[Commentary] Policy measures do not address increasing sedentarisation of pastoralists in India

Camels grazing in Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

  • Mobility of pastoral nomad communities, which is so essential for the pastoral production system to thrive has been disrupted due to reckless and myopic land policies, write authors of this commentary.
  • With the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the pastoralists have been further pushed to adopt a sedentary lifestyle.
  • In times of strategising on combating climate change, ensuring the movement and access to grazing lands remain seamless to avoid losing pastoralists.
  • The views expressed in this commentary are that of the authors.

For the communities practicing nomadic pastoralism, mobility, for centuries, has been an innovative strategy to adapt to variable climatic conditions and respond to fluctuations in resource availability. Their mobility has been dictated by the rangelands’ extreme temperatures and scarce rainfall. The seasonal movement has been instrumental in maintenance of the conservation of biodiversity in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world. It has been observed that the grazing by the livestock of pastoralists stimulates vegetation growth, ensures fertility of the soil, enhances water infiltration capacity of soil, and aids in seed dispersal to maintain pasture diversity. However, mobility which is so essential for the pastoral production system to thrive has been disrupted due to reckless and myopic land policies.

It is important to recollect how these communities have existed in harmony with their environment and are now being seen as encroachers to private lands, national parks and sanctuaries.

Colonial government’s frenzy to sedentarise nomadic communities

The pastoral nomads were once part of India’s mainstream culture and living, wherein they had close relationships with farmers who were dependent on their livestock to provide manure for their field. Systems soon changed and their mobile lifestyle was challenged by growing urbanisation and factory systems set soon with the British invasion. During the British rule, the grazing lands were looked upon as “waste lands” and were almost converted into agricultural lands.

Ilse Köhler-Rollefson, Research Coordinator of the League for Pastoral Peoples and consultant to UN agencies who has worked in India for 30 years says, “Pastoralists convert ‘waste’ to worth. India needs to change the way it thinks about ‘wastelands’, a term dating back to colonial times. Wastelands are rangelands that sustain the major part of India’s sizeable livestock population and are of enormous importance for the country’s food security.”

In the mid 19th century the first forest act was implemented, which allowed the government to regulate the movements of pastoral nomads. The timings of entry and exit, as well as the number of days they are spending in a forest range, were recorded. Permits were given to the pastoralists and this process of close monitoring and suspicion remains with the forest department in Independent India. The 1871 Act on Criminal Tribes also pushed several pastoral nomads to get settled in a village as they were labelled as ‘criminal’ by his/her birth. Several people of these communities were pushed to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Soon after the independence of India from British rule, the seizure of borders also affected some who undertook long migratory routes.

Sumer Singh Bhati, a pastoralist and an advocate for the rights of his community says, “Our access to forestlands is restricted by the local Forest Department officials. Along our pasture routes, we avoid traversing through the forestlands as the officials demand exorbitant bribes. Even during the pandemic, there was no relaxation in this unreasonable rule. We could not travel along our traditional pasture routes and the Forest Department did not let us access the ones closer to our homes. How is this fair for our people and their livestock surviving in this arid region.”

Several other reasons which pushed sedentarisation of these groups include government’s thrust of wage labor employments, declaration of biosphere reserve and sanctuaries as protected which disallowed grazing, which almost deprived the pastoral communities of the pasture to feed their livestock. Contestation with the forest department along with the agriculturists has increased over the years.

Sumer Singh Bhati resting with his family in a sacred grove during the seasonal migration, Jaisalmer district. Photo from Sumer Singh Bhati.

Governments and several wildlife organisations have pushed in conservation efforts to save wildlife from extinction but this has resulted in ousting pastoral communities historically using the around those sanctuaries and national parks. These sizeable areas had once served as grazing ground for the pastoral communities.

Raikas, a pastoral community in Rajasthan would get grazing permits to enter the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan. Forest officials banned the practice in 2004, citing a letter from the Supreme Court’s central empowered committee that recommended a check on commercial activities and grazing and since then the usage of the land by the community has been contentious. The Forest Rights Act has provided little solace to the pastoralists.

The conservation policies have also altered the nature-human relationship as well which has augmented wildlife killings lately. There has been a strong challenge to Garett Hardin’s theory tragedy of commons however, India’s policy around wildlife conservation and agro-pastoralism continues to distrust the community to manage their commons.

There were several initiatives of bringing in community participation, one such is Van Panchayats of Uttarakhand, which had ensured decentralised and democratic participation of the villagers over the common property resource. Although the Van Panchayts had empowered the communities to use and sell the minor forest produce, this act too had punitive punishments for pastoralists and considered them as trespassers.

Sheep owned by Sumer Singh Bhati’s family and his village folk grazing in a sacred grove in Jaisalmer district. Photo from Sumer Singh Bhati.

Stop-gap policy measures have been ineffective in addressing the concerns of the pastoralists. At the policy level there are no consultations with the community members or even the community-based organisations. Bhati adds, “We have to be involved in the discussions with the administration so that the measures are inclusive and address our concerns properly. Initiatives undertaken without any consultation would be myopic and inadequate.”

COVID-19: The final nail in the coffin

The COVID-19 situation has already deteriorated the ability of the pastoralist groups to meet their livelihoods mostly because of country-wide movement restrictions imposed due to lockdown. As argued, the fate of transhumance and nomadism pre-COVID was never favourable. With the arrival of the novel coronavirus, the pastoralists have been further pushed to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. In times of strategising on combating climate change, we need to rethink how to ensure the movement and access to grazing lands remain seamless otherwise we would end up losing our greatest allies – the pastoralists.

Aastha Maggu is an alumna of the Institute of Public Policy, National Law School of India University, Bengaluru. Rituja Mitra is an alumna of Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

Banner image: Camels grazing in Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo from Ilse Köhler-Rollefson.

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