or export of the animal for other purposes. According to the Act, only a competent authority — district collector or any other officer authorised by the state government — can grant permission for temporary migration of the animal.
Camel breeders say that the process of getting permission to transport camels outside the state often takes months.
After The Indian Express had reported on the plight of the camel herders in August this year, the Rajasthan High Court had taken suo motu cognisance of the matter and had issued notice to the state government.
According to data from the state Animal Husbandry department, till Sunday, 2,327 camels have been brought to the Pushkar cattle fair this year, of which only 426 camels have been sold — just over 18 per cent. The prices of the camels have ranged from between Rs 18,000-Rs 48,000, the data indicates. The bulk of the sales have been to buyers within the state, with out-of-state purchases making up a negligible amount.
“I brought five camels and out of those only one could be sold. I am struggling to find prices for them. I got Rs 25,000 from the sale of the one camel. It should have been sold for Rs 35,000 if the prices were right. The low prices are because we can’t find sellers from outside the state,” said 60-year-old Gumnaram Dewasi, a camel rearer from Pali district who has come to the Pushkar fair.
A look at the figures of camels brought each year to Pushkar, which is the biggest cattle fair in Rajasthan, shows how the numbers have dwindled over the years.
According to the data from the Animal Husbandry Department, 15,460 camels were brought to the fair in 2001. A decade later, in 2011, the number fell down to 8,238 and in 2019, only 3,298 camels were brought to the fair.
According to officials, the dwindling numbers of camels has resulted in the Pushkar fair becoming a fair mostly for horses.
“The response is better this year because the fair couldn’t be convened for two years. One of the reasons why the prices are low is the uncertainty over whether the fair would be organised. As a result, less animal rearers have come this year, reducing the competition and lowering the price. If we see the trend, over the years, camels coming to the fair are decreasing and numbers of other animals such as horses are increasing. The camels are decreasing after the law prohibiting their migration was passed,” said Sukharam Pindel, sub-divisional officer (SDO), Pushkar.
Back in the fair, Mukesh Banjara holds on to ‘Rajesh’, a camel he has purchased from the fair while Darshan Singh, a man from Moga district in Punjab who is in his mid sixties, shears the animal’s fur with a handheld manual trimmer. He charges Rs 300 for shearing each camel.
Banjara says that the fair this year is relatively better than that in 2019, because since it couldn’t take place for two years due to the Covid-19 crisis, many animals which were to be sold earlier have been brought this year.
“I couldn’t buy a camel in the last two years because the fair was not held. This year I have spent around Rs 1.10 lakh to purchase three camels. I bought them to use the animals for camel rides for tourists in Pushkar. For a ride lasting 1.5-2 hours, we charge around Rs 600. But I don’t know whether the money I spent will be utilised, because ever since the Covid-19 pandemic, foreign tourists, who were our primary customers, have decreased,” says Banjara.
In September this year, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry Minister Lalchand Kataria told the state Assembly that 84.43 per cent of total camels in the country are found in Rajasthan and in the last thirty years, their population has consistently decreased.
The minister had said that in the next Assembly session, a government committee has decided that some amendments will be made to the 2015 Act to enable migration of camels and to ensure that farmers, who have stopped keeping camels after the law was passed, are encouraged to do so once again.
“Till date, even I don’t know why it was declared as the state animal,” Katariya had told the Assembly.
As per the provisional data of the 20th Livestock Census of Rajasthan, in 2019, there were 2.12 lakh camels in the state, which was much less than the figure in 2012, when there were 3.2 lakh camels in the state.
At the Pushkar fair, the Raibari community head Mahant Raghunath Das has an ominous warning for the future.
“If this difficult situation continues, a time will come when there will be no camels left, the ship of the desert will become extinct. If the law is not amended and we continue to face adverse circumstances, we will have to abandon the camels. Our future generations are already reluctant to follow the family tradition of camel rearing,” says Das.
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