Pastoralists at the crossroads

  • 14/12/1993

Pastoralists at the crossroads PASTORALISTS are a vanishing breed the world over. These herders of sheep and cattle have a key role to play in the rehabilitation and sustainable management of fragile ecosystems. India has 34 million pastoralists managing a livestock population of more than 50 million. Apart from producing milk, meat, leather and wool and providing animals for traction and manure for agriculture, livestock rearing earns foreign exchange from exports.

Today, traditional pastoral institutions are being increasingly threatened with mass displacement because of intense competition from agriculture, population growth, herd dispossession and drought. Pastoralism, as a production system and way of life, appears to be fighting a losing battle.

Pastoralism is a highly complex activity, hinging on a fine balance between human population, animal population and natural resources. Though it maintains a reputation as the most complex and formidable of all agricultural and natural resource development tasks, pastoralists tend to be among the least educated and least empowered of rural populations. Pastoralism is at odds with rural agricultural and urban development priorities and pastoralists remain largely outside post-colonial power equations.
Gujarat effect The effect of rapid human population growth and the thrust of agriculture into marginal and unproductive rural land can be seen in Gujarat, a state once covered by a rich variety of semi-arid to arid ecosystems. Gujarat has traditionally been home to several pastoral people, who for centuries utilised the vast grasslands, shrub lands and savannas to graze their livestock.

But an unhealthy intensification of agricultural and industrial production have ensured these rangelands have all but disappeared. Irrigation and improved techniques of dryland farming have virtually overwhelmed the former domain of the pastoralist.

The anomaly of "pastoralists without legal access to grazing land" has become a common reality in Gujarat. Once at the helm of a stable production system, the pastoralists now are constantly searching for new resources from which to make a living, adjusting to new migratory routes and finding alternative markets for their livestock. Little remains but questions: Are Gujarat pastoralists relevant to its present agricultural system? If so, what will be their role in the future?

Pastoral migration in Gujarat originates principally in the Saurashtra and Kutch regions. The rural economy is maintained principally by rainfed agriculture and livestock rearing. The two regions support more than 7.4 million livestock. The Saurashtra region, consisting of Jamnagar, Rajkot, Surendranagar, Bhavnagar, Amreli and Junagadh districts, is semi-arid with modest sources of freshwater.

Kutch district is bordered by two large salt marshes, the Great Rann and the Little Rann and the famous Banni grasslands are located there. The Banni grassland is Gujarat's only remaining semi-arid natural grassland and one of India's largest remnant grassland ecosystems. The Banni still covers about 2,500 sq km, within which there are 46 villages. It is a flat plain about five metres above sea level with saline soils and restricted sub-surface drainage: an area that is predominantly beyond the margin of crop production and administratively protected as grazing land.

The main inhabitants of the Banni are the Maldharis (population about 20,000 in 1987), a community engaged in raising and breeding large ruminants (cattle and buffalo). About 10 per cent of the Maldhari households herd non-lactating cattle and buffaloes that are owned by outsiders: people living in surrounding villages, Rajasthan and even as far away as Bombay.

During seasonal shortages of rangeland forage and crop residues, arising out of the presence of the large number of livestock and the lack of stored feed for landless pastoralists, migration is inevitable for many of the Maldhari, Rebari and Bharwad pastoralists who inhabit these regions. Their destinations are principally the irrigated areas of north and south Gujarat.

Scattered populations of pastoralists are found across rural north and south Gujarat. These pastoralists, who are mainly Rebari and Bharwad cattle-keepers, are very often integrated into village livestock production systems or rely seasonally upon forest grazing.
Livelihood imperilled Some groups of Bharwads and Maldharis have depended principally on forest grazing. But these pastoralists now find it difficult to maintain their livelihood because renewed interest in forest protection, afforestation and conservation of wildlife habitats has restricted their access to these areas.

Another group of pastoralists is the Banjaras, who are principally donkey herders. Banjara families generally also keep small herds of goats, cattle and buffalo for subsistence. Though there is not much information on the Banjaras, it is worth noting that they reside, at least intermittently, in nearly every urban centre in Gujarat.

For Gujarat's present-day pastoral populations, agro-pastoral production is the main source of livelihood. This type of production gained importance with the conversion of natural grasslands and shrub lands to dryland and irrigated crop lands over the last century. In addition, during the 1950s, the vast majority of common grazing lands was distributed to the landless under a land reform scheme and at many places, the commons have been encroached upon.

The only common grazing areas that remain are on river flood plains and along roads. Thus, loss of grazing grounds has become a major problem for the pastoralists. Secondly, the intensification of agriculture has resulted in less fallow land. The advent of irrigated agriculture has meant that land available to the pastoralists has suddenly become out of bounds for them. This problem will intensify after the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Besides these problems, a major difficulty the pastoralists have faced -- and still face -- is the misconceived development projects for them. There is a view that the best option for pastoralists now is to settle down, but most projects based on this premise have failed.

Though pastoralists find themselves at the crossroads, this does not mean they are at an impasse. They are fighting for their survival and can draw on important internal assets to guide them along. The challenge for the development community is to ensure that existing paths remain open rather than closed and that new ones be cleared. This will demand new terms of partnership between governmental agencies, voluntary organisations and local populations.

Pastoralism continues to provide a valid livelihood for millions of people and has the potential to continue to do so. But the future of pastoralism depends on the ecological restoration and sustainable utilisation of rangelands, the improvement of livestock productivity and the resolution of resource conflicts in ways that facilitate the integration of pastoralism, agriculture and silviculture.

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