How pastoralists in Kutch respond to social and environmental uncertainty

A Kharai camel stands with factory chimney stacks behind it on the horizon.

The TAPESTRY project is working in three different ‘patches’ across India and Bangladesh, creating opportunities for interactions with communities in marginalised environments to co-produce transformative change in sustainable development. In this blog post, Lyla Mehta (IDS), Mihir Bhatt (AIDMI) and Pankaj Joshi (Sahjeevan) introduce the research that TAPESTRY is undertaking together with the Kutch camel breeder association Kutch Unt Ucherak Maldhari Sangathan (KUUMS).  


Kutch is a dryland in the state of Gujarat in western India. The second largest district in India, it was until 1950 a small princely state with its own calendar and new year. It is a very diverse district in terms of culture and religion, and boasts a high degree of religious tolerance and syncretism.

The district’s ecology is crucial to the livelihoods it supports. Kutch is described as ‘arid to semi-arid’, but has a wealth of ecosystems within its borders, including seasonal wetlands, thorn forests, grasslands, deserts and a long coast with lush mangrove forests.

The ecology has always made life uncertain due to the variable water supplies,  and erratic rainfall. In the past decades, Kutch has been increasingly confronted by climate-related uncertainties. Coastal areas, in recent years dotted by jetties built by industries, are the worst hit by the sea-level rise, cyclones, storm surges and erosion partly linked to climate change. These are affecting the livelihoods of coastal communities such as fishers, farmers and pastoralists.

How do the pastoralists of Kutch deal with uncertainty?

We have been working with pastoralists in Kutch to understand what they make of uncertainty and how they’re responding to it. Pastoralists here are attuned to living with the uncertain rhythms of nature. Water scarcity and droughts have always been a part of life in Kutch, and the pastoralists have drawn on their knowledge and experiences to live with the uncertainties that they bring.

But recent years have brought further threats, as climate-related uncertainties have combined with wider changes to the economic and social fabric of Kutch. These have helped to marginalize herders and threatened their livelihoods. Climate change has led to changes in drought patterns and a high burden of livestock diseases due to increased temperatures. And hostile state policies, along with growing resentment towards pastoralists, have also made many pastoralists give up entirely, in favour of settled agriculture or migrant labour.

This marginalization is regrettable, because pastoralism could actually offer a more viable livelihood option to the people of the region than agriculture (especially irrigated agriculture). Kutch’s dry climate and shallow soils allow a range of indigenous grasses to flourish despite little and variable rainfall – which makes pastoralism a good way of producing food, compared to more rain-dependent farming.

History bears this out. Since ancient times, the livestock-based economy has always been one of the most important sources of livelihoods in Kutch, and the district is known for its livestock and distinct indigenous breeds.

For example, the Kharai camel is unique to Kutch: it’s the world’s only swimming camel, and can thrive in both marine and desert environments. The diet of Kutchis is rich in milk products, and it is common for Rabari and Jat herders to survive for weeks on end on camel milk and millet bread during their long migrations around Gujarat. This has given rise to the saying, ‘Milk, like sons, can never be sold’, which (apart from the gender politics) suggests how important dairy products are in everyday life.

How economic changes have transformed Kutch

Recent economic developments have transformed the landscape in which the camels and their herders roam. Until the late 1990s, Kutch was considered the backwater of the prosperous state of Gujarat and a ‘punishment post for the bureaucrats’, due to its distinct geography and perceived remoteness. It was also systematically neglected by the mainstream Gujarati political elites based in Gandhinagar, the state capital.

However, after a huge earthquake in 2001, with its epicentre in Kutch, the isolation was broken. Kutch’s economy, nature and society were rapidly reconfigured along new capitalist and neoliberal trajectories. Tax holidays, industries, special economic zones and ports emerged all over the district. They made it more difficult for many who lived off the land, restricted the access of coastal dwellers (including fishers, pastoralists and farmers) to vital coastal resources, and changed herders’ access to traditional grazing corridors.

While money has flowed into the district, it has led to new inequalities and done little to improve education, caste equity and gender justice for its poor rural populations. Literacy levels also remain low among ‘transhumant’ pastoralists – those who relocate themselves seasonally.

The rapid development has affected mangroves too. India’s western coast has the country’s second largest concentration of mangroves. But industrial and port activities since the 2001 earthquake have led to the appropriation of mangrove lands by both industrial and conservation activities.

These have threatened and displaced the livelihoods of resource-dependent communities, primarily the Rabaris and the Jat camel herders. The mangroves are the main source of fodder for Kharai camels and constitute about 70 percent of their diet. According to discussions with herders, the mangrove diet is what improves the health and quality of camel milk. This is also what allows it to be kept for longer and makes it sweeter than milk produced from camels browsing on terrestrial trees.

Mangrove destruction: who is responsible?

Kharai camels swim with pastoralists out to mangrove islands called bets. In the wet season, they can stay for months on end on their own on the bets, surviving by eating mangrove leaves and drinking water from depressions on the islands. When these are depleted in the dry season, they can survive for about three days without fresh water and then return back to land. The grazing routes change according to the season, and the camels are constantly on the move.

Woman with camel
Maldhari (herder) with camel. Photo: Sahjeevan

We have been told in many discussions that it is the camels that decide when to move out of a grazing land, and the herders follow the animals. But these natural rhythms and traditional grazing routes have been blocked, due to large-scale industrialisation in coastal areas. Conservation is also playing its part: conservation efforts have fenced off coastal areas from grazing activities, based on the contested assumption that camel grazing is harmful for the mangroves and mangrove plantations.

Who is to blame for mangrove destruction, then? While there is a great deal of evidence that points to rampant destruction of mangroves by industries and powerful corporate players, camel herders are often blamed. Camel grazing is also referred to as a ‘bad habit’ by the scientists who believe that camel’s saliva is harmful for the mangroves and that their trampling arrests the growth of seeds.

But these claims are disputed, scientifically unproven, and vehemently contested by the pastoralists who argue that camels have lived and grazed in the mangroves for centuries, and happily co-existed with them. They also maintain that camels actually help in regenerating mangroves, because their hooves press the seeds deep into the soil and help with germination – and also make ‘micro-catchments’ for new saplings to grow.

There is clearly a dispute between the perspectives of some professional scientists, and those of local herders, and more research is needed. It is also unfortunate that industries and corporate groups are not blamed in the same way for their destruction of the mangroves. Through a combination of social science, ethnographic and natural science research, we hope to investigate these debates during the life of the TAPESTRY project.

Camels and the identities of herders

Whatever the scientific debates, camels are a very important part of life for some groups in Kutch. In several historical accounts such as Westphal-Hellbusch and Westphal’s study on Jats in Pakistan, Fakirani Jats have been admired for their camel-breeding skills, and Jats associate their identity with camels.

Traditionally, a group of families related to each other would keep about 400–600 camels and wander with them. A few elders knew the history and characteristics of every camel in the herd. Each herd also has sacred female camels (locally called Matameri by Rabaris and Pirani by Jats), whose milk was traditionally never sold. In the past, camels were in demand for transport purposes, and camel manure was also appreciated by farmers for their fallow fields.

But times have changed. Since camels are no longer used as draught animals and irrigation has led to a decline in fallow fields, the demand for camels has gone down significantly over the past decades. As access to land has decreased too, many herders are now seeing their very identity – long bound up in camel breeding and herding – under threat. As one eloquently put it: ‘What is a Jat without the camel?’

These are critical times for Kutch. There is a growing interest in India and beyond in the Kharai camels, their milk and indigenous breeding efforts. At the same time, industrial development and climate change are creating new combinations of uncertainties. Our research is exploring how alliances between pastoralists and community-based organisations can address these uncertainties, and work towards transformation that is led from below.

Opportunities and challenges for Kutch’s pastoralists

Our research is taking place in two Jat villages in the Abdasa region of western Kutch close to the Pakistan border. The research is being co-produced with the NGO Sahjeevan and the local community association of camel breeders (KUUMS). Thanks to their efforts, Kharai camel breeding has seen a revival in Kutch. Sahjeevan, together with government actors and milk dairies such as Amul and Sharad, is working to open up new markets for camel milk. There is a growing niche market for the milk in cities, as it’s considered to be very healthy; some studies have suggested that insulin levels in camel milk could help with diabetes.

But there are practical challenges to getting the product into cities, and social challenges from the process of commercialization. In our preliminary research, we have seen that milk production depends on seasonal changes and access to mangrove resources, and the quality of the product may vary according to where grazing happens. There are also challenges in bringing the milk to collection points which are quite far away from the coastal villages and bets.

There are also wider questions around the dynamics and tensions between supply and demand, and regional and local market forces. The relationships between camels, herders and mangroves are changing. Commercial success may bring stresses on the land with increased grazing. And access to the ‘commons’ associated with camels is not straightforward (both coastal resources such as mangroves, and sacred camels in the herd). Finally, the process of making camel milk into a marketable product has effects on people’s identity and wellbeing too – effects which may vary by gender and social group. There will be winners and losers.

Covid-19: a new source of uncertainty

On top of all these many uncertainties and changes, a new source of uncertainty has arisen since we started our research. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Kutch, as it has many other parts of India and the world.

The first case of Covid-19 in Kutch was recorded in Lakhpat taluka, not far from where we are planning our research. Around 30 families with about 500 Kharai camels use the tropical thorn forests and mangroves in these areas to graze their animals. After the lockdown, these families have been struggling to graze their camels. Since the lockdown was declared so quickly, many were unable to return to their villages, or arrange sufficient food supplies for their families who live there.

In lock-down, milk sales have stopped and these families lack the cash to buy essential items for survival. With the help of KUUMS, Sahjeevan managed to trace all the families and provided a kit with month-long supplies with supplies of food, spices and other supplies. Since pastoralists are always on the move and many not have a ration card, they do not get any relief from the government.

But the pastoralists of Kutch have never been passive recipients of changes, and here too, they are asserting their agency, alongside grassroots agencies. Covid-19 thus adds to the existing sets of uncertainties and challenges that we will address in TAPESTRY.

Working closely with Sahjeevan and KUUMS, our research seeks to study and be part of bottom up processes that challenge negative perceptions of pastoralism, and explore how to make it more viable in a context of COVID-19 and its recovery. Our hope is to reframe sustainability debates and reframe dryland dynamics with lessons relevant for Kutch and beyond.


About the TAPESTRY project in Kutch

The TAPESTRY project is carrying out ethnographic research, building on decades of research and practice in Kutch, as well as natural sciences, to look at the relationship between camels and mangroves. The project will also explore how these developments will impact local culture, economy and ecology as well as the trade-offs in sustainability and gender/ social justice.

This project will also look at the challenges and tensions in working towards transformations to sustainability in a way that is co-produced with pastoralist communities in coastal Kutch. It will highlight and document how pastoralists are forging alliances with civil society, government and academic institutions to create opportunities for systemic transformations in a context of climate change uncertainty. Future blog posts in this series will discuss the natural and social science methods and approaches we are using, the choice of research sites, and the emerging findings. 


Further reading

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for your very informative update. I wish you the best in your future field work on this important subject.

    A quick question, if I may: Given so much marginalization documented over such a long period, have the pastoralists in your study area declined both in numbers and in livelihoods?

    1. Dear Emery Roe,
      Thankyou for your question!
      Yes, the number of camels and herders are declined since we started works with them, and livelihood opportunities are also very less, since, their animals are not sell for transportation or other purpose as early they used. In addition, the camel milk is also not recognized as food item, so, they are not supposed to sell milk also; and hence, many young pastorals are left this traditional livelihood and started some other occupation like working in industries, taxi driver, daily-wage labor etc. But, since, milk economy is started and mainstreaming their milk collection through Govt. and Pvt. dairies in Kachchh, many young pastorals are now started again keeping some animals and comeback to their traditional livelihood.

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