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Rajasthan's 'neglected' camel heritage: Will CM Gehlot's Rs 10 crore allocation help?

By Rosamma Thomas* 
In his budget speech, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot who also holds the finance portfolio announced that the state would have a Rs10 crore budget for the conservation of camels. Camel herders in the state have in recent years found their traditional lifestyle harder to continue – pasture lands have shrunk, the Indira Gandhi Canal has allowed local farmers more crop cycles, leaving them unwilling to let the camels graze on their fields. Large road projects have meant that the traditional camel areas have been disrupted, and the animal is now seldom used as a means of transport or in agriculture.
Jodhpur lawyer Rituraj Singh Rathore remembers that as a child he would often ride a camel cart. The carts were specially adapted for the desert, and the discarded wheels of airplanes would be used so that they were light on the desert sand. “We packed our luggage onto the cart and had comfortable rides in them,” he says.
Farmer Anahita Lee in Pushkar remembers that when she built her house 20 years ago, all the construction material was transported in camel carts. She remembers that on the old single roads of Gujarat and Rajasthan, one would sometimes have to stop the car for almost an hour before herds of sheep or camels cleared the way. Large highways and expressways do not make space for such animal traffic. People now use trucks and tractor trolleys to transport material – in the old days, one camel load of sand or stone was called a “chakda”.
Before the large wind turbines came up in the desert sands of Jaisalmer over 20 years ago, camel safaris would head out into the desert. There was a regular stream of foreign tourists to make that journey. The camel safari would halt the night under starry desert skies, and there were ardent star-gazers among the tourists. That use for the camel too ended, as the wind turbines have twinkling lights atop them that rudely disrupt the view of the stars.
Despite all these troubles, there are still camel herding families that carry on their traditional lifestyle. Karna Ram, about 35 years old, says he belongs to a family that has been herding camels for nine generations. He arrives each morning with his camel milk at Camel Charisma, the dairy run by Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan in Pali district, close to the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. This is India’s first camel dairy.
The milk is tested and then supplied to those demanding it. Among the people placing regular orders for the camel milk is Chandrahas Sharma, a therapist in Ambala who says he uses it to help autistic children. “I have been using the milk for over 10 years, and I have seen the changes in hundreds of children,” he says. Regular consumption of camel milk helps in bringing about behavioral improvement in children with autism, he says. 
This is corroborated by author Christina Adams, whose 2019 book "Camel Crazy" records her own experience of raising an autistic son, and using camel milk in curing him. Cure has been reported for other diseases too, including tuberculosis and some forms of cancer. Camel Charisma, the Pali dairy, has been getting a steady stream of enquiries about the milk, and now supplies people seeking remedies for difficult conditions from across the country.
Besides the Rs 10 crore announcement, there are allocations under other budget heads too that camel herders might benefit from: the milk subsidy has been hiked to Rs 5 per litre, from the earlier Rs2; a new insurance policy to cover cattle has been announced; new milk processing plants are proposed, as well as interest-free loans for farmers. Organic farming finds mention under the Rs 5,000 crore Krishak Sathi Yojna. Camel dung has traditionally served as manure, and this scheme too could be useful to herders.
There is also a concern that Rs 10 crore could be used poorly, through supporting the “camel hospital and rescue centre” in Sirohi. Abandoned or sick camels are brought here from across the country, but there are no veterinarians and no funds for medicines. 
What is more, the animals are all penned together and infectious diseases could easily spread. The healthy animals among them do not graze and are stall-fed, and this could cause them too to fall sick. This hospital, run by the People for Animals, should ideally be shut down and herders should be allowed to take care of the animals in the way they know best.
Ashok Gehlot
In February 2022, as this writer visited a camel herd in Pali district, the herders were attempting to get a mother camel that had lost its calf to yield her milk. One herder put his hand into the animal’s rectum and cleared the dung first. Then, neem leaves that were neatly rolled into a pipe-like piece, about a eight inches long, was inserted into the vagina. The vagina lips were sealed, with a bamboo stick that was slit at one end and joined at the other. A rope was tied to hold the stick in place, leaving the vagina lips tightly sealed.
“The animal feels the heat from the neem leaves and later gives up her milk quite willingly. If we have a calf that is not feeding, we can release the calf to this mother, and she often begins to feed a calf that is not her own after this,” explained Hanwant Singh Rathore.
Given that few veterinary colleges offer any special knowledge on how to treat camels, the herders remain the storehouse of the world’s knowledge of camel medicine. In her book "Camel Karma" (now no longer in print), researcher Ilse Kohler Rollefson recalls how she learned of these traditional treatments from herders, but found scholars in Germany skeptical of the ethnomedical practices when she first attempted to make a presentation to them.
The herders, however, are little understood even in India. In January 2022, 58 camels seized in Amravati district of Maharashtra were taken into custody and placed in a cow shelter after so-called animal rights activists claimed the camels were headed to a slaughter house in Hyderabad.
The animals were accompanied by their Rabari herders from Gujarat. The Raika or Rabari herders have tended to camel herds for generations, and they walk long distances with their animals in search of pastures. According to news reports, the fact that the animals were made to walk a long distance was itself seen as an infringement of their rights by the activists who registered a police complaint.
The camels were seized and the herders were forced to cough up the expenses borne on them by the cow shelter. The herders also said that they would lodge a case against the animal activists for making false allegations that they were leading their animals to slaughter. Although the herders had travelled from Gujarat, news reports showed that the animals were to return to Rajasthan, according to the orders of the local court.
On July 13, 2020, the state government had announced that it would set up a three-member committee, comprising the ministers of animal husbandry, dairy and forest departments, to frame a policy for the conservation of the state’s camels. It is heartening that the state government is beginning to heed the camel herders, who have struggled to make their voices heard.
---
*Freelance journalist based in Kerala

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