Return of pastoralism: How villagers fought a long battle to regenerate grazing lands and assist herders

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Land / Water / Resource Management

With help from civil society organisations, India’s rural population managed to increase their profits from raising cattle.

For generations, arranging fodder and different forage crops for their livestock has been a way of life for the residents of semi-arid Boojh village in Rajasthan’s Udaipur district. With population growth and fragmentation of landholding, fodder availability gradually reduced.

By the 2010s, the situation became so dire, recalled 50-year-old Sarsi Bai, that most people had to buy fodder from a private beed (pasture) some 7 kilometres away; price of the fodder depended on the beed owner’s will.

In 2016, Boojh residents got in touch with the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), a non-profit that works with communities across the country on ecological restoration. “FES researchers told us that we can overcome fodder crisis by reviving and managing the shamlat or village common land,” said Deepak Shrimali, a resident.

Almost all the households in the village came together to set up a “pasture development and management committee” and decided to revive a 15 hectare  pasture they share with neighbouring villages.

First, the committee fenced the patch and planted 2,500 saplings of local tree species such as neem, amla, khejri and mahua as well as various perennial native grass species. Then, they built loose boulder check dams to harvest rainwater and ensure that the hilly terrain retains moisture. Within two years, 1-1.5 metre tall grasses filled the patch.

In 2019, the committee allowed harvesting of the fodder grass, but only one person from each household was given the permit to check overharvesting. A fine of Rs 1,000 was imposed on those who let their cattle wander into the revived pasture and Rs 500 for lopping trees. The committee collects a fee of Rs 20 from each family, which is then spent on the maintenance of the pasture.

Following successful revival, the residents of Boojh in 2019 initiated the development of another pasture, spanning 16 ha. “Now, every family in Boojh harvests 90-100 bundles (200-250 kilogram) of fodder a year from these two pastures,” said Shrimali.

Given that a bundle of 2-3 kg fodder costs Rs 8-10, the pastures have helped each family save Rs 1,000 a year. Some residents sell the excess fodder harvested from the revived pasture in the market.

Sources: Directorate of economics and statistics; Rajasthan Agriculture Department; Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers' Welfare

In the nearby Tirol village of Udaipur district, the residents have revived a 25 ha pasture with the help of FES and plan to revive another patch of 27 ha. Megh Singh, the 81-year-old chairperson of the village’s pasture revival and management committee, said that hardly any household in the village has bought fodder in the past four to five years.

Researchers with FES say development of pasture is gaining momentum in semi-arid areas like Rajasthan, where livestock is the most reliable source of income for farmers.

But the revival of pastures has not been easy at all the places. In Swarooppura village of Bhilwara district, the residents in 2017 drew up a plan to develop 142 ha of pasture but because of ownership dispute with the residents of the neighboring Mochdi’s Kheda village, the revival could not begin until late 2021.

Swarooppura residents are confident that they will now be able to resolve the fodder crisis in the next two to three years.

Revival of a tradition

At several other places, to beat the fodder crisis and to overcome the shortage of pastureland, efforts are also on to revive and promote pastoralism. One of the oldest and most sustainable food systems on the planet, pastoralism allows herders, along with livestock, to move from one climatic region to another every year in search of food, to take advantage of suitable pastures and grasslands, and in the process sustain biodiversity.

In Gujarat, the Kutch District Cooperative Milk Union Ltd (Sarhad Dairy), in 2018 expanded its reach in the dry and arid district and set up a dairy in Nakhatrana taluka for procuring camel milk. This small initiative prompted Mura Mangal and several others from the Rebari nomadic pastoral community to resume pastoralism.

Traditionally, Rebaris have been the camel herders but arrival of tempos reduced the utility of camels reduced substantially, forcing most of the community to shift to other livestock or quit pastorialism, said Mangal. “I took up a driving job to feed my family. When Sarahad set up the camel dairy, I took the decision to buy three camels,” he recalled.

In the past four years, Mangal has increased his camel stock to 50. His earnings have increased to Rs 60,000 a month selling camel milk to the dairy. He was earning Rs 8,000 a month as a truck driver.

Source: Accounting for Pastoralists in India by the League for Pastoral Peoples And Endogenous Livestock Development

Sarhad Dairy has created a sustained demand for camel milk and employed 190 pastoral families, who supply 3,500-4,000 litres of camel milk every day.

But this transition has not been easy. “Dairies were initially hesitant because there are scheduling issues with the pastoralists. Also, they were not sure if the milk would meet the hygiene standards,” said Ramesh Bhatti, programme director of the Centre for Pastoralism (CFP), run by Kutch-based non-profit Sahjeevan. So, Sahjeevan, almost a decade ago, teamed up with the National Dairy Development Board in Gujarat and started procuring buffalo, cow and goat milk for pastoralists and supplied it to different dairies to establish the credibility of the community. And it worked.

In the past two years, at least 22 youngsters have returned to their villages in Kutch and bought camels, said Vasant Saberwal, director of CFP.

Over the past few years, the Union and state governments have also become more responsive to the needs of pastoral communities. The change started in 2019, with the setting up of Union Ministry for Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying. The newly created ministry is setting up a dedicated cell to oversee the well-being of pastoral communities.

On August 23, 2022, the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries wrote to states with sizeable pastoral populations to focus government schemes on the welfare of pastoral communities. The letter asked 12 state animal husbandry departments (in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Karnataka, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Ladakh, Uttar Pradesh, Sikkim, Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh) to provide assistance to pastoralists under the National Livestock Mission (that focuses on entrepreneurship development and breed improvement), the Animal Husbandry Infrastructure Development Fund (a special credit facility for animal husbandry infrastructure development) and the Rashtriya Gokul Mission (that aims to enhance productivity of bovines and increasing milk production in a sustainable manner).

Until now, schemes pertaining to livestock were mostly applicable for farmers and settled animal keepers. The letter further notes that states may develop extension activities suitable for awareness generation in the pastoralist community and can avail assistance from the Union government.

Photo: Vikas Choudhary

In Himachal Pradesh, the state forest department has put a moratorium on tree planting along the migratory routes and halting places of pastoralists in Chamba forest division. These are supported by their rights under various forest settlements. Tree planting under various plantation schemes on the migratory routes and halting places of Gaddis and Gujjars, reduces the “chances of high survival of plantations due to regular grazing but also causes tremendous losses and hardships to migratory communities due to plantation enclosures and shortage of grass for their livestock,” said Pushpendra Rana, chief conservator of forests, Chamba Forest Circle, in an order issued November 26, 2022.

The order asked all forest officers to ensure proper recording of the livestock, permit issued, migratory routes and grassland and pastures health to properly regulate and ensure access to Gaddi and Gujjar communities. Removal of invasive species such as Lantana on these routes can be taken up under various programmes to improve the productivity of grasslands and pastures, the order noted.

In Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi district, for the first time in the last eight years, around 150 pastoralist families returned to their pasture lands in the upper region of the Tons valley in 2022, after the forest department lifted a ban on grazing livestock in the area. This had forced the families to change their routes and go to Bijnor district in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh.

To facilitate mobile pastoralism, Urmul Trust, a non-profit in Rajasthan, is building resting spaces, constructing new or renovating community-owned water structures along the pasture routes with the help of gram panchayats and by using the funds from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. In 2010, Sahjeevan ensured the registration of Banni buffalo and Kharai camel breeds with the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, Karnal, the nodal agency for the registration of breeds of the country. Following this, the Gujarat government in 2012 commissioned the organisation to identify and characterise all pastoral breeds and register them. The work was completed in 2020, with nine new breeds of camel, goat, donkey, sheep and horses being identified and registered.

Meanwhile, CFP has embarked on a project to produce an atlas on Indian pastoralism to map the traditional grazing routes and hoped to finish it in a year and half.

Bhagirath, Shagun
Originally published on
© Vikas Choudhary