Lean pastures

Drought and a viral disease strike Jaisalmer’s livestock. Kurush Canteenwala finds out how the herders are coping

Published: Saturday 15 May 2010

Lean pastures

It is the week after Holi. We are sitting in Netsinh, a village 65 kms from the city of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Derawar Singh is throwing a daavat (banquet) for he has purchased a tractor. A goat has been slaughtered for the occasion. Netsinh has 250 families, all of whom are herders and have been living there for about 12 generations.

Decades ago, their common ancestor Net Singh decided to settle down in the village that derives its name from him.

Amidst the half-day-long festivities, the conversation revolves around some unpleasant facts. Netsinh is in the midst of drought and an outbreak of a deadly disease that affects sheep and goats. The elders of the village have not seen so many animals die in 30 years.

I am with Girdhari Singh who is a member of Sambhaav, a non-profit that works in Netsinh and neighbouring villages. Sambhaav helps the villagers revive and maintain their traditional water sources. The district of Jaisalmer receives the lowest amount of rainfall in the country—an average of 180 mm a year.

The government declared this year’s rainfall was 30 per cent below average. About 20 to 40 mm was due between December last year and March. Biprasar, a large tank outside Netsinh, has enough drinking water to last the villagers a couple of years but the deficit hit grazing pastures. The vegetation is dry and the chhangein (herds) are starving. The fatal viral disease peste des p etits ruminant (ppr) that affects sheep and goats was always around but this year it has covered 40 per cent of Jaisalmer and is still spreading.

The conversation at Derawar Singh’s banquet meanders towards numbers. Shaitan Singh had a herd of about 80; 25 are dead. Khet Singh had 100 of which 30 died. There is no hara (green) on the lands anywhere. The villagers try their best to revive the animals with a nutritional diet of pulses but in vain . Every year when the crops are harvested in the canal-fed tracts of land, there is enough chaara (fodder) to “pass the time with”—a phrase used extensively by the villagers for getting by until the rains appear. T his year harvesting has come and gone; it made no difference.

The conversation shifts to money. Someone points out that an average-sized goat that sells between Rs 250-Rs 350 today was worth something between Rs 2,200-Rs 2,700 last year. In the neighbouring Hema village, Inder Singh started the year with a herd of 400 and about 200 of them died. He sold the remaining 200 at Rs 250-Rs 300, a head.

From the next year Inder Singh will probably work as a security guard at the nearby limestone quarries. There have been herders in his family for seven generations. Even if he were to start another herd, he would not be able to subsist on it the first few years.

On the straight and empty roads around the village of Ramgadh in Jaisalmer district, the morning brings trucks from the meat markets of Amritsar and Ludhiana, 800 km away in Punjab where the animals are slaughtered for their meat. The coming of traders offers nothing but a mild buffer to the already destroyed economic security of the herders this year.

In the days before the daavat, we had visited numerous herders in the grazing areas around Ramgadh. The normally dry, odourless air was heavy with the stench of rotting animal flesh. Tufts of wool lay scattered across the flat brown yellow plains—a sad reminder of ever-present death. At another village Ragwah, close to the unused vegetable market, 20 sheep died in one night. From herder to herder, the main refrain was ‘ marti jaave (they keep dying)… marti jaave …”.

While walking with the herd in the windy silence, one is struck by what appears as a discreet and hollow cough from some of the animals. These are the ones that will go first. The symptoms of the disease include bleeding from the nose, mouth lesions and diarrhoea. As the animals bend studiously, inspecting the completely dry grass roots, they wobble. The wool on their hind legs is stained with diarrhoea.

Near Mussalmano ki Dani, Momin Khan, a herder was resting on his stick, hypodermic syringe in hand. He was injecting animals too weak to stand up with terramycin. Despite the antibiotic most of them that sit down never get up.

A visit to the animal husbandry section of the veterinary hospital in Ramgadh revealed the administrative problems in dealing with the outbreak. As the young and earnest doctor Vasudev Garg said, ppr is now fatal. Garg, who is responsible for the well being of animals in a radius of over 120 km, has no means of transportation to get to each of his patients. So the burden is on the herder to transport his animals to the hospital. There is a vaccine for ppr but of the 200,000 animals in the region, only 1,800 are inoculated. The vaccine must always be kept at about 4°C until administered. There is inadequate refrigeration at the hospital and no cold storage facility during transportation.

Garg is not authorized to call this bout of ppr an outbreak; another official from some other department has the right to make that announcement to the government. In the first week of March, an information camp on ppr was organized in Ramgadh. The visitors were traders from Ramgadh; the herders were unable to attend as they were tending to their sick animals.

Herders have never been beneficiaries of any state largesse. The deal with the government traditionally has been one of mutual indifference. Jaisalmer, spread over 38,000 square kilometres, has over 500,000 people. Considering the other vastly populated regions of Rajasthan, this number does not add much to the vote bank. After the construction of the Indira Gandhi Canal, the government has provided compensation to farmers when crops have failed. The herders rightly expect their own share of assistance. They have received none so far.

Back at the daavat, the laal maas (red meat) mutton is served amid more conversation. We look into our plates at the piece of stringy meat. I attempt to suck some marrow from a large bone. There is none.

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