- Mobile pastoralists of Rajasthan are struggling to get by in the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns as the fear and restrictions in the state rise.
- These pastoralists depend on the farmers and households along their route for the fodder and water of their herds. But since the Indira Gandhi Canal closed down for maintenance, both have been hard and costly to find.
- The livelihoods of these communities as well as the number of their herds have suffered due to depleting resources; as a result, they have been forced to migrate back to their home bases in just two months.
- The views in this commentary are that of the author.
Almost four lakh (400,000) people depend on pastoralism as a mainstay of livelihood in Rajasthan. Despite being a much-touted, resilient mechanism for coping with uncertainties and unforeseen circumstances, mobile pastoralists have seemingly not survived the shocks posed by this pandemic. While most rural livelihoods have gradually started adapting to the changing times, pastoralists are still struggling; their vulnerabilities increasingly highlighted during the state-wide lockdown this year.
Transhumant pastoralists of the Thar Desert, Rajasthan, undergo annual, long-range migration from the drier parts of western Rajasthan to the greener pockets of Punjab and Haryana during the dry, summer months. Migration usually starts by March-end with the onset of spring and ends in July with the onset of monsoon. With necessary resources quickly declining along these routes, long-range migration in Rajasthan has taken a new form in the past decade. Pastoralists with large herds of 250-300 animals or more have shifted from travelling on foot to transporting the animals by trucks. The herds are sent to the pastures lying along the state border. Areas lying alongside the Indira Gandhi Canal are preferred as there is more vegetation and food for the animals. Pastoralists heavily rely on the residues from agricultural fields that are fed by waters from the Indira Gandhi Canal.
During non-pandemic years, farmers and owners of cultivation lands in these destination areas allow migrating herds of sheep, goat and donkeys to forage on the residues of freshly harvested crops in exchange for animal dung and droppings (natural fertilisers). However, due to virus-scare and COVID-19 distancing protocols, farming households are now less welcoming towards migrating pastoralists and their herds. Additionally, this year, people are struggling to adapt to the nahar bandi – the Indira Gandhi Canal water supply has been closed for 70 days from March 21 onwards to cater to the repair and maintenance needs of the canal.
Farmers in these pasture belts still continue to burn their crop residue, despite multiple efforts to curb crop-residue burning in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. Putting off fire from burning plots requires a lot of water. Panic of an impending water crisis due to nahar bandi, has caused farmers to harvest their crops early so that the residues can be burnt while there is still sufficient water available. Pastoralists who completed their onward migration journeys in March-April were faced with shortage of forage (crop residue) and water resources for their herds as most farmers had burnt the crop residues from their lands, leaving no food for migrating herds.
As claimed by pastoralists, due to less people out of their homes and slack in vigilance for crop burning, farmers are increasingly burning all their crop residues earlier than usual to avoid fines and arrests by the police. This is a two-fold setback for the forage scenario along pastoral routes.
The pandemic and the lockdown have affected multiple resources and activities that once allowed pastoralists to smoothly carry on with their herding. Pastoralists on the move are not always able to adhere to the 7 AM – 11 AM timing allocated for market activities. As shops shut early, they often miss out on buying ration and essential supplies for themselves. Food and shelter charity from households that lie along pastoral routes has also decreased due to the pandemic. After only 2 months of herding, pastoralists are bringing their herds back to the home bases in western Rajasthan as stressed by Bhom Singh, a sheep and goat herder from Kalu, Bikaner, Rajasthan.
“I spent Rs. 11, 000 in bringing my sheep and goats from Kalu [western Rajasthan] to Pallu. These areas have more food for the animals. This is what we do every year. But this year, the farmers have burnt all their crops. I have 300 animals and they have no food to eat. I have been wandering around with my herds. Even the common lands are dry and not in good condition. Also, there is a water shortage and people who have tanks and wells are taking a lot of money to let the animals drink water. There is nothing left for my animals here – what do I do? I had planned to return home in July but I am going back now.” said Singh.
The concentration of large herds around village commons at a time when they are usually on the move has its own set of ecological and socio-economic impacts. As experienced last year, too many animals depending on village lands and common property resources in the vicinity of herder settlements causes increase in grazing pressure and leads to lesser nutrition intake per animal. Poor nutrition reduces immunity and increases disease outbreaks within and between herds, leading to huge losses in livestock numbers which in turn affects the income and livelihood of pastoral communities. Depleting emergency stocks of forage from common lands also leads to increased price of dry fodder for animals and further disadvantages pastoralists and livestock keepers.
“I have a herd of 235 including sheep and goat. This year, there was not much for the animals to eat. Even fodder has become very costly. My animals have grown weak. I lost 30-40 sheep due to some mysterious disease. My fellow herder, Saota Ram, lost 100 of his 300 sheep. Even the doctors we consulted were not able to detect what caused this,“ said Chetan Singh, a transhumant pastoralist from western Rajasthan.
Transhumant pastoralism is intricately intertwined with the socio-economic fabric of pastoral routes and destination pastures. With the fall of any one of the dominoes that it is interdependent on – be it the farming pattern or the charity and friendliness of households that lie along pastoral routes – the ripples are felt throughout the pastoral production system. COVID-19 and its fallouts continue to adversely impact the already fraying remnants of transhumant pastoralism in the hot deserts of India. The need to re-think and re-imagine mobile pastoralism and integrate it with the modern economy is now more evident than ever.
The author is a researcher covering the changing socio-economic and environmental dynamics of the desert ecosystem. She is based out of a small village called Bajju in district Bikaner, Rajasthan, and is working with Desert Resource Centre, URMUL Group, to increase documentation and awareness about pastoral production systems and their revival in the hot and cold deserts of the country.
Banner image: Shepherd with a herd of goats and sheep near Bikaner. Photo by Jakub Hałun/Wikimedia Commons.