The mutton bearing lands of the nation are in trouble.
Guest Post by: Kurush Canteenwala
It is the week after Holi and we are sitting in Netsinh, 8 kilometers from Ramgadh, 65 kilometres from Jaisalmer City, in Jaisalmer District. Derawar Singh is throwing a daavat for the new tractor that he has purchased, and bakra has been cut for the occasion. Netsinh has a population of 250 families, all of whom are pashupalans, ‘animal caretakers’ and they have been in this location for at least 12 generations. One Net Singh, a common ancestor to most of the village, settled here. Amidst the half day long festivities, the conversation revolves around the growing evidence that they are in the midst of both, an ‘akaal’ and a deadly outbreak of disease. The numbers of bhed-bakri that are dropping dead has not been seen by the elders amongst them in 30 years.
I am with Girdhari Singh, a member of Sambhaav, an organization which has worked with these communities helping them revive and repair their traditional water structures and maintain their sources. The region receives the lowest rainfall in the country, an average of 180mm a year. Despite the government declaring a deficit rain of 30% this year, Biprasar Talaab, outside Netsinh has enough drinking water for the next couple of years. However the 20 to 40 mm that are due between December and March, have not appeared at all this year. The deficit is felt most acutely because the absence of rain has meant that none of the vegetation has had an opportunity to revive itself. The chhangein (herds) are starved and weak.
But more urgently, the chhangein are dying out due to a fatal viral disease, PPR. Peste des Petits Ruminant is a disease that affects both sheep and goats. Although found locally, it has been spreading this year across Jaisalmer at an alarming rate. The disease is rampant, covering chhangein over approximately 40% of the total land area – which being Jaisalmer, is vast. From Sam to Mohangarh, over a 100 kilometres, the disease has spread.
The conversations at Derawar Singh’s house meander towards numbers. Shaitan Singh had a chhang of about 80, of which 25 are dead. Khet Singh had a 100, of which 30 are dead. It is common sense amongst the pashupalans that was there to be any rain, perhaps the affected animals would get a chance to revive themselves nutritionally. But for now that seems impossible. There is no ‘hara’ (green) on the land at all. Despite feeding the animals with dal at Sharad Pawar prices, their wealth, their pashudhan is being obliterated. Some are of the opinion that once the harvesting of crop would happen in the canal-fed lands, there would be enough chaara for ‘timepass’ – a phrase used extensively amongst them, indicating a getting by; till mother nature sends rain. The harvesting has come and gone; it has made no difference.
The conversation goes to money. Economically, this year will be transformative to the lives of many pashupalans. On the dead straight and empty roads around Ramgadh, the morning brings trucks from the meat markets of Amritsar and Ludhiana, 800 kilometres away, where the animals become mutton. But the coming of traders bearing money offers nothing but a mild buffer to the already destroyed economic security of the pashupalan.
Today, a bakra sells for anywhere between Rs 250 – Rs 350. Contrast this with last year, when an average sized bakra was selling for Rs 2200- Rs 2700 and one gets a sense of how free markets work. In neighbouring Hema, Inder Singh started the year with a chhang of 400. 200 of these died. He sold the remaining 200 at Rs 250 - Rs 300 a head. From next year, he will probably work as a security guard at the limestone quarries nearby. There have been pashupalans in his family for seven generations. Even if he were to start another chhang after the rains, he would not be able to subsist on one for a few years.
In the days before the daavat, we had visited numerous pashupalans in the grazing areas around Ramgadh. The normally dry, odourless, pristine air hung heavy with the smell of decomposing animal flesh. Amidst the smell, were intermittent tufts of wool scattered across the flat brown yellow; fluffy reminders of what increasingly seemed to be ever present death.
At Ragwah, close to the unused sarkari mandi, 20 sheep lay dead, all in one night. From pashupalan to pashupalan, the main refrain was ‘marti jaave… marti jaave…”. While walking with the chhang, in the wind wrapped silence, one is struck by the polite, and to human ears, discreet, hollow cough emanating from some of the animals. These are the ones that will go first. PPR symptoms are bleeding from the nose, mouth lesions and diarrhea. As the chhang bends studiously, inspecting the completely dried grass root, the affected trail behind the already weakened. They wobble, and the wool on their hind legs, is stained with diarrhea.
Near Mussalmano ki Dani, Momin Khan, a pashupalan was resting on his stick, hypodermic syringe in hand. He was shooting terramycin into those animals who had sat down, and were too weak to even get up. Despite the antibiotic, most of them that sit down, sit down once and for all.
A visit to the Animal Husbandry Vibhag Hospital in Ramgadh revealed the administrative problems behind this outbreak. As the young and earnest, Dr Vasudev Garg reveals, PPR is now fatal. There is a vaccine however, that has to be administered after Diwali, but the logistics behind the dispersal of this vaccine meant that of the roughly 2 lakh animals in the region, officially a mere 1800 were inoculated. Dr Garg, who is responsible for the well being of these animals in a radius of over 120 kilometres of driving area, has no means of transportation. So getting the animals vaccinated entails the pashupalan hiring transportation for the chhang, and bringing it to the hospital. The vaccine is to be kept at 4 degrees Celsius but there is inadequate refrigeration at the hospital; and none at all to actually transport the vaccine into the affected areas.
The conversation at the daavat turns to compensation. Pashupalans have never been beneficiaries of any state largesse. The deal with the government traditionally has been one of mutual indifference. The population of all of Jaisalmer is about 5.5 lakh people. Spread over 38,000 square kilometers. Hardly an effective vote bank community, for our version of democracy. But in the last few years, with the coming of the Indira Gandhi Canal, compensation has been doled out to farmers when crops have failed. With this all out epidemic, the pashupalans rightly feel that they are due assistance in some way.
Dr Garg is not authorized to call it an outbreak; another official of another department has the right to make that announcement to the government. In the first week of March, an information camp on PPR was being organized in Ramgadh. The attendees were local tradespeople from Ramgadh; the pashupalans were at their govadis with their animals.
Back at the daavat, the laal maas mutton is served amidst more conversation. We look into our thali at the small stringy meat. I attempt to shake out some marrow from a large bone. There is none to be found.
(Kurush works as a Fellow with Sambhaav's Leadership Programme)