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The camels of northern India: keeping the wheels of the rural economy turning

In the softening evening light a camel is bringing in the last load of its working day. Piled high with fodder gathered from crop residues in fields of central Rajasthan it waits to cross the main highway that crosses the state. Today it is making deliveries to stall-fed livestock in the next village. Tomorrow it could be pulling a plough or a cart loaded with building materials. Across northern India, it is estimated that 200,000 people and their families own a working male camel and, with their carts, make their living from providing short and medium distance transportation in large cities - such as Jaipur and Bikaner - in remote desert areas and in the hilly areas of the Araveli.

A camel bringing in the last load of its working day
A camel bringing in the last load of its working day

At the Department of Agricultural Science at Rajasthan's Agricultural University in Bikaner, veterinary surgeon Dr T.K. Gahlot has just completed a study of camel-carting, as it is known in India. "On average in Bikaner a carter can earn about US$3 a day out of transporting vegetables, bricks, gas cylinders and other essentials. It may not sound much but in India that is enough to support a family. In narrow tracks and lanes, where cars cannot go, the camel can. Moreover it is an eco-friendly transport form of transport."

On farm, as a beast of burden, camels can be indispensable at harvest time. A camel can carry a load of up to 300 kilos over long distances and more than 450 kilos over short distances. Other chores performed by camels include threshing, lifting water for irrigation and powering oil mills. The camel is also used as a riding animal; The Indian Border Security Force keeps 1750 camels to patrol the border with Pakistan.

Given the role of the camel in the Rajasthani rural economy it is surprising that the animal is largely ignored in policy and overlooked by development planners. Recently Lokhit Pashu-palak Sansthan (LPPS) - an Indian NGO that has been working with the traditional Raika camel breeding caste to provide camel health care and secure access to grazing - held a meeting of national and international camel specialists at their headquarters in Sadri, Rajasthan. A list of recommendations to government was drawn up to ensure the continued supply of strong, healthy camels. But the greatest threat to the future of the working camel are the problems being faced by the Raika who, since ancient times, have specialised in breeding draught camels to sell. Now that access to many of their best traditional grazing areas is being denied they are reducing the number of female camels kept. The number of camels in Rajasthan is estimated to have fallen by 50 per cent in the last decade.

Safeguarding camels' hardiness

The legendary resilience of the camel means that working camels suffer few illnesses. Sarcoptic mange, the disease caused by a mite that burrows beneath the skin, can be treated effectively by a pour-on insecticide. Trypanosomiasis can be prevented by prophylactic medication. Puncture injuries to the foot, which evolved to tread the soft desert sands rather than litter strewn city streets, are a common occupational hazard, but are eased by prompt treatment. Other infections, especially to the tender tissue in the nose, result from rough handling or damage from the peg used to control or steer the camel. Rachel Wright is a veterinary nurse working with the community animal clinic 'Help the Suffering', which offers affordable treatment to camels that work the streets of the walled city of Jaipur. "We recommend to the carters that they attach leather or rope reins to a bridle rather than the traditional wooden nose peg," she says.

The greatest hazard for camels seems to come from other road users. "Every day we read in the newspaper in Bikaner that one or two camels are dead from road accidents," says Gahlot. "Of course the animal will not be insured and that leaves the owner ruined." While the introduction of insurance schemes is some way off, some district authorities are taking measures such as getting reflectors put on the back of the camel carts to improve visibility.

At the latest annual Camel Fair held just outside the town of Pushkar in central Rajasthan the number of camels for sale was about ten per cent down from what it was the year before. However, there was competition for the best animals and prices were buoyant - between 8,000-15,000 Indian rupees (US$175-350). Many might have thought that the camel cart in India would long ago have had to give way to the internal combustion engine. But there's a growing realisation that there could be plenty of mileage yet in the camel: while those noisy, speeding buses, lorries and cars are all being hard hit by the soaring price of oil, the camel quietly toils on regardless.

Date published: January 2005


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