September 23, 2020
Herders faced hardships during lockdown. Pic: Anu Verma and Biren Nayak

Herders faced discrimination and hardships in managing seasonal migrations

Jaga Vashraam Rabari of Vrajvani village in Kutch migrates every summer with his herd of animals for eight months.

Villagers in Pattan, around 300 km from home, usually invite and welcome his group but this time, they were not allowed to enter the villages due to rumours around COVID 19.

“The presence of police personnel also scared us and our mobility was seriously restricted,” he says talking about sudden changes during the lockdown evoked on March 25 in wake of the pandemic.

Around 31 percent nomadic herders like Rabari were stranded while 51 percent said their inter-state movement declined during the lockdown, found a study from five states.

The drudgery of pastoral women, who were stranded outside the villages multiplied because they had to walk longer distances to fetch water, arrange for ration or for selling milk. 

Around 93 percent herders reported increase in expenditure cost of livestock. Feeding cost increased four to five times and fodder and water had to be purchased while these would have come for free  if they had reached the pastures on time.

The study, ‘Pastoralist’s Life in Lockdown’, by ActionAid gives details about discrimination, security issues and financial and logistical hardships faced by pastoralists during the pandemic. 

Around 90% of the respondents found decline in accessibility to grazing lands and water while 80% said they could not access fodder

Migration Interrupted

Nomadic herders, whose livelihood depends on livestock, travel in search of pasture land. There are communities whose journeys start every year in April/June from Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra states and pass through traditional routes through different regions. 

They stop at fixed places where people accept them and allow their herds to camp on their farms in exchange of manure. In the hill regions of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, pastoral communities climb to the upper reaches for the summer. They pass through the same route, stopping at traditional resting places. The lockdown disturbed everything. 

Restrictions on movement made it difficult for these communities to manage their livestock, as it was only through their travel that they could access feed.

They had to divert routes and spend more time and energy working out where they could move. Expenses went up, and income from livestock through sale of milk, wool or animals declined substantially.

Expenses went up, and income from livestock through sale of milk, wool or animals declined substantially

The government and NGO support reached their families in the villages, but while on the move the pastoralists remained without help. Access to health services was a particular issue, both for themselves and for livestock. 

Inaccessible Pastures and Water

The time of lockdown coincided with the season of migration of pastoralist to start moving with their animals towards summer pasture. Around 32 percent pastoralists interviewed said they reduced their migration, while 30 percent delayed it.

Ferrying goats on a cycle. Image: Manu MoudgilAfter first phase relaxation in the conditions of lockdown, some of the pastoralists proceeded for summer grazing. Rest 38 percent did not change their usual timing of travel and started on their usual routes. However, they faced a lot of problems enroute.

Around 90 percent of the respondents found decline in accessibility to grazing lands and water while 80 percent felt decrease in access to fodder. 

For 62 percent of the pastoralists, the delay or reduction of migration days had huge impact on their income.

Around 94% pastoralists said they faced problems getting food and ration items while on the move

Since, the annual sustenance of these families is dependent on migration on a rotational basis, a setback for one complete year means that the flow is disturbed for a couple of years in future.

Most of them felt that any lockdown in future should not have any restriction on their travels and access to pasture since their animals depend on grazing. Around 94 percent pastoralists said they faced problems getting food and ration items while on the move.

Dangers On New Routes

When Naag ji bhai from Kutch was migrating to Mehsana district with his family this year, around 30-40 of their sheep were stolen in the night. They reported the case to police, but no one was caught. After moving from pillar to post, they found no hope and stopped following up the case.

When herders travel on a known route every year, they develop their own social network and safety system. This also becomes a mutually beneficial exercise for villagers enroute. However, around 57 percent of the herders interviewed said they had to change their routes during the lockdown.

In the changed route, there were hardly any human habitations and they could not get food items easily. The mobile phones they kept to remain in touch with other group members and family could not be used because there were no shops opened for mobile recharge and there was no network available for days.

The rise in thefts on unknown routes meant they had to monitor their livestock day and night. This was not required on older routes.

There was, however, a positive side of lockdown as overall incidents of theft of animals or robbing of pastoralists declined. Around 67 percent of herders found decline in crime which could be attributed to enhanced security and restrictions on movement of people.

Health and Wealth

Livestock rearing involve lot of investment in terms of money, labour and contacts to purchase medicine and fodder.

The study found that while the rates of cattle feed went up, there was also an increase in livestock diseases which complicated the situation. At the same time, cost of milk and other dairy products crashed amid fear of Covid-19 spread through animals. 

In Uttarakhand, Van Gujjars dumped 5,000 litre of milk every day in April because nobody wanted to buy from them.

Usually pastoralists don’t carry cash and purchase things while traveling by selling products like milk, meat, wool or woolen products. This year, they had less income and it was difficult to meet needs of the animals. Around 80 percent faced crunch of income from all animal products while 90 percent mentioned decline in income from wool. 

Also livestock markets in May from where people purchase bullock for agriculture purpose were shut. In many instances people were forced to abandon big livestock like cow and bullock as they had no resource to stall feed.

In response to this crisis, people felt, there should be relaxation and scope for collection and sale of their products without any restriction during any such lockdown in future. Government procurement may be arranged if there is no facility for local sale. This will help people to protect their income.

80% faced crunch of income from all animal products while 90 percent mentioned decline in income from wool 

84% of pastoralists faced difficulties in camping near villages

Availability of fodder and veterinary medicine was limited and whatever was available was too high priced. Many of them said governments should provide support for livestock during these times like they gave ration support to people.

“Even after paying money, we were not getting cattle feed, due to scarcity,” says Bharat Gokul Bharwad of Manwarpur village. “When we ventured to collect grasses from nearby grassland, police stopped us. The price of cattle feed went up by more than 60 percent.”

Access to basic health services for the livestock was affected everywhere. Around 89 percent experienced a big challenge accessing health services for animals during lockdown.

Around 84 percent of the pastoralists faced difficulties in camping near villages. In previous years, farmers and villagers welcomed and invited them to graze the animals on the post-harvest residue.

However, this year due to the pandemic, people were scared and did not allow herders to camp near the villages. There were also instances of physical attacks on Muslim animal herders in areas of Punjab.

More than 50 percent interviewed for the study said they faced discrimination from villagers while 30 percent experienced increase in discrimination by local police and government authorities. In some cases, the pastoralists also avoided populated villages to escape harassment.

Over 80 percent pastoralists said there was reduction in access to basic health services during migration while 60 percent felt difficulty in accessing food and water.

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