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At Kochi dairy conference, a glimpse of pastoral nomadism in Rajasthan

By Rosamma Thomas* 
The International Dairy Federation’s first regional conference for the Asia Pacific region was held in Kochi from June 26 to 28. The National Dairy Development Board and the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying were part of the organizers of this conference. On June 28, the conference witnessed a presentation by Ilse Kohler Rollefson, ‘Streamlining markets for camel pastoralists.’ Rollefson, who arrived in India as a researcher in 1991, stayed on in Sadri, Pali district of Rajasthan, working among the Raika to create a market for camel milk so the traditional lifestyle of the Raika can be conserved.
Rollefson detailed how 2024 has been declared by the UN as the International Year of Camelids (mammals of the Camelidae family, with padded two-toed feet and a cleft upper lip, including, besides camels, llama, alpaca, guanaco and vicuna). Camelids are key to the livelihood of millions of households across 90 countries, the UN notes, and aid in mitigating extreme poverty. The animals yield milk, meat, and fibre, and serve as a means of transport. The Food and Agriculture Organization noted that the involvement of women in the work of producing camelid fibres is relatively high, and promotion of their work would be one way to empower women from these communities. Camelids can also promote the sustainable use of ecosystems, helping to combat desertification. They could reverse land degradation and stem the loss of biodiversity.
While in developed countries the dairy industry has now become capital intensive and highly mechanized and industrialized, in developing countries like India the bulk of milk production is still done in small farms. The nomadic pastoralists are among the most ecologically friendly dairy producers in the world, walking long distances with their animals and allowing the animals they herd to choose their diet from among the vegetation they encounter on their walks – the long walks keep the animals healthy, and the relationships between the traditional pastoralists and their animals are akin to that of close companions. In her book "Camel Karma", Rollefson notes how she was initially struck that even children roamed among herds of camels that the Raika tended, with no fear. The animals too were well integrated into human society. 
In her presentation at the conference, Rollefson noted a few principles that guide her work among the Raika pastoralists of Rajasthan:
1.     No stall feeding – the Raika continue a traditional nomadic system, where their animals graze on natural vegetation
2.     The camel calf is not separated from its mother, and continues to suckle at her udders. The Raika allow the calf to drink, and take milk from the mother after she is relaxed and has fed her baby.
3.     Milk that is bought at the dairy in Kumbhalgarh, Rajasthan, is from herders registered with the dairy.
4.     Traditional knowledge and modern hygiene practices are combined
This mode of operation is good not only for human health, but also for the animals and the community that depends on the camels for their livelihood, and the ecology. The practices are sustainable, and the camels foster greater fertility in fields in the area as their dung is a source of nutrients for soil. There are also weeds that grow in fields left fallow, with huge thorns and are difficult for farmers to remove – the camels munch on these, and their milk is considerably sweeter when they have fed on the oont khantalo, for instance, a plant with large thorns.
The animals move in herds, and mothers are not separated from their young – this allows the animals to retain their natural social behavior. They walk long distances, which keeps them healthy, unlike stall-fed animals that often are tethered so close to each other that they can barely move. The senses of the animals are stimulated by being in a natural environment and walking relatively freely, and they also get to choose which plants they might want to nibble on – the Raika have recorded about 36 species of plants that the animals feed from, many of which have medicinal properties and are used in Ayurvedic remedies.
Among the Raika, the traditional belief is that Lord Shiva created them to care for camels. Traditionally, the Raika would not sell camel milk, and instead give it away free to anyone needing it. Meat of the animals was never eaten, and male camels were sold as draft animals. It took a protracted legal battle that went all the way up to the Supreme Court for the government to acknowledge that camel milk is fit for human consumption and introduce standards for commercial sale of camel milk. The milk has been commercially available since 2016.
Pastoral nomadism is one way to create useful products with almost no inputs from the market at all – the animals feed on natural vegetation in areas where they graze, and healthy animals do not need expensive inputs before they produce milk. There is no dependence on antibiotics or unnecessary drugs, and the milk is thus healthy – the fact that the animals feed on plants that are part of Ayurvedic pharmacology imbues the milk with medicinal quality; it is easier to digest than cow milk, and has more iron; it contains Vitamin C, rarely found in milk. Children with autism, patients of TB, diabetes and cancer, have all recorded benefiting from prolonged consumption of camel milk. 
Although pastoralists still exist in other southern states in India, Kerala has no pastoralism at all – the average Malayalee appears also to have an image of the pastoralist as somewhat barbaric, evidenced in the recent film "Aadujeevitam" (Goat Life), depicting the tale of workers from India tricked into slavery in the Middle East.   
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*Freelance journalist 

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