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Motilal Raika is a pastoralist from the Barmer district and he owns about a hundred goats and sheep. He has a family of six. Like most families in the Thar desert, his family chiefly relies on livestock rearing husbandry for their household income.
“For centuries, in the summers, my ancestors migrated to greener grazing lands in the Sindh region, northern parts of Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. They would only return home after the monsoon ended,” he says.
Traditional livestock production, long associated with helping conserve biodiversity and local ecology, is facing an existential threat presently. Some of these threats include — shrinking common property resources due to increased reallocation of land for varied purposes, lack of good quality fodder grasses and fodder trees, increased foreign invasive vegetative species, poor livestock health services, poor marketing support for produce (milk, meat and wool) and mistrust between pastoralists and the local police machinery.
As an occupation, pastoralism evolved in response to natural climatic changes and prospered under conditions of high environmental variability. Pastoralists raise livestock in the rangelands by tracking resources as and when they become available, following well-established seasonal routes as well as maintaining contingency grazing reserves for harsh years.
By migrating to new pasturelands, pastoralists do not allow their animals to overgraze indigenous vegetation, ensuring the sustainable usage of these rangelands. A study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the United Nations Environment Programme argued that pastoralism has the potential to play a key role in transitioning to a green, environmentally sustainable, global economy.
“In the desert, we consider livestock as our gold. It feeds our families. If we do not attend to their fodder requirements, then how would we survive in this arid region?” he asks.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, pastoralists are people who adapt their herding systems according to seasonal or spatial weather variability and the availability of fertile rangelands. They employ strategic mobility to adapt to variable climatic conditions.
With grasslands — the basis for livestock production — covering about 70% of the global agricultural area in the world, pastoralism has been the most sustainable form of production, livelihood and land use in most of the world’s arid and semi-arid areas. World over, it has been known to support resilient livelihoods and ensure food and fodder security in arid regions with scarce resources.
For centuries, the indigenous knowledge of pastoralists in managing natural capital involves practices that conserve vegetation diversity, livestock species, vegetation cover, soil quality and water recycling.
Through their selective breeding strategies, the indigenous livestock species for so long have been able to adapt to local climatic conditions and remain resistant to diseases and droughts. Compared to agriculture, pastoralism is also better equipped to adapt to the changing resources and climate zones.
Pastoralists contribute massively to the preservation of biodiversity, improving soil quality and preventing desertification. Recent research has also shown that pastoral landscapes could have a neutral carbon balance as emissions from animals are offset by carbon sequestration in soils and plants. The community members could thus be described as stewards of the environment.
In India, there are some 46 castes or communities that have specialised pastoralist identities. They live in the arid or semi-arid parts of the country, such as the Gujjars and Bakkarwals in the Himalayan region, Rebaris and Raikas in the Thar desert.
The animals reared by these communities include cattle, buffalo, sheep, goats, camels and yaks, as well ducks, guinea fowls, pigs, horses and donkeys. However, consecutive livestock censuses have failed to provide adequate data on the nature of animal rearing or whether livestocks are owned by pastoralists or livestock owners.
This is a global trend, with there being a lack of disaggregated data that captures information on pastoralists. Worldwide, the number of pastoralists is said to range from 22 million to 500 million people. There is a similar lack of data on the number of pastoralists in India. In some cases, this number has been quoted to be 35 million.
However, a recent study claims it to be closer to 1% of the Indian population, or about 13 million people.
In India, the mobility of pastoralists has often been met with mistrust by administrators and locals. Under British rule, the 1871 Act on Criminal Tribes categorised several pastoral nomads to get settled as their mobility was seen as criminal and a threat to the safety of settled locals.
The biases were inherited by the newly independent India. The communities were never separately identified and were conveniently categorised under scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes. Efforts to accommodate their interests politically, socially and culturally have been scant.
Motilal’s father adds, “Our generation has accepted to be on the fringes of society. But I am worried about my children and grandchildren. They find the migration with livestock difficult. I keep wondering whether they will continue with pastoralism after I die.”
In independent India, access to forestlands and grazing lands by pastoralists has been fraught with suspicion and contestations. The Forest Rights Act which was touted to give ownership rights to forest-dwelling communities, and most importantly access to pastoralists over grazing lands and forest resources has not served its objectives.
The recent eviction of pastoralists from forestlands in Jammu and Kashmir provides little hope.
The country currently also lacks a policy on grazing land. In 2011, the Supreme Court of India ordered policy formulation about grazing land in all states of the Indian Union. However, there has been no assessment of whether any progress was made with regard to this order.
In its official communication, the Indian government has recognised the role of pastoralism in safeguarding ecosystems. For example, when the government of Mongolia petitioned the United Nations to declare 2026 an International Year for Rangelands and Pastoralists (IYRP), 16 countries backed the proposal, including India.
In a letter by the Embassy of India in Rome, the Indian government says, “Pastoralism is a source of livelihood for millions of people that safeguard ecosystems and biodiversities. This will increase global awareness of the importance of rangelands and pastoralism for global food security and ecosystem services. It is an excellent initiative to help achieve the sustainable goals and contribute to the current UN Decade of Family Planning.”
The efforts of the Government of India in shaping the global policy agenda on pastoralism are promising. However, decades of neglect would require more cohesive efforts to be put in.
Pastoralism needs support to continue contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UNFAO notes that its sustenance would directly contribute to achieving seven SDGs — eliminating poverty, reaching zero hunger, promoting good health and well-being, supporting economic growth and responsible consumption and production, bolstering climate action and biodiversity of life on land.
The international clamour for support could award pastoralism its lost importance.