Millennium Post

The sinking ship

An overwhelmed Jeevabai rushes towards her daughter-in-law to show a photograph of a camel herd swimming in sea water. Curious, other women of the house in Kachchh’s Laiyari village surround the two. The picture features the Kharai camel – a breed that can swim up to three kilometers into the sea in search of mangroves, its primary food. Jeevabai’s excitement stems from nostalgia. ‘When I was married, my in-laws owned 5,000 of these camels. But now less than 500 are left which have been sent to Aliabet (an island in the Narmada Delta) because there is no food for them here,’ she says. Her in-laws, like most families in Jatt and Rabari communities of Kachchh, are traditional rearers of Kharai camels.

Given the breed’s ability to survive both on land and sea, the Kharai camel is one of the most preferred choices of graziers in the arid coastal region of Kachchh. People consume its milk, while male calves are sold for economic returns (females are not sold because they are considered sacred). A male calf fetches anywhere between Rs 6,000 and Rs 14,000, says Ramesh Bhatti of Sahjeevan, an NGO working on livelihood issues of graziers in Kachchh.

The camel’s unique quality to survive on mangroves has become a cause of its suffering. Due to the growing control of industries in the coastal region of Kachchh and the Gujarat forest department’s rigidity in not permitting grazing in mangroves, the Kharai camel has lost access to food.

The consequence is worrisome. The breed population has declined drastically. Three decades ago, there were more than 10,000 Kharai camels in Laiyari. Now they are just over 1,000, says Pachanbhai Rabari, son of Jeevabai. Breeders in Laiyari send their camels with graziers to graze on mangroves in the nearby Mohandi and Bhagodi Vandh villages. But almost half of the mangroves in the two villages have been destroyed by a jetty constructed by a cement factory, informs grazier Ahmedbhai. ‘The camels now have to swim double the distance to reach the mangrove,’ he adds.

The Kharai camels in Tunda Vandh village are facing a similar fate. Till 10 years ago, the village had 1,500 such camels. ‘There are less than 250 now,’ says resident Hirabhai Rabari. The coastal village falls between two power plants near the Adani SEZ in Mundra. Its direct access to the sea was cut by a canal and conveyor belts built by the companies running the power plants. ‘We had to walk for six kilometres to reach the sea. Many camels died or were abandoned because no food was left due to industrialisation,’ says Hirabhai.

The two power companies recently built an iron bridge over the canal to allow residents access to the sea front. ‘The camels use the bridge to go to the mangroves but there is hardly any vegetation left there,’ says another resident of Tunda Vandh.

Despite growing industrialisation, Gujarat registered a 13 per cent increase in the total mangrove cover between 2005 and 2011. This is because of the aggressive plantation drive by the forest department. The department has categorically refused to allow grazing on its plantations.  Since the Kharai camel has not been recognised by the government as a separate breed of camel, there are no official figures on their numbers. At present, there are just over 5,000 Kharai camels in Gujarat.

On arrangement with
Down to Earth magazine
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