Young Khamri has not recovered from the shock of detention.
“It will take time for him to be healthy again,” remarks Kammabhai Lakhabhai Rabari.
The pastoralist herder is speaking about a young male camel in his herd.
Kammabhai’s hopeful tone is understandable given the extraordinary events of January 2022 when 58 camels were detained by the local police in Amravati, Maharashtra. Although released a month later in February, all the camels showed signs of poor health.
Their herders say that during their detention, the animals did not get to eat their regular diet. The gaurakshan kendra where they were held, is a cattle shelter equipped with feed for cows. “They are open grazing animals and feed on the leaves of big trees. They don’t eat cattle-feed,” says Kammabhai.
So when for more than a month they were forced to feed on soybean and other crop residues, their health declined. When they returned to their five anxious herders in mid-February 2022, their death toll started mounting. By July, 24 camels had died.
The owners blame it on the sudden separation and subsequent shock of their confinement. Four of the owners like Kammabhai belong to the Rabari community; one is a Fakirani Jat. All are traditional camel herders originally from the Kachchh-Bhuj district of Gujarat.
In a cruel twist, the hapless herders even had to pay – Rs. 350 for each camel’s daily feed – for the unsuitable food determined by the kendra . The bill came to Rs. 4 lakh, as calculated by the Gaurakshan Sanstha . The cattle-shelter calls itself a voluntary organisation but it levied a fee on the Rabaris towards the care and upkeep of camels.“It took us two days to collect money from our people from all over Vidarbha,” informs Jakara Rabari, a veteran herder who uses camels for transporting goods. He lives at a dera (settlement) in Sirsi village of Nagpur district and was among the 20 families that were to receive camels from among this lot being transported across central India.
A year ago, a self-styled animal rights activist from Hyderabad had lodged a complaint in Talegaon Dashasar police station against the five herders. They were accused of transporting camels to slaughterhouses in Hyderabad. The Rabaris were camping in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region. Police arrested the five herders at a village called Nimgavhan, which comes under the Amravati district police's jurisdiction. The owners were charged under section 11 (1)(d) of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960 , and the camels were sent to a gaurakshan kendra in Amravati in detention. (Read: Kachchh camels’ custody: ships of the deserted ).
Although the local court immediately granted the owners bail, the battle for their animals dragged on and went up to the district court. On January 25, 2022, a magistrate in Amravati summarily rejected the applications of three animal rights organisations, including the Gaurakshan Sanstha , for custodial rights of the camels. It allowed the application of the five Rabari herders upon their fulfilment of a few conditions.
The herders were told to pay an ‘appropriate fee’ towards maintenance and care of the animals as ascertained by the Gaurakshan Sanstha. In February 2022, a district and sessions court in Amravati, capped the fee at Rs. 200 per animal per day.
It was a relief for the Rabaris who did not have to drum up additional money since they had already overpaid the fee.
“We spent around Rs. 10 lakh on court expenses, lawyer fees, and looking after the five accused herders,” Jakara Rabari says.
It was in mid-February 2022 that the camels were finally handed over to their owners who noticed that they were looking sickly and malnourished. Two of them died within hours of being let off – on the outskirts of Amravati town.
Over the next 3-4 months, others would also fall. “March to April, we could not have walked long distances because of their poor health,” says Sajan Rabari, speaking to PARI on the phone from his campsite in Baloda Bazar district in Chhattisgarh. “In the summers they did not get green foliage along the way to our deras and when the monsoon came, they were so weak that they fell sick and died one by one,” he adds. Of the four camels that he received from the bunch, two died.
In fact most of the camels meant for Rabari communities in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh died either on the way or soon after reaching their settlement camps.
The 34 that survived are still to recover from the shock of their detention.
Khamri is lucky to be alive.
Kammabhai says he won’t use the two-year-old for transportation until he’s completely fit.
Along with the other camels, he is tied to a tree a stone’s throw from where Kammabhai set up camp in January 2023, on a cleared patch in a cotton field. Khamri loves the leaves of the ber tree; he also eats the berries that are currently in season.
The Rabari herder and his animals are camping near Wani, a small hamlet off the Nagpur-Adilabad highway, about 10 km from Hinganghat town in Maharashtra’s Wardha district. The community are on the move across west and central India with their herds of goat, sheep and camel.
The camels that survived the 2022 ordeal are under the watch and care of their owners. Kammabhai hopes that they will likely survive and live a full life – 18 years or so.
“This incident troubled us to no end,” says Mashru Rabari, Kamma’s elder brother and a leader of Rabaris in Vidarbha who coordinated the legal battle on behalf of the community. “ Humko pareshan karke inko kya mila [What did the complainants gain from troubling us]?” he wonders.
They are, he says, still debating if they want to contest the case in the high court and claim compensation.
The police have meanwhile filed a chargesheet before the sessions court in Amravati, but the case is yet to come up for trial. “We will contest the case,” Mashru Rabari says.
“Our dignity is at stake.”