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Pastoralism: hidden in the Himalayas

Cattle fair at Gasota Mahadev, Himachal Pradesh (HP Harmirpur)
Cattle fair at Gasota Mahadev, Himachal Pradesh
HP Harmirpur

Amongst spectacular white peaks and fast flowing blue rivers, the state of Himachal Pradesh lies in the North western Himalayan region. The landscape, 10,000 feet above sea level, is marked with mountain passes, winding among the remotest and most inaccessible tribal areas in the state. Animal husbandry is the main occupation of the Gaddi and the Gujjar tribes in the area for a number of reasons apart from cultural tradition. Plots of land are too small to farm, and there is a lack of infrastructure or irrigation facilities as well as extreme seasonal weather patterns. For centuries, pastoralists have moved their herds over the mountain passes to sub-tropical areas during the winter and to alpine pastures during the summer, in search of quality fodder for their animals.

India has one of the largest livestock populations in the world. Livestock contribute about 25 per cent of India's agricultural GDP. The animals provide local people in isolated areas with buffalo milk, small-stock meat and wool. As well as providing a service, pastoralists use land which is otherwise uncultivable, increasing the amount of land available to an already expanding population. They also rear indigenous animal breeds, retaining rich genetic variety. However, pastoralist systems in India, as in other parts of the world, are under pressure.

On the move

The largest constraint for pastoralists is lack of land for pasture, which is related to their restrictions and in some cases legal exemption from land ownership. In some areas, industrial activities have also reduced the amount of pastoral land available. There is increased competition over scarce common property resource, and some social groups are being excluded from their use. In summer when pastoralists move to alpine pastures, they cause conflict by moving through gazetted forests and National Parks, prohibited for grazing.

During the 20th century, most national governments tried to force pastoralists to stop their migration and reduce the size of their herds to prevent over-grazing. Pastoralists have constantly resisted, as they view livestock as symbols of wealth and as security against unpredictable climatic conditions. But, there is little organisation between pastoral communities because they are always moving, limiting their ability to bargain or negotiate with other institutions, and their involvement in the policy process. As a result they have tended to lose access to land and water resources to other uses like agriculture and industry. The pastoral system has been in deep crisis for decades, compounded by weak governance and political marginalisation.

Kept in the dark

Indian pastoralism is poorly documented, with even the names of pastoral groups subject to uncertainty and confusion, and few detailed descriptions of pastoral systems. Pastoralists represent a sub-sector of Indian society that has received much less attention in comparison with other social groups. Policy makers tend to view livestock keeping as a marginal occupation, giving little emphasis to commercial ventures or opportunities. Despite their significant economic and social significance, there is no systematic study of pastoral systems in the country, nor even informed estimates on how many pastoralists there are. Information about pastoralists is not available at national or state level, making policy formulation difficult. They are generally viewed as an obstacle to development. Government intervention needs to improve access to land, water and fodder supplies, develop models for delivering human and animal services to mobile populations, and to develop efficient marketing systems such as outlets for sheep milk, wool and traditional handicrafts for pastoral women, and where pastoralists are culturally prepared to sell animals for slaughter, sheep, goat and buffalo meat.

Is there a future?

There are ways in which local pastoral communities have adapted to changing conditions. They have expanded their herds, and diversified their income generating activities by becoming involved in wage labour or agriculture. They have sought to make informal agreements among pastoral communities, and with sedentary communities, for sharing land and water resources. But, to date there have been no specific national or state policies for the sustainable development of pastoral communities. Attempts made to foster dialogue between representatives of pastoral groups in Rajasthan and Gujarat with national planners and policy makers, or the existence of state-level Pastoral Welfare Boards have not yet effected policy change. Better understanding of the relationships between poverty and natural resources would be of great value to both development agencies and national governments. It would also guarantee that pastoralists are not just a spectacle of the past.

Date published: May 2006


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