"I am selling some vegetables, but there's not much profit in it. We all are sitting at home, idle, mostly. The local cement factory is running, but we aren't going to work,” Karim Jat tells me on the phone from Mori, his village in Lakhpat taluka of Kachchh district. Karim Jat is a maldhari of the Fakirani Jat community. In the Kachchhi language ‘mal’ refers to animals, and ‘dhari’ means guardian or possessor. Across Kachchh, the maldharis rear cows, buffaloes, camels, horses, sheep and goats.

The vegetables Karim Jat speaks of are those he has obtained from nearby markets and villages – but he’s not getting a decent price for them, he complains. The cement factory is in a township just a few kilometres away – but the lockdown makes it very difficult for Karim and his fellow Fakirani Jats to step out. Besides, the factory already has many labourers – mostly migrants from West Bengal and elsewhere, several of whom have remained, unable to return to their homes. Relations between the migrants and locals have never been the most amicable.

Due to the lockdown, Karim Jat tells me he has missed out on a visit to the Savla Pir shrine near the India-Pakistan border, and the fair held there. “The holy month of Ramadan has already begun. And Eid is less than a month away,” he says, worried. “Eid will be different this time."

The first case of Covid-19 in Kachchh was a woman in Lakhpat taluka, who had returned from an overseas trip. She was taken to Bhuj in March where she tested positive. Lakhpat is home to most of the camel pastoralists.

Soon after the lockdown announcement on March 24, most activities came to a standstill in Kachchh. Camel herders have since faced particularly tough challenges because they live and graze their animals in places quite far away from their homes. Also, the areas they live in are very close to, or on, the border – and therefore marked as highly sensitive zones, governed by ultra-strict security protocols. The sudden lockdown did not give many of the maldharis much time to either return to their villages or arrange sufficient food supplies for their families residing there.

Right now, they say, their animals are okay – since they are stuck out in the grazing grounds. But if the lockdown is further extended, feeding the herds could become a problem. And so could the heat of a fast advancing summer.

In Nakhatrana block, locals tell me on the phone, the police have visited some of the herders in the outlying grazing grounds and given them instructions not to move around. So if the pastoralists attempt to go anywhere at all, it is to their respective villages for rations or any other work. And that is proving difficult, too.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

The lives and cultural practices of the different pastoralist (maldhari) communities of Kachchh – like the Rabaris, the Jats and the Samas – revolve around their animals. Even their songs speak of their herding occupation. Some migrate seasonally (from May-June till the end of September) and a few migrate throughout the year within their own taluka. The lockdown has disrupted their seasonal patterns.

Many, like Gulmamad Jat, another maldhari from Lakhpat taluka, are finding it hard to access foodgrains and other essentials from PDS shops. "We keep our ration cards with us as identity proof,” he says, “but it never helps us to collect our quota from the ration shops, and this happens with several of the families." 

That will happen, explains Ramesh Bhatti, anchor of the Breeding Programme, Centre for Pastoralism, Bhuj. Many of the oont wale (camel herders), he says, work 10-20 kilometres away, near forest land or commons. “They have no contact with the villages or with government. Many of them keep their ration cards in their villages while they are roaming somewhere else… Now there are no buyers for camel milk and other products of the maldharis, so their income has stopped and they can’t buy essentials. They are also scared to go back home as in some villages, they will not be allowed in.”

And while the men in the families are able to ​ consume milk and rotis during their grazing rounds, the women and children back home, Bhatti adds, need food. Mercifully, he says, “some transportation has resumed these past few days. But they have already suffered severe losses.”

In such a situation, hunger is a very real problem. What the government has delivered simply has not been enough. “If a family of eight received 10 kilograms of wheat, how long would they survive on it,” he asks.

Sahjeevan, a Bhuj-based organisation running the Centre for Pastoralism, which works for the rights of the maldharisprepared around 70 ration kits in Bhuj for some of the distressed families these past two weeks. The kits include wheat, cotton oil, moong dal, sugar, onions, potato, rice, salt, spices, coriander powder, turmeric, and mustard – in quantities sufficient for a couple of weeks. “Thanks to them we got our rations at our doorstep,” says Karim Jat. “Based on that, we are surviving as of now, but if the lockdown tightens further, we will face more challenges.”

Of the government’s announcement of a gradual relaxation that will also allow resumption of some farming activity, Karim Jat says, “I hope so – they will have to do it. Or else what will the world eat? Everyone is anxious.”

With some rations arriving, a few are anxious about other shortages – among them is Jat Ayub Ameen, who my friends and I affectionately call ‘Ayub kaka’ (uncle). He is one of the great stalwarts of the Fakirani Jat community. “Yes, I have the rations to survive,” he says on the phone, “all thanks to you good people. But you know what the saddest part of the lockdown is? I am not getting my beedis."

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Jat Ayub Ameen, one of the elders in the Fakirani Jat community, makes a living by grazing Kharai camels within Bhachau taluka throughout the year. But in recent years, loss of grazing grounds due to the destruction of habitat, a shrinking herd size, and other reasons have seen his income fall. He expects the Covid-19 lockdown to shave a further 30 per cent off his income from selling camel milk.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

For the past few years coastal Kachchh has seen a major growth of the cement industry. Some youngsters from Fakirani Jat families in Mori, Tahera and other border villages have found work in a major cement factory as daily labourers. Now, during the lockdown, the factories are shut.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

While men ​of the families ​manage with milk and rotis during their grazing rounds, in the villages the women and children need roti, rice and dal in their diets. The sudden lockdown has put those in isolated border villages in trouble. And several herders who have left their ration cards in their villages while they are on the grazing route are unable to access foodgrains from PDS outlets. 

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Karim Jat lives in Mori village of Lakhpat taluka. Last year, he bought an autorickshaw to shore up his declining earnings from herding. With the lockdown, he says, 'I can’t take my rickshaw out. I am trying to earn my livelihood by selling vegetables'.

PHOTO • Ritayan Mukherjee

Many Fakirani Jats are habituated to smoking beedis and cigarettes, but with the lockdown there is little access to tobacco. Jat Ayub Ameen complains that this is 'very frustrating'.

Left: Pastoralist families receiving ration bags from Bhikhabhai Vaghabhai Rabari, president of the Kachchh Unt Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan (Kachchh Maldhari Camel Herders Organisation). Right: Several Fakirani Jat families have received such ration kits from a Bhuj-based organisation working for the rights of the maldharis. The bags include essentials like wheat, lentils, cotton oil, turmeric, spices, salt and rice. The families say this has reduced the pressure on them greatly.
PHOTO • Sahjeevan
Left: Pastoralist families receiving ration bags from Bhikhabhai Vaghabhai Rabari, president of the Kachchh Unt Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan (Kachchh Maldhari Camel Herders Organisation). Right: Several Fakirani Jat families have received such ration kits from a Bhuj-based organisation working for the rights of the maldharis. The bags include essentials like wheat, lentils, cotton oil, turmeric, spices, salt and rice. The families say this has reduced the pressure on them greatly.
PHOTO • Sahjeevan

Left: Pastoralist families receiving ration bags from Bhikhabhai Vaghabhai Rabari, president of the Kachchh Unt Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan (Kachchh Maldhari Camel Herders Organisation). Right: Several Fakirani Jat families have received such ration kits from a Bhuj-based organisation working for the rights of the maldharis. The bags include essentials like wheat, lentils, cotton oil, turmeric, spices, salt and rice. The families say this has reduced the pressure on them greatly.

Ritayan Mukherjee

Ritayan Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based photographer and a 2016 PARI Fellow. He is working on a long-term project that documents the lives of pastoral nomadic communities of the Tibetan Plateau.

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