By Saraswati Luhar, New Delhi [India], Jan. 3 : Arjun Ram, 55, lives in a small village called Nakodesar in Lunkaransar, Bikaner district in Rajasthan. His family is a large one - nine daughters of whom four are married, while five of them study in a government school nearby. Arjun Ram lives in a joint family along with his younger brother.
Life is difficult in this region of the Thar Desert. If this family has been able to survive here, it is solely because of the sheep they rear.
"I don't spare any effort in their care. In Nakodesar, there are hardly any green fields. So, I take them far for grazing where I then leave them for even up to two months so that they can feed to their heart's content," says Arjun, with an air of a concerned parent.
But that is not all. Taking care of sheep in this arid region where water shortage is a perennial problem is no mean task. Arjun has to arrange for water tankers to reach the fields where his sheep graze. Water is a precious resource in this hot, dry land. Each tanker is priced at Rs. 700.
Apart from quenching thirst, the animals need to be bathed regularly. "For this I take them back to our village. It's a massive effort but there is no getting away from it," says Arjun with a grin.
"I gain so much from my sheep. I know I have to do this," he adds.
The returns are no doubt substantial. Well-fed and well taken care of, the sheep have become a single source of multiple earnings. The milk from the sheep is more than the family can consume and is sold largely to known people. Then they give wool, which again becomes a commodity to be sold. This reaches the market. Sometimes calves of sheep are also sold. "This fetches us a good price and covers a large part of our expenses," shares Arjun.
But like any parent, he worries. Besides care, the sheep also need protection from anything that threatens their well-being.
"I remember the three consecutive years of drought since 1989. I watched 200 out of my 300 sheep dying in front of my eyes. How it pains me, after all these years.. I just cannot forget that terrible time," he says.
With only 100 sheep, the herd was a shadow of its former self and even amongst these, some were sick. Faced with this grim scenario, Arjun took concrete action. He set out with his remaining sheep towards Haryana in search of literally greener pastures. It was a last ditch effort to save their lives.
Arjun and his sheep have survived to tell the tale. And it is not his tale alone or only that of his generation. From his father's time, possibly before that, his family has survived in this harsh desert region only because of their sheep. In the earlier days, when society still reflected feudal aspects, it was even more difficult for those at the bottom end of the ladder.
The land that Arjun's father had -was snatched away by powerful zamindars, leaving him and his family bereft. There was no support from the government either. And then he turned towards sheep rearing and this has been the mainstay of the family since.
Now, Arjun's daughters are ready to play their part. Already they have taken up so many tasks in the care of their family fortune -their sheep. And this makes their father proud to see his daughters shoulder this responsibility along with their studies. Despite hardships, the family has come through. All of them know that the foundation of the life that they now lead is because of their sheep.
Arjun is living his life in the way he knows best. And he has a message for his community. "There is no doubt that our true friends are plants, animals and trees. Through all those times of drought, it is our animals that saved us. We drank their milk and because of that we are alive."
We live in times when the delicate balance between human beings and all other life forms on earth has come under severe strain. Yet we have not woken up to the imperative of conserving our natural resources; to 'care for other beings'.
According to the Charkha Development Communication Network, Arjun's life holds up a message to us, a mirror to our beleaguered world.