Increased modernisation in the desert state such as roads and tractors has reduced the economic importance of camels
NOT TOO long ago, the Raika community of Rajasthan had rules about doing business with camels. Camels were their prized assets. They provided mobility in the desert; were good draught animals; could survive continuous spells of hot and arid conditions; and, during drought and famine when other livestock perished, they offered nutritious milk. In fact, the Raikas recall that in 1937, when large parts of Rajasthan was hit by a famine, people survived just by drinking camel milk.
One of the rules that used to be followed by the community was never to sell camel milk. They believed this milk, just like their children, was a gift of god, and while it could be shared, it could not be commodified. But this has changed now. The community is demanding the state government to promote procurement and marketing of camel milk.
This demand emanates from the fact that Rajasthan’s camel population is plummeting. From a million camels in India in 1992, it has dipped to below 0.4 million in 2012, says the National Livestock Census. Rajasthan, which accounts for more than 65 per cent of the nation’s camel population, saw their numbers decline from 0.65 million to about 0.3 million during the same period (see ‘Deserted landscape’). “That’s more than a 50 per cent drop in 20 years,” says Hanuwant Singh Rathore, Founder and Director of Lokhit Pashu Palak Sansthan (LPPS), a Pali based non-profit working to conserve camels in Rajasthan. “We don’t have the latest figures, but from conversations with breeders across the state, we believe there are less than 0.2 million left,” he says.
Take for instance, Anji Ki Dhani, a village in Pali district of Rajasthan, where almost all the households belong to the Raika community. With a population of about 1,000 people, this village had over 5,000 camels till around the turn of this century, says Bhakta Ram, a camel breeder. Today, it has less than 400 camels. “We have either sold most of the camels or have not bred new ones,” says the breeder. Bhakta Ram’s family owned over 100 camels 20 years ago. Today he has only 15 left. Most of the Raikas now rear livestock to earn a living. “Our camels don’t earn any money. Why should we breed them?” he asks.
CAMEL, THE STATE animal, is vanishing from Rajasthan’s landscape due to several reasons. One of the reasons, according to Rathore, is that the economic importance of camels has been on a decline with modernisation. Over 217,000 km of roads have been added to the desert state since independence, which has resulted in automobiles taking over camels in transportation. Tractor sales increased by over 400 per cent since 2000, supplanting it for ploughing; and, farmers now prefer synthetic fertilisers over camel manure.
Sale of camels in multi-day livestock fairs, like the one held in Pushkar every November, is an important indicator of the camel economy. Bhanwarlal, a 35-year-old herder from Malari village in Pali district says that it is now almost impossible to sell camels in Pushkar. Earlier, only male camels used to be sold in the Pushkar Fair. Traditionally there were two reasons for this. To avoid fighting between multiple males in a herd, breeders would only take fittest one. Second, these males were used for transportation or agricultural activities and hence had a greater demand, not just within the state but also from the neighbouring states. The herders only kept the females for breeding. But since the last two decades, even female camels are being sold at Pushkar. “About a decade ago, a good healthy male camel would fetch us Rs 20,000. Today, there are no takers even at Rs 10,000. Last year I was offered Rs 500-1,000 per camel,” says Bhanwarlal.
While its importance was diminishing, there was still some demand and this came from an illegal but thriving camel meat market. There were reports of camels being sent for slaughter to Iran and Bangladesh. Though camel slaughter is a taboo amongst the Raikas, they did not question as to who they were selling and for what purpose, especially in fairs like Pushkar. But this income too dipped. “In 2014, the camel was declared as the state animal of Rajasthan. In 2015, the state government passed the Rajasthan Camel (Prohibition of Slaughter and Regulation of Temporary Migration or Export) Act to conserve camels,” says Rathore. One of the provisions of this law is that anybody caught transporting camels outside the state could be punished with a jail term of 1-5 years and also fined Rs 20,000.
This law only pushed its survival into greater uncertainty. Sale of camels dropped, prices crashed. The Rajasthan Animal Husbandry Department reveals the number of camels sold during the fair reduced by half after the law was enacted. In 2013-14, nearly 1,700 camels were sold at Pushkar, which came down to 813 in 2017.
In October 2016, the Rajasthan government launched a scheme called the Camel Development Scheme (CDS) to incentivise breeding. Under this scheme, a sum of Rs 10,000 is given to a camel breeder whenever a calf is born, and it is disbursed in three installments: Rs 3,000 at the time of birth; Rs 3,000 when the calf is nine-month-old; and, Rs 4,000 once the calf crosses 18 months.
N Mohan Singh, additional director of Rajasthan’s Department of Animal Husbandry says that more than 30,000 camel calves were born and 15,500 breeders have been given incentives. But Rathore says that breeders got the first two installments only in 2016-17. Since then no camel breeder has got any money.
A BREEDER HAS bigger problems to deal with: loss of grazing grounds and pastures. “Camels are not welcomed anywhere now,” says Bhura Ram, a breeder from Karnawa village in Pali who along with two others manage a herd of 50 camels.
Camel breeders in the semi-arid part of central Rajasthan, from where Bhura Ram belongs, maintain small herds averaging about 30 camels. These camels feed on trees and shrubs in village pasture lands or forests adjoining their settlements. They would make short excursion of few kilometres from their village to a few neighbouring settlements for short durations. Farmers would often allow them to settle on their fallow lands or on plots just after a crop harvest.
Rajasthan contributes over 11 per cent to the country’s livestock population and these commons feed this livestock. These commons include culturable and unculturable wastelands, groves and permanent grazing pastures. But in the last 50 years, these commons have been reduced by nearly half—from 13.2 million hectares (mha) in 1965 to 8 mha in 2015. Most of this dip can be seen in wastelands which have either been diverted for commercial purposes.
The Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), an advocacy group based in Anand, Gujarat, has estimated that only 60 per cent of fodder requirement of the state is met by the commons along with agriculture, leaving a deficit of 40 per cent. Jagdeesh Rao, CEO of FES, says one of the biggest problems is encroachment. But commons have not disappeared altogether, plenty of land is still available. But factors like urbanisation and mining, especially in revenue lands, are worrying.
Forests make up about 8 per cent of Rajasthan’s total area, but entry of camels have been controlled through fines and fees.
“It is very hard to find food for the camels,” says Bhura Ram. “Grazing pastures have decreased and we have to pay a fine of Rs 100 every time we take the camels for grazing into forests,” he says. “Now agriculture is practiced throughout the year, so most agricultural fields are out of bounds,” he says.
THERE IS STILL HOPE for camels, says Bhura Ram His optimism emanates from the fact that he has been able to earn income by selling camel milk. Every morning, he and his two associates milk the camels. Bhura Ram then fills two large round canisters with milk and ferries it to the LPPS office in Sadri, about 45 minutes away. He earns Rs 60 for every litre of milk. “I earn anything between Rs 35,000 and Rs 40,000 each month,” says Bhura Ram.
LPPS began the micro-dairy as an experiment in 2004. This was not a commercial venture, but was started to provide monetary relief to camel breeders. On February 24, 2019, LPPS formerly inaugurated it as a commercial venture with a brand of milk products called Camel Charishma. The dairy receives anything between 60-100 litres of milk from farmers around Sadri. Their products include pasteurised milk; different types of plain and flavoured cheese; smoothies; and, products made from camel poop and hair. “For long, the government of Rajasthan believed camel milk was not a marketable commodity and treated it as inferior to milk from cows and buffaloes,” says Rathore. But now camel milk is emerging as the new generation superfood. Scientific evidence that camel milk is extremely therapeutic is increasing, says Ilse Kohler Rollefson, author of Camel Karma. (see ‘The next superfood’).
|The next superfood
While Raikas know that camel milk is extremely beneficial for the body, modern scientific research is only now unravelling its secret healing powers. Today, there is evidence that camel milk is beneficial for diabetics. A study by R P Agrawal, head of Diabetes Care and Research Centre at S P Medical College, Bikaner, has found that by drinking camel milk for a prolonged period of time, patients suffering from Type 1 diabetes can reduce their insulin dependence by 60-70 per cent.
Another study jointly conducted by S P Medical College, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi and the Indian Council of Medical Research, New Delhi, has found that though Raikas have a high predisposition to diabetes, they actually did not have this disease. One of the possible reasons attributed to this was drinking camel milk. There is also evidence that camel milk can cure or alleviate autism. Award-winning American author and journalist, Christina Adams, says camel milk cured her son of autism.
Ilse Kohler Roleffson, author of Camel Karma, says camels feed on at least 36 different types of plants. Most of these trees and plants are used in the Ayurveda as medicine and, therefore, the milk is highly nutritious. Camel milk has three times more vitamin C and 10 times more iron than cow milk. It also contains high levels of vitamin B3, immunoglobulin and minerals making it an ideal food for strengthening immunity.
However, the scientific community is still divided. But reports from Punjab give hope that camel milk can be used on a wider scale to treat autistic children. Since 2009, the National Research Centre on Camels, Bikaner, along with Punjab-based Baba Farid Centre for Special Children (BFCSC) have been studying the effects of camel milk on autistic children.
Pritpal Singh, director of BFCSC, says that in 2015 a study was conducted and blood samples of children showed high levels of antioxidants and the children also showed improvements in terms of immunity and other autistic parameters like eye contact and flapping of hands.
But in the late 1980s camel milk became a controversial topic after news began to circulate that it is substandard. In 1999, the Rajasthan High Court ordered that camel milk was not suitable for human consumption because it did not meet the parameters of buffalo milk. The order was overruled by the Supreme Court in 2000.
But it still took 16 years after the Supreme Court judgment for the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) to recognise it as a food product. Part of the problem is that camel milk is quite unlike the milk from conventional milch animals. Its fat levels fluctuate depending on the season, varying between 3 to 4 per cent in the winters, down to 2 per cent in the summer months. Initially, FSSAI used the same standards for fat as that of a buffalo, which is much higher at 5-6 per cent, says Rathore. But in a belated realisation in 2017, FSSAI notified that camel milk that can be sold should have a minimum 2 per cent of fat and 6 per cent Solid Not Fat or SNF.
LPPS is the not the first camel dairy in the country. A private company called Aadvik Foods set up a camel dairy in 2015. Its founder, Hitesh Rathi, says camel milk has found its place among premier food products. “We sell 200 ml of camel milk for Rs 1,000,” says Rathi. “There is demand not just from India. We are now shipping camel milk to Malaysia and the US,” adds Rathi. Aadvik Foods sources camel milk from herders around Bikaner in Rajasthan and Kutch in Gujarat. Each breeder is paid Rs 50-70 per litre depending on the demand. “On rare occasions, when the demand is high we pay even Rs 100 per litre,” says Rathi.
There is no figure of the total milk production from camels in Rajasthan. Even if there was, it would be tiny. But because of its therapeutic properties and its limited quantities, camel milk commands a premium over milk from cows and buffaloes. Herders who sell to Aadvik Foods or those who sell to LPPS, get a premium of Rs 10 to Rs 20 per litre over buffalo milk. Selling milk could become a win-win situation for herders and their camels. It could become the primary income for breeders.
So let’s look at the economics. The cost of rearing camels varies according to whom this question is asked. The costs are very low if the breeder has access to grazing lands or forests. “It could be Rs 5,000 per camel per year,” says Bhakta Ram from Anji ki Dhani village.
Rajesh Kumar Sawal, principal scientist, food and nutrition, at the National Camel Research Centre in Bikaner has broken down the cost of rearing camels under stall-fed conditions. The major cost is fodder, which is Rs 100 per day per camel. For a camel keeper with a herd size of 20, the cost would be about Rs 730,000 per month. Renting a piece of land (about 1 ha) for camels to camp is about Rs 10,000 a year and there are other costs like salt and anti-parasitic oil. So the total cost of rearing 20 camels is Rs 750,000.
But camels bred under traditional systems like that of the Raikas is not as capital intensive. For a herd of 20 camels, the only major cost is medicine (about Rs 10,000 per year). The forest department charges Rs 100 per camel per year when they graze in wildlife sanctuaries. That would mean another Rs 2,000, adds Roleffson.
So how much can a herd of 20 camels earn? The answer lies in the number of lactating camels in that herd. According to Roleffson, generally a third of the camels in a herd are lactating at any given point of time—about seven camels in a herd of 20. The average milk per camel that can be sold is about 3.5 litres after leaving for the calves. Therefore each lactating camel will produce about 1,277 litres of milk in a year or about 8,942 litres a year for a herd of 20.
If this milk is sold for Rs 60 per litre, a camel herder can earn Rs 537,000. If the herder is paid Rs 100 per litre, considering that camel milk is sold at prohibitive prices to the end consumer, the earnings can increase to Rs 894,250. That’s what the Raikas want: a steady income and a bright future for the camel population.
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated MAy 1-15, 2019)
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