Primer on pastoralism in India

CfP defines pastoralism as a practice that involves the seasonally mobile management of domesticated animal herds on extensive grazing, with at least 50 percent of household revenues accruing from such animal husbandry. By this definition, pastoralism does not include intensively managed livestock (such as stall-fed dairies) or immobile households that manage a few animals that might be grazed on village commons, generating a small fraction of household revenues from their livestock.
A rabari herder packing her camel in Kachchh © Smriti Chanchani
Unlike such systems elsewhere, India’s pastoralism is largely agro-pastoral with complex inter-dependencies between pastoral and cultivating communities. Across all pastoral systems in India and to varying degrees, pastoralists are invited by cultivators to pen their animals on fallow fields or ahead of the monsoon (kharif) and/or winter (rabi) crops. While they provide these services, pastoralists graze their animals on both agricultural residue and village commons. At other times of the year, they graze their animals in vast expanses of alpine meadows, thorn forests, mangroves and tropical grasslands or simply along the roadside as they migrate between seasonal grazing grounds. At the heart of Indian pastoralism is the need to access a wide variety of vegetation forms under a range of tenurial categories, including private lands, village commons, forest department managed lands and unclaimed “wastelands”.
Accurate numbers are hard to come by, but there are 10 to 20 million pastoralists distributed over more than 50 distinct communities, with a presence in most states in the country. Indian pastoralism occurs across three broad geographies – the Himalaya, the arid and semi-arid lands of western India and large parts of the semi-arid Deccan Plateau. Animal management follows a very different logic in each of these. Within the Himalaya, herders spend the summers and monsoons at high altitudes, grazing their animals on highly productive alpine pastures. Their winters are spent grazing scrub forests in the Himalayan foothills, and time in between is spent migrating between the two, often over distances exceeding 200 kilometers. Animals are penned on farmers’ fields in the wintering areas. Apart from this, many herding communities own private land that family members cultivate as a separate income source.

In Western India and the Deccan Plateau, pastoral movement is more closely aligned to rainfall events, with herders ranging far and wide during the hot season. During this time they often provide penning services ahead of the monsoon when they return to their home bases as vegetation and fodder is plentiful in the rains.

The pastoralists of the Deccan are dependent on agricultural residue in the Deccan to a much greater extent than those in the arid and semi arid regions of Western India, where there is far greater dependency on the commons. Another key difference is that pastoralists in Western India own little or no agricultural land. They are largely landless unlike their Deccan counterparts who have some land holdings and traditionally practice subsistence farming when they return from their migratory travels in the monsoons.
Fakirani Jats on migration in Kachchh © Ishaan Raghunandan

Opposition to pastoralism

Pastoralism has experienced opposition from the state and from society at large for multiple reasons and over a very long time period. Much of this hostility derives from theories of social evolution in which hunter-gatherer societies have been seen as precursors to pastoralists, who were able to harness the benefits of domesticated livestock, and these in turn were considered to have progressed into settled agricultural communities. In other words, pastoralism has been thought of as a primitive evolutionary stage rather than a resilient form of contemporary life to be considered on its considerable merits. The stability and greater predictability of agriculture-based lives and livelihoods was seen as an evolutionary advance over the variability inherent in pastoralism. A related strand of thinking was that the privatization of the commons grazed by pastoralists would inevitably enhance productivity of these lands since landowners would be incentivized to invest in improving the quality of their lands. Both of these misplaced perceptions were responsible for large scale sedentarization of pastoralists in the north-Indian plains during the late 19th century.

Through the early 20th century, forest departments sought to curtail pastoralist access to lands being used to meet the colonial state’s need for timber. This was not surprising given that livestock of any kind would almost certainly destroy seedlings planted by the Forest Department. In more recent times, state hostility towards pastoralism has rested on the presumption that grazing by these communities was responsible for reduced biological diversity. Conservation efforts across the country are focussed on reducing or eliminating the pastoralist presence in biodiversity rich areas.

Ample research now points to the context specificity of pastoralism, and to the fact that pastoralism has demonstrated a sophisticated capacity to exploit seasonal variability in moisture and to thrive in environments that are largely unsupportive of settled agriculture. There is also a large body of ecological work that has demonstrated that pastoralist grazing may be responsible for the high levels of diversity obtained in areas with a long history of grazing.
A young boy climbs a Desi Babool Jhad in Banni, Kachchh © Ishaan Raghunandan


The most common image of the pastoralist is of a simpleton, the cowherd who takes the family animals out to the forest and returns at night. It is a long-standing assumption that pastoralists simply manage ever growing herds, wandering over the countryside in search of whatever forage they can find. They are seen as having no objective beyond the natural increase of the herd nor a clearly thought out strategy to feed the ever-growing numbers. Not surprisingly, such animal management is seen as both unproductive and environmentally degrading. Surely, the thinking goes, it makes more sense to manage smaller herds of stall fed animals, scientifically bred to maximize productivity, than to continually increase the numbers of nondescript, unproductive animals, wasting energy in wandering over the countryside.

As it turns out, pastoralists are skilled breeders of animals. They are the “keepers of genes” to use Ilse Rollefson’s evocative phrase. Because they tend to live in extreme environments, they have developed into hardy breeds capable of dealing with these conditions. Animals are also bred to meet different objectives. The Sahiwal, Gir and Tharparkar cattle and the Banni buffalo are all bred for their high production of milk; the Kankrej Bull was bred as a draught animal. Goat and sheep populations have been bred for their meat, and in some instances for their wool. There is little that is aimless about pastoralist mobility. There are specific lands grazed in the summer and winter and the rights to these lands may be moderated by the community. They could be inherited from father to son or derived from negotiated access with cultivating communities. Mobility has specific objectives – an attempt to take advantage of seasonal vegetation growth following rainfall or the melting of winter snows; or agricultural stubble that needs to be cleared before the farmer can plant the next crop. And managing flocks across landscapes with highly varied vegetation calls for an intimate knowledge of vegetation types and an ability to separate the nutritious from the poisonous. Pastoralism requires you to be a mountaineer and a botanist, a weather forecaster and a veterinarian, a diplomat and a linguist.
A buffalo herder in Banni, Kachchh © Ishaan Raghunandan


Many ask: why is pastoralism important in this day and age of industrial agriculture and animal husbandry? Here’s why: India has an estimated 74 million sheep, the third highest population of sheep in the world, managed entirely by pastoral communities. Up to half of India’s 148 million goats, also in the top two or three numbers globally, are managed by pastoralists. Close to 20 percent of Indian dairies are stocked by cow and buffalo breeds developed by pastoral populations. Close to 40 per cent of India’s domesticated animal population (73 of 179 breeds) has been developed by pastoral communities. Extensively managed pastoral livestock populations contribute to the agricultural sector by providing fertilizer to cultivating communities. Pastoralists and their livestock then are major contributors to our agricultural, meat, dairy and leather industries.

It would, however, be unfortunate to view pastoralism solely through a material lens, particularly given the minimalist lives they lead. As has been made clear, pastoralists occupy a wide variety of geographies, their material culture and spiritual outpourings reflective of this diversity. Even today many artisans, photo-makers, poets and creators continue to take inspiration from pastoral cultures.

Pastoral communities also contribute to biological diversity, a realization that has been widely panned within mainstream conservation circles. The reality is that pastoralists have been grazing certain landscapes for decades, if not centuries, and the rich biological diversity we associate with these landscapes – in the Himalayas, western India and the Deccan – is almost certainly linked to, if not derived from, this history. Overgrazing IS a concern, but so too is under-grazing. Blanket decisions to curtail grazing in these landscapes will likely have myriad consequences, and few of these are well understood.
Camel herder at a milk collection centre in Kachchh © Sahjeevan

versus reality

There has always been a romance linked to the pastoral way of life – both for its mobility and for the notion that it is a life lived under the open sky. Both elements represent a freedom that is inherently appealing, and many are drawn to these communities for precisely this reason. Their music corroborates these notions of freedom from place and from material possessions. These are communities living lightly (hyperlink to living lightly) on the land.

And yes, these communities live physically challenging lives – away from home for long periods of time, forced to keep constant watch on their animals to ensure they do not stray into a cultivated field or are preyed upon by a snow leopard. Pastoralists are settling in increasing numbers, opting for lives that are more predictable and which offer the possibility of meeting the aspirations of a younger generation.

But in doing so, they are also coming face to face with two realities: (i) jobs are hard to come by in both rural and urban India; and (ii) earnings can rarely match the profits that are generated from herding. The combination is probably responsible for the resilience of Indian herding. Despite close to 200 years of opposition, pastoralists continue to manage their animals and to bring vast reservoirs of resourcefulness to the task.

CfP seeks to find ways by which the policy and market environment can be more supportive of a lifestyle that has much to be said for. Pastoralists moving away from their profession should be a choice willingly made, not one that they are forced into by a society that is intolerant of diversity and unfamiliar lifestyles.
A baby camel displays affection for its Fakirani Jat herder in Kachchh © Smriti Chanchani
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