Pastoralists, Original Livestock Keepers Of Civilisation, Pushed To Margins

By Tarun Shridhar September 19, 2021

The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that's the essence of inhumanity (from the play ‘The Devil’s Disciple‘ by George Bernard Shaw)

Pastoralists, Original Livestock Keepers Of Civilisation, Pushed To Margins
Pastoralists, Original Livestock Keepers Of Civilisation, Pushed To Margins.

The cottage cheese, or paneer as we know it, was the most delicious I had ever had; it had a unique melt in the mouth pungency – much smoother than the fancy fermented imported cheese. The host, with genuine pride, informed that he had procured this cheese specially for our dinner from the Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir. Since he belonged to the state, now a union territory, he would have got it for a song. But believe me, in Delhi’s upmarket stores, it costs a fortune. Perhaps the Bakarwals, happy tending the bakris (goats) from which they derive their identity, are blissfully unaware how precious their produce is.

We all are guilty of a sin worse than the sin of indifference: apathy. We come across them frequently on the highways, as they are quite a familiar sight, herding their cattle, sheep and goat, camels, buffaloes etc., yet not batting an eyelid at the wonderment of their lives. Rather, we curse them for slowing down the traffic and at times abuse the system that allows them on roads, serving no other cause except to slow down the pace of our economic growth.

What to stare in the face, the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) do not even cast a glance at them. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) does no more than a lip service to their plight, despite recognising their immense contribution to food and nutritional security. The FAO website provides minimal information on them, largely a cut-and-paste job, and diverts the curious surfer to sundry links. And at home neither the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying nor the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, nor the NITI Aayog have any information, data or scheme, or even recognition about them. The National Agenda on Doubling Farmers’ Income does not expend even one word on them, nor does the 14-volume report – running into more than a couple of thousand pages – of the Committee on the subject spare a thought for them.


And yet these are the human civilisation’s original livestock farmers, holding on to their lifestyles amidst the onslaught of modernity, providing the purest of the genuinely organic livestock products to consumers till this very day. They are the pastoralists, raising livestock in the harshest of environmental conditions and producing milk, cheese, meat etc. of the highest quality at the cheapest rates. Ironically, the misleadingly labelled organic livestock products fetch a princely sum. But please do believe that the purest of organic livestock commodities are produced only by these pastoralists; unfortunately they either don’t find appropriate buyers or it is the traders who capitalise upon the product quality and obtain the financial gains the label of ‘organic’ fetches.

Defying the norms of statistical probability, the population of pastoralists in the world, according to various studies, is estimated to be between 120 to 500 million – a sizeable number even if we assume the lower end of the range. Their population in India is assessed to be between 14 to 35 million. Since there are no officially validated figures, either global or national, one has little choice but to base the appreciation of the issues on the basis of data thrown by studies and anecdotal evidence. Pastoralism is not recognised as a sector or even a sub-sector of the agriculture economy in India or in any other country for that matter. No official definition or such category exists. Officials are aware of its existence, only at a personal level though, so no wonder they do not give it any official recognition as a distinct system of livestock management and economy.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘Pastoralist’ as “a farmer who breeds and takes care of animals…”; and ‘Pastoralism’ is a form of animal husbandry where domesticated animals known as livestock are released onto large vegetated outdoor lands (pastures) for grazing, historically by nomadic people who moved around with their herds. Pastoralism is hardcore animal husbandry, the branch of agriculture concerned with the care, tending, and use of livestock for production of food. The livestock here are reared in open forest, range, and grassland areas. Pastoralism, as a livelihood activity, is a living pattern of tending herds of animals in natural environments in forests and wastelands, thus creating a complex but symbiotic relationship amongst nature, animals, and humans. In a nutshell, Pastoralism is the use of extensive grazing on common pasturelands for livestock production, and hence one of the earliest and key production systems in the worldwaste/public/dry lands. Sadly though, despite its long history, its practitioners have remained poor and marginalised.

Pastoralists are a collective of several hundred million livestock keepers distributed all over the world. They are characterised by unique and challenging livelihoods whose hallmark is continuing mobility and closeness to nature, even though the environment in which they live may be hostile. They are the main, if not the only, producers of livestock products, primarily food, in the harshest of environments: drylands, mountains and cold areas. They also singularly sustain vibrant and culturally unique communities, and blend livelihood with culture; they, generally, don’t compromise their distinct lifestyles for better commercial gains. However, if they were to, their products being genuinely and purely organic could give them financial returns of several multiples more. Alas! The governments, all across the globe, have failed them, resulting in high level of poverty amongst them.

A well-researched 1850s’ report, authored by G.C. Barnes the Settlement Commissioner, describes the pastoral communities of Kangra in then Punjab and now Himachal Pradesh in the following manner: “In the hills the Gujjars are exclusively a pastoral tribe and they cultivate scarcely at all. The Gaddis keep flocks of sheep and goats and the Gujjars, wealth consists of buffaloes. These people live in the skirts of the forests, and maintain their existence exclusively by the sale of the milk, ghee, and other produce of their herds. The men graze the cattle, and frequently lie out for weeks in the woods tending their herds. The women repair to the markets every morning with baskets on their heads, with little earthen pots filled with milk, butter-milk and ghee, each of these pots containing the proportion required for a day's meal. During the hot weather the Gujjars usually drive their herds to the upper range, where the buffaloes rejoice in the rich grass which the rains bring forth and at the same time attain condition from the temperate climate and the immunity from venomous flies that torment their existence in the plains.” Today, 170 years down the line, the description holds good. And it can be added that the milk and ghee; the cheese and meat these pastoral communities produce even to this day can give the corporate giants a run for their money; yet they remain in the realm of hand-to-mouth existence.

The urban dweller finds the description romantic, oblivious of the oppressive hardship such romance causes. Pastoralist systems in India vary from being eternally mobile to what is called transhumant: a seasonal movement of livestock between fixed summer and winter pastures. Animals maintained in mobile systems include camels, cattle, ducks, donkeys, goats, pigs, sheep and yaks; and in some limited areas of the northern Himalayan regions of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttarakhand, buffaloes too. Let the romantic urbanite know that, contrary to the image created by the Bollywood, singing while dancing and prancing around the trees is an unaffordable luxury when one is looking for a new shelter each day, not only for himself and family but for the horde of livestock which will provide food to those very urban citizens who do not even recognise their existence.

The livestock sector in India contributes 4.5 per cent to the GDP, and about 30% to the GDP from the Agriculture sector. And within the overarching umbrella of Animal Husbandry, it is estimated, yes only estimated in the absence of any reliable official data, that we meet more than half of our milk and about 75 per cent of our meat requirement from animals reared by pastoralists. Our livestock is phenomenally resilient and sustains primarily upon common grazing and water resources, including forests, charagahs, gochars, or other such common community lands. According to the National Sample Survey, only one per cent of the land owned by farmers is used for livestock. So, it is quite obvious that it is not only the pastoralists who depend on common-pool resources but also a large number of farmers, even though they may be keeping crossbred cattle and high-yielding buffaloes. It is a pointer to questioning the data on the number of stall-fed livestock. Anecdotal evidence suggests that stall feeding is minuscule.


Pastoralists have been deeply affected by marginalisation.  Poor understanding of their livelihood system and non-recognition of their immense contribution to, not only agricultural economy but also to nutritional security, have imposed alien social and governance schemes. These often involve attempts, perhaps well-intentioned too, to make their lives sedentary. On at other level are the deliberate hurdles to their mobility which is a sine qua non for their livelihoods and the very existence. Such response may be on account of our inability to provide the basic services such as education and health to these communities, not to mention the veterinary services which are the mainstay of their profession. What the governance systems, in the onslaught of economic development, are pushing for is the disruption of pastoral mobility. We do not realise that such an approach has the potential to trigger food insecurity, even if marginal as the pastoral systems are characterised by strong resilience, better productivity, and above all a much superior quality of the products.

Pastoralism is a complex activity, hinging on a fine balance between human population, animal population and natural resources. It continues to provide a valid livelihood for millions of people and has the potential to continue to do so. But the future of pastoralism depends on the ecological and environmental conservation, sustainable utilisation of rangelands/wastelands/common lands/pastures etc., the improvement of livestock productivity, and most importantly the redressal of the ever-growing conflicts over depleting resources. The key is an integration of pastoralism with agriculture, animal husbandry and the rest of the economy. The governments, as also we, need to acknowledge the critical significance of pastoralists and their extensive livestock tending in our rural economy, the gross domestic product, and the contribution to the food basket; food which is genuinely organic and of an enviably high quality.

Next time you listen to the romance and sentiment laden romantic pastoral poetry, please do spare a thought for the protagonists who wander day and night in search of shelter, and yet give you the finest of food to chew on. The pastoral life is idealised as the writers are usually city people. The idylls written in the name of the pastoralists are far remote from the realities of their life, which in reality is tough, beset with untold hardships, bereft of governance support systems and mystically complex. In reality, it is an existence on the edges of society. Let them not be the lost tribe. 


(The author is former Secretary, Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, Government of India)