Recognizing the role of pastoralists in agrarian development

Photo credit: Nipun Prabhakar

Written by Natasha Maru

Erratic rainfall and drought cycles in Kachchh cause spatial and temporal fluctuations in grazing availability. While this is not uncommon in arid environments, dryland pastoralism globally is often premised on assumptions of closed systems and enclosed spaces, assumptions of fixity rather than mobility.

Pastoralists in India rupture such a view. Migration out of Kachchh to fertile crop fields in mainland Gujarat has been the norm for Rabari pastoralists to overcome environmental variabilities and make the most of emerging opportunities in Gujarat.

This migration makes their pastoralism economically feasible and environmentally sustainable, providing food and livelihood security in a variable environment.

A unique bond

Year after year, Vibhabhai, a Rabari nomadic pastoralist from Kachchh, travels to Morbi district for cattle grazing at local farmer Dineshbhai’s field. Over a cup of tea, Dineshbhai said: “E toh maara bhai jevo chhe.” (He is like my brother.)

Pastoralists like Vibhabhai, locally known as the maldharis, rely on reciprocal relationships with farmers for dry season grazing access. This relationship has help sustain and flourish nomadic pastoralism, the demise of which has been predicted year after year.

Vibhabhai, a nomadic pastoralist who comes to Morbi for cattle grazing at local farmer’s field every year. Photo credit: Nipun Prabhakar

But it is also this relationship that is coming under increasing strain with increasing commercialisation of agriculture.

Developments such as reducing fallow period between two crops, relying on input intensive seeds and chemical inputs as well as uneven subsidies and benefits, are narrowing the space to manoeuvre within the critical farmer-herder relationship.

Will this trajectory then ring the death knell on nomadic pastoralism?

Nearly 10 per cent of India’s farmers — 14 million people — are estimated to be involved in pastoralism. The practice has proven to be a critical asset for food and livelihood security of vulnerable and landless people, especially in environments with high variability in rainfall, unsuitable for crop agriculture.

Yet, pastoralists face double marginalisation within Indian policy: They receive none of the benefits offered for crop farming and commercial dairying, and tend to suffer from adverse policies in these sectors.

Changes in crop agriculture are bound to percolate into pastoralism as the two are intimately intertwined.

Pastoralists across the country have adapted to ‘agricultural hotspots’ to receive fresh and nutritious fodder for their animals as grazing commons have declined in India in favour of private intensive farming.

The nomadic community has used strategies such as flexible mobility, adapted breeds, precise timing and local informal institutions to take advantage of developments in agriculture.

Several communities such as the Rabari, Bharwad, Gujjar, Dhangars, Gowlis, and even the duck pastoralists from Tamil Nadu, who go from paddy field to paddy field, follow such a pattern of migration.

There, in addition to fodder, the pastoralists may also receive cash or grain in exchange for valuable manure. In 2015, a group of experts estimated the value of this manure to be over Rs 3,35,000 crore annually.

Sheep pen with manure droppings. Photo credit: Nipun Prabhakar

Tiding over lockdowns

Income from manure sustained Vibhabhai’s family through the lockdown last year when their main source of income — animal trade — experienced both supply side and demand side constraints.

The trade of animals was restricted both in the domestic and international market and also experienced low demand due to a fall in household income.

Manure exchange provides supplementary income to pastoralists and cheap organic fertilizers to farmers, making both farming and pastoralism more economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

It was thanks to farmer-herder relationships that the pastoralists continued to graze like normal, going from farm to farm, village to village, despite restrictions on movement due to the lockdown associated with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

Vibhabhai, too, spent the lockdown year in Dineshbhai’s fields. The farmers were helping them with grocery and local transport as the pastoralists found themselves miles away from home when the lockdown was announced.

All pastoralists across the country were not as lucky given and several groups reported being blocked out of grazing areas by government agents and local inhabitants during the pandemic.

Dineshbhai described their relationship with the maldharis:

Even if our women are working alone in the field, we are not afraid. We trust the maldhari that much. We trust their turban (symbol of respect and community) that much.

Watching them interact, it was evident that they shared not just a beneficial economic relationship but also an affective one, binding families and communities together across generations.

It is these local rhythms, lived experiences and subjective rationalities that tie intrinsically to rural and agrarian livelihoods that the Indian state has failed to understand.

Photo credit: Nipun Prabhakar

The last pastoralists?

Operating through a narrow state-business alliance, the state privileges market-oriented input-intensive commercial farming. Such a trajectory of agrarian development based on neoliberal principles is sure to stretch thin the fragile ties that sustain farmer-herder relations, and squeeze out pastoralism from an integrated production system. 

In the absence of access to farm residues, pastoralism will no longer be viable in many parts of the country. This will mean the death of a sustainable and economically viable livelihood and cultural system and also of the ethic of sharing the bounty of nature, of cooperation and mutual benefit, of interdependence across caste-class lines, of shared respect and care.

All these traits challenge the oppressive forces of the state and resist the abstracting tendencies of capital. Pastoralism deserves our protecting, now more than ever.

This article first appeared in Down to Earth

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