Pastoralists’ Silent Battle for Survival

Unlike in other countries, where pastoralists get organized on tribal or territorial lines; the majority of Indian pastoralists are integrated into the Hindu caste system. This very fact leaves problems associated with their economic activity somewhat unnoticed.

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Pastoralists migration

An estimated 35 million pastoralists in India are spread across various states, with their identities shaped by land topography, climatic conditions, religion, culture and most importantly ‘animals’, which are their most prized possessions and companions. Pastoralists’ lives are shaped by two aspects: animals, they rear in return for the animal products that form the backbone of their subsistence, and the seasonal migration undertaken in search of pastures.

Though spread throughout the world, pastoralism is chiefly concentrated in northern and eastern Africa, the countries in the middle-east and the central Asian steppes. Distinct among the pastoral groups are the Bedouins of North Africa and the Middle-East; the Berbers of North Africa; the Maasai of East Africa; the Tuvans of Mongolia and Russia. The pastoralists in India are chiefly spread across the arid and semi-arid regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat; the alpine and sub-alpine regions of the Himalayas; while a few pastoral groups, such as the Dhangars, Kuruba and Kuruma are found in the Deccan region of India. The Indian pastoralists have a distinct feature, that is, they are integrated into the Hindu caste system, whereas the pastoralists all over the world are organized on tribal and territorial lines.

Although animal husbandry forms the backbone of their subsistence, to enhance their incomes, they also take up other economic activities such as farming, handicrafts, trading and transport. For instance, the Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh and Gujjars of Northern India make handicrafts; Bhotiyas of Sikkim and Changpas of Ladakh are involved in trade along with rearing animals.


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Pastoralists migrate to places on the basis of seasonal changes. Those inhabiting the Himalayan mountains travel to higher altitudes in the summer months. After the monsoons, when the temperature starts to drop, they move to low-lying Himalayan foothills in search of pastures. Similarly, owing to the arid and semi-arid conditions, with annual precipitation of 100–600mm, pastoralism is the main economic activity in the Thar Desert in north-western India. The pastoralists of higher altitudes undertake vertical migration, while those in arid and semi-arid regions undertake horizontal migration.

Pastoralists face a number of problems. Their integration into the Hindu caste system overlooks their distinct problems arising out of their migratory lifestyle.

Nomads in Gujarat

Almost all the pastoral groups in India: the Ahirs of North India, Bharwad of West Bengal, the Charans of Gujarat, Dhangars of Maharashtra, Gollas of Andhra Pradesh and Kurubas of Karnataka have been subsumed in the Hindu caste system. The exceptions are Bhutias of Sikkim and Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh, who are recognized as Scheduled Tribes; and the Bakarwals of Jammu & Kashmir, Muslim Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh and Ranghars of Northern India, who follow Islam.

In India, villages form the fundamental units of our society, where agriculture is the primary activity. This ailing sector employs about 263 million people according to the Census 2011, including both the cultivators and agricultural labourers; it also contributes 15.9 per cent to India’s overall GDP. The huge numbers overshadow the issues faced by the pastoralists living in India’s many villages.

Diminishing pasturelands due to the burgeoning human and animal population, leading to immense pressure on the land, is another trouble faced by the pastoralists. India accounts for 2 per cent of the world’s geographical area, that houses 17.1 per cent of the world’s human population and about 15 per cent of the world’s livestock population. Overgrazing by animals on the limited land resources leads to contraction of the pasturelands available to them. Converting pasturelands for agriculture, industries and infrastructure are other reasons for the diminishing land resources available to the pastoralists and the animals that they rear. According to a report in Down to Earth, pasturelands in India have diminished by a quarter, from 13.97 million ha in 1960–61 to 10.44 million ha in 2002–04. Also, land degradation in rural settlements is effected more by agriculture than pastoralism; yet, the pastoralists have to face its brunt on account of diminishing land resources, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Climate Change is acting as a silent killer for the subsistence of already impoverished pastoralists. Recurrent droughts in the arid and semi-arid regions of western India leaves pastoralists such as the camel-rearing Raikas of Rajasthan with very limited resources. Similarly, the Gujjars and Bakerwals of Jammu & Kashmir migrate to upper altitudes for summer pastures. They cannot follow their traditional migration pattern due to prolonged snowfall and the associated low temperatures that leads to diminished pasturelands, because of which a number of their animals perish. Temperatures in the foothills of Himalayas rise earlier due to which the pastoralists move to higher altitudes, where they find that the condition is still not suitable.

Milking of Yak, Ladakh

Pastoralists face a wide range of socio-economic problems as they form the poorest, least educated and empowered groups in a rural society. Their socio-economic plight has been the least documented owing to their migratory lifestyle; the unconventional property owned by them, that is, animals and their dispersed habitations. Those assimilated in the Hindu caste system are not as disadvantaged as the disadvantaged castes. An example being that the Raikas and Rabaris of Rajasthan and Gujarat have the Other Backward Caste (OBC) status that makes them eligible to the various caste-related incentives.

Cow vigilantes (Gau Rakshaks) are acting more and more as a threat to cattle-rearing pastoralists. They on several occasions have threatened them on the suspicion of cattle smuggling. But, at the same time, cattle smuggling and killing are prevalent in rural and suburban areas. Pastoralists also face many situations while moving from one place to another such as the threats and violence from cow or goat smugglers too.

All these issues are further aggravated by the government’s attitude towards pastoralists. They face political marginalization owing to their migratory lifestyle along with a small and dispersed population. This is the reason that they are unable to have any impact on political decision-making. Government policies and social security incentives are targeted at the settled people and incompatible with the migratory lifestyle of the pastoralists. There isn’t any government policy at present that specifically deals with the issues faced by them. Ministry of Agriculture deals with livestock and the Ministry of Environment deals with pasturelands; yet, no synergy between the two leading to a coordinated strategy to redress the grievances of the poor pastoralists is visible. Through the Operation Flood, undertaken by the National Dairy Development Board with late Dr Varghese Kurian, which transformed India from a milk deficient country to the largest milk-producing nation in just three decades, the cattle rearing pastoralists were benefitted. However, the major share of the benefit went to farmers and not the pastoralists.


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Then, the peculiar relation between biodiversity conservation and pastoralism is a unique issue faced by Indian pastoralists. The government regulates and restricts their movement in protected and reserved forests for the purpose of biodiversity conservation. With diminishing pasturelands, restrictions on forest resources leave them with scarce resources for survival. In many cases, the government has declared land inhabited by pastoralists as protected, thus dispossessing them of their scarce resources. For example, the Great Himalayan National Park, located in the Kullu region of Himachal Pradesh, was ‘notified’ by the state government in 1994, thus dispossessing the sheep and goat-rearing Gaddis of their traditional summer pasturelands. Biodiversity conservationists perceive grazing activity of the animals, especially of animals such as goats and sheep, who consume the roots of plants, as a threat to biodiversity. This is claimed without much research and evidence.

To address issues typical to India’s pastoral population, proper documentation of them is the need of the hour. In the census, they come under the category of Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Caste or Other Backward Classes and not as pastoralists, despite being 6–8 per cent of the country’s population. Lack of rights over their traditional pasturelands, that are the most common lands, leaves them with no resources if the land is taken away for other purposes such as infrastructure development, farming, etc. Many times, they aren’t informed prior to their lands being taken away. Hence, a national policy on grazing lands is necessary. Pastoralists countries such as India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia demanded policy support at the 5-days Asia Land Forum organized by the International Land Coalition in Udaipur from 30th September to 4th October 2019. A 2011 Supreme Court judgement banned the diversion of village grazing lands for other purposes, and if used otherwise, the pastoralists should be compensated. More than 8 years since the judgement, the progress in this regard hasn’t been documented.

Enumeration and documentation, pastoral-centric policies, financial support, grazing rights, a synergy between biodiversity conservation and pastoralism are all that is needed to prevent the economic activity from fading away.

(Photos credit: www.marag.org)