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“The Narrative On Pastoralism Needs To Change”: An Interview With Nitya Ghotge

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The world over — pastoralists are becoming a vanishing breed, even though they play a key role in the rehabilitation and sustainable management of fragile ecosystems. Today, India has nearly 34 million pastoralists, but they are being increasingly threatened with mass displacement because of intense competition from agriculture, population growth, herd dispossession and drought.

For the last three decades, Nitya Ghotge has been working on issues related to development and the environment. A veterinarian with a specialisation in veterinary surgery, she is one of the founders (and presently the Director) of Anthra. Her work at the organisation includes research, training and policy advocacy on different aspects of livestock development, especially on systems of healthcare as well as planning for gender-sensitive and sustainable ways of farming and livestock rearing.

A special focus for her now is pastoral and nomadic communities, and the animals they rear. In a free wheeling interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, Ghotge sheds light on the historical neglect pastoral communities have faced politically, socially and economically, and talks about the role they can play in preventing the climate change crisis from escalating.

Nitya Ghotge | Image credit: Anthra

Aastha Maggu (AM): You were trained as a veterinarian. How did you move towards working on issues related to development and the environment?

Nitya Ghotge (NG): During my school days, I was deeply interested in wildlife conservation. I wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian, which is why I chose to train in veterinary. I was deeply aware of the early environmental movements in India — Silent Valley, Chipko and Delhi ridge. After my third year of college, I pursued a two-month summer internship in Madhya Pradesh and was exposed to a fresh set of environmental concerns. There was rampant pollution by paper and chemical factories, their effect on livestock, human health, the environment, monoculture plantations, biodiversity, and the Adivasi communities.

The landscape of environmental issues became much larger and interconnected. When I was studying veterinary science in Hisar, Haryana, I saw the dangerous impact of the Green Revolution. My experiences there made me see the stark differences in farmers and farming systems across the country. Environmental concerns precede my training as a veterinarian. I have constantly attempted to leverage my veterinary knowledge in my work with the development and environment.

AM: In your work with pastoral communities spanning across decades, what do you think are the major policy gaps that have resulted in them being at the periphery of society?

NG: Migratory communities were perceived as a threat by “colonial powers”, especially the British. Such communities were difficult to rule, control and tax. In the 1870s, British rulers branded several groups as criminals by legislation. This pushed them to the sidelines. Unfortunately, administrators of Independent India inherited some of the same biases and believed that in order to be “developed”, one had to be “sedentary”.

The next biases seeped in the 60s and 70s when discussions emerged around how grazing is the cause of desertification and degradation. Animals who grazed were considered a nuisance and threat to the environment. Their grazers or pastoralists were wrongly mislabelled as backward illiterate people who deliberately destroyed the environment. The same narratives were seen emerging in different parts of the world including several countries in Africa.

Gradually, as these narratives were reinforced, the Forest Department and pastoralists became sworn enemies. Branded as backward, pastoralists got further pushed to the margins. They were not even given the opportunity to access benefits and services that were made available to some sedentary or settled societies. They also are viewed as outsiders in the places they migrate into. Over decade, these groups are not only pushed to the margins, but they have been forced to become invisible.

Presently, we do not even have an estimate of how many pastoralists or migratory groups there are. The policies have constantly neglected to take into account how services can be delivered to mobile and migratory communities.

grass, goat, herd, livestock, sheep, tibet, shepherd, goats, india, ladakh, herder, goatherd, cow goat family, Free Images In PxHere
Migratory communities were perceived as a threat by “colonial powers”, especially the British. Such communities were difficult to rule, control and tax. Representational image. Credit: pxhere

AM: Do you think the Indian government’s bias of neglecting issues of pastoralists is inherited from our colonial predecessors?

NG: Yes, the colonial and post-colonial administrators shared the biases, as I explained. In fact, earlier kingdoms in India shared a different relationship with pastoral communities. For instance, it is said that Ahilyabai Holkar, the queen of Indore, was a Dhangar. The Maratha kingdom had Dhangar warriors as part of their defense forces. The Dhangars are a predominant migratory shepherding community in India. Yet, today, in Maharashtra, the Dhangars are lumped with other itinerant communities in a category called Denotified and Nomadic tribes. The community members are not happy with this and there have been movements for shifting them to the Scheduled Tribes group. However, the response to their demands has been elusive and there has been a lack of sensitivity by even well-meaning people.

AM: What do you think about the pastoral production system having a symbiotic relationship with the local ecology?

NG: I have worked with pastoral groups for several years. The groups are very well versed with migratory routes, watering spots, grasses available, medicinal plants, toxic plants, wildlife populations, predators and their behaviour, weather patterns and much more. They share an intimate and extensive knowledge of the local ecology as they rely on it for survival.

For instance, they realise that the wolf is a part of their natural environment and although they do not like to lose any livestock to wolves, they understand that the wolf needs to live, too, and factor in losses to wolf attack. They have a saying that if a wolf attacks and takes a few of their livestock, then it is similar to a visit from the “Goddess Lakshmi”. They are more realistic and have a deeper understanding of nature and natural processes.

AM: How do you think pastoral communities and their livestock are better prepared than communities practicing intensive livestock rearing to be more adaptive to climate change?

NG: Variability, shocks, and uncertainty are everyday occurrences for pastoral families. If there are droughts, then they move to places that have better fodder available; if there are floods, they move to safe places; if there is a problem, they sell their stock; if the season is good, they stock up with more animals. At times, a few of the pastoralists even change species or breeds. In fact, sometimes they step out of pastoralism for a few years and then step back in. Historically, they have shown flexibility and therefore are more adaptive and resilient.

They also have internal systems social systems to tide them over bad times. Should a pastoralist lose his or her herd, others step in and help him or her get back on her feet. This act gets reciprocated should another shepherd face a bad situation.

AM: How can India start researching on understanding the ecological services of pastoral livelihoods?

NG: I think for a start, studies on the benefits of grazing could be undertaken. Several years ago, studies focusing on the value of grazing in the valley of flowers and the Bharatpur sanctuary were completed. Perhaps, it could be good to revisit those regions by undertaking fresh studies to see the impacts of grazing on the landscape and biodiversity.

At Anthra, we are awarding fellowships to women researchers to research the role of women in livestock rearing communities, and understand their knowledge, skills and problems. 

Also, fresh new sites could be identified for research and the findings could be disseminated. Grazing of grasslands by livestock of pastoral groups aids in keeping forest fires at bay and helps maintain grassland landscapes. Perhaps, students of wildlife ecology and veterinary sciences, too, could take up some of these studies.

AM: The climate change debate focuses on mitigation measures. There is an absence of discussion on the adaptability and resilience of communities such as the pastoralists. How do you think we could address that?

NG: Yes. Unfortunately, cattle, livestock, and therefore, pastoralists who herd livestock have been blamed for causing GHG emissions, and accelerating climate events and climate change. This is a one-sided debate because it is not positioned within a larger discussion and debate of climate change. It’s also convenient to shift or place the blame away from sectors such as coal, fertiliser and pesticides. These narratives are not dissimilar to the time when pastoralists were seen as enemies of the forest or grasslands and destroyers of the environment.

The narrative and discourse need to change. I think this has to be at the level of policy and science education, and the curriculum level in colleges including veterinary science, environmental science and ecology. More evidence-based papers need to be widely shared. Perhaps, seminars and discussions should be held to draw people into the debate. I think there is already a new interest because of the work of some groups. Maybe, the IYRP and events leading up to it as well as the work of our groups can bring about the change.

AM: Globally, there have been discussions on how livestock rearing is widely contributing to greenhouse emissions. How do we tackle such misplaced understanding about livestock rearing?

NG: Firstly, I think it is the systems of livestock rearing that have to be understood here. Intensive industrial systems that make a vast use of resources are bad for the environment and society, not just in terms of greenhouse gases, but also other issues such as the spread of pandemics like SARS, antibiotic use, animal welfare, pollution of soil and water, working conditions for employees, etc. But not many people are aware, engaged or concerned with these debates. It’s not in their backyard and so, not a concern. Animal welfare debates in India are often shifted to completely other levels.

It may help to start initiating these debates at different forums. We had tried a few years ago, with a special issue on the Role of Livestock in Sustainable Agriculture in 2017, but the seminar proceedings are not read very widely. Perhaps, it could be a good idea to initiate certain regional discussions in local language newspapers to tackle these misplaced understandings.

AM: Women’s contribution to livestock rearing has been undervalued and not widely captured in India. How can we change that?

NG: It’s completely unrecognised. Anthra has recently begun working on a project to change that. We are awarding fellowships to women researchers to research the role of women in livestock rearing communities, and understand their knowledge, skills and problems. We hope that through this research and scholarship on issues related to women, pastoralists will increase. We have a team specifically documenting women’s knowledge, and we are also trying to recognise and award women for their knowledge. We hope and believe that proactively engaging in such initiatives and writing about them will bring greater visibility to their knowledge.

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