The carcass collectors of Rann

By Ravi S. Jha in Gujarat

Banni grasslands (Indo-Pak border), May 3: Every day Muna Sanya wakes up to bring home the dead. He has to leave before the crack of dawn to collect the bones and flesh of dead cattle and return before the sun is high in the sky. The dry, scorching 46 degrees Celsius heat in the great Rann of Kutch will burn his skin if he does not return before the day actually starts. He has no option for he too will become a victim of the high afternoon heat.

For Sanya and others collecting the bones of thousands of dead animals in villages across Banni, the drought has come as an opportunity not to be missed. He will be helping the Gujarat government conduct a survey on the numbers of cattle-heads dying in the drought, and also be making money out of it. Ever since animals started dying in the drought, the only way to collect the carcasses and get it surveyed has been through people from this Dalit community. While many others are fighting poverty, this community has chosen to earn their daily livelihood through bone collection.

Like Sanya, Arif Rasool, and Cher Ali have become carcass collectors this summer. The vehicles carrying bones from the villages to the district headquarter of Bhuj are numerous. While Arif make arrangements to dump his daily stock on a barren field close to his house, trucks collect carcasses from Ali's doorstep to deliver it to fertiliser units, bone processing and crushing firms.

These carcass collectors from Bhitara, Gorewali, Luna and other nearby areas in the region close to the Indo-Pak border, are a happy lot despite the severe drought affecting the residents of the Rann. Paba Sanya from Luna has made over Rs 25,000 from the nearly 1,000 carcasses he has collected in the past two months. "There is a large number of dead cattle lying in the Rann," he says. "There is huge scarcity of fodder and water. If things do not improve, these animals will not survive," he adds.

Carcass collection has become a profitable business, says Rasool. He gets paid Rs 200 for each animal depending on its state of decomposition. The fertiliser units, skin traders, farmers and others contact these bone collectors and pay them in cash.

According to district collector Kamal Dayani, the maldharis--traditional cattle breeders--have suffered severely with over 8,000 cattle dying in the last two months alone. This region has witnessed the highest number of cattle deaths in Gujarat owing to water scarcity and non-availability of fodder for the animals.

Villages with predominant maldhari communities have witnessed mass exodus, and present a grisly picture. The cattle breeders have migrated to less drought affected areas leaving behind the bodies of their dead animals. Bones and decomposed flesh of the animals can been seen lying in many parts of the Rann.

The stench of rotten flesh does not bother these bone collectors at Bhitara, as they are the only ones who are making money this season. Most cattle breeders have felt that more than the drought it is the lack of fodder that has led to the starvation of these animals. "We have made arrangements of fodder from south Gujarat at Rs 5 a kg," says a Bhuj collector. "There has been a total demand of nine lakh kg per week of fodder for at least 15 lakh cattle in the Rann. The situation will worsen if it does not rain this year," he says.

This region, which has the most number of cattle breeders, has also suffered due to migration of maldharis from other parts of Gujarat. Says Dayani: "Last year there was good rainfall in areas of Lakhpat and Abadasa in the Rann of Kutch due to the cyclone. Though many maldharis moved to this belt they realised late that the cyclone and the good monsoon had filled up the water-holes and destroyed the grass. Thus there was no fodder for the cattle."

Dayani refuses to admit that the large number of cattle are dying because of the drought. "Drought or no drought," he says, "the mortality rate of the bovine cattle is four per cent every year. This time it is no different." However, the cattle breeding communities and bone collectors do not agree to this logic.

While the maldharis continue to loose their animals, the carcass collectors of the Rann of Kutch are making merry when the sun shines.

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