Jodhpur and Bikaner, Rajasthan: Forty-two-year-old Mohammad Amin was only seven when he started helping his father graze their herd of sheep. His son, 16, now does the same. Nek Mohammad, 55, also walks the dusty path here in western Rajasthan to graze his herd of 200 sheep, along with his sons, aged 14 and 18, both school dropouts.

Education for the children of herders is a low priority in these parts, with children expected to help graze herds, as families place greater emphasis on imparting traditional knowledge and skills to their children, say activists. Just a few are enrolled in schools, and many of those, like Nek Mohammad's sons, drop out after primary learning. For those who do seek education, access to schools in the areas where pastoralist communities live can be challenging.

Pastoralism as a way of life is facing a host of challenges from humans and nature in equal measure, our ground report in western Rajasthan found. Shrinking of land available for grazing due to developmental and wildlife conservation activities, changing weather patterns and increasing hostility toward pastoralists have left these communities facing an uncertain future, said experts working among pastoral communities in the region.

The United Nations has dedicated 2026 to pastoralists like Amin and Mohammad, to reflect their important contributions to national economies, to healthy communities by way of supplying nutrient and protein-rich food and manure to farmers, and the role they play in environmental protection as the migratory paths they follow with their herds help rejuvenate local ecosystems. The International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists will also advocate for increased responsible investment in the sector.

India is 'a collage of pastoralist cultures' with around 46 communities having a distinct pastoral identity, whether mobile/nomadic, seasonal migrants or sedentary, per a September 2021 report by non-governmental organisations League for Pastoral Peoples and LIFE Network, which work in west Rajasthan. Rajasthan is home to several pastoral communities, including the Raikas or Rebaris, Raths, Gujjars, and Sindhi Muslims like Amin and Mohammad.

As much as 77% of the country's livestock are herded or left to range on their own on common land by pastoralists, per the September 2020 'Accounting for pastoralists in India' report by the same authors. Around 4.5% of India's gross domestic product (GDP) comes from the livestock sector, of which pastoralists contribute about two-thirds. In a country that is the world's largest milk producer, the largest exporter of sheep and goat meat and the fourth largest exporter of buffalo meat, pastoralists provide an estimated 53% of the total milk production and 74% of its meat.

Despite their valuable contribution to the rural economy and the GDP, and 20 counts of its livestock every five years since 1919, India does not have any official statistics on its pastoralist population. An estimate has put the number at 35 million, another at 6% of the population, said the September 2020 report, which itself put the number at 13 million, or 1% of the population in 2020, adding a caveat that the absence of hard data made a firm conclusion impossible. Data on the number of pastoralists, however, is a must for effective planning and framing of developmental policies related to the community, say experts.

Gap in data on pastoralist populations puts these communities at a disadvantage

Mohammad Amin was only seven when he started grazing sheep to help his father. His son now does the same.
Education for the children of herders is a low priority in west Rajasthan, with children expected to help graze herds.

The pastoralist sector contributes an estimated 3% to the country's GDP, which should reflect in policies that are sensitive to the specific needs of this way of livestock keeping. "Having no data on the number of pastoralists in the country affects the planning and policy process related to the community," said Madan Meena, an independent researcher and the main author of an Indian Council of Social Science Research national-level study report from 2014, which found that the literacy rate among de-notified, nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes in Rajasthan was only 34%.

The lack of a definite number of pastoralists is a "disadvantage", Arvind Kumar Panwar, joint director of the Jodhpur division of the state government's Pashupalak Training Institute under the Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying, told IndiaSpend, adding that the "statistics department does enumerate households with livestock" in their survey.

Kailash Chand, assistant director in the statistics department of Rajasthan's Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Pali district, however, pointed out that the statistics department "doesn't have a segment on the number of pastoralist or pashupalak (livestock owner)" in their surveys.

This data gap was acknowledged by the Union government at the National Conclave of Pastoral Youth held in Bhuj, Gujarat on January 21, 2023. Union Minister of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying Parshottam Rupala had "initiated the necessary dialogue" for the inclusion of the pastoral census as part of the national livestock census, the government release said.

"The number of livestock herders will be counted in the next livestock census in 2024," Debalina Mitra, Assistant Commissioner in the central Department of Animal Husbandry and Dairying told IndiaSpend, when we contacted the ministry for clarification. They are still counted when the census counts households owning animals, but this time there will be a different sub-set for herders, she added.

Development and conservation activities leading to shrinking of land available for grazing

Developmental activities like industrial development, mining sites and windmill installation are taking away grazing land, said Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, a German scientist of the League for Pastoral Peoples, based in Sadri, Pali district, who works on pastoralism particularly among the camel-herding Raika community. "Forest land categorised as wasteland takes away grazing pastures from the pastoral community," said Kohler-Rollefson. To make them 'productive', these lands are then used for green energy projects. "A windmill may need 1- to 1.5 acres of land but there is a whole network of road connectivity and electrical lines that take up more space."

In Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan, residents of 40 villages reportedly undertook a 225 km march in December 2022 to voice their concern for Orans, or sacred groves, that are biodiversity hotspots, which were classified as wastelands and allotted for setting up solar plants. The villagers demanded that these Orans should be declared as deemed forests in accordance with a 2018 Supreme Court order, so that the locals can graze their animals.

It is an ironical tussle between local ecology and green energy, when classifying grasslands as 'unproductive' wastelands proves detrimental to these biodiversity hotspots that also support pastoral and agro-pastoral communities, Delhi-based conservationist Sumit Dookia told IndiaSpend. "Classifying grasslands as wasteland and identifying them as renewable energy sites in western Rajasthan for example is detrimental for the local fauna that these grasslands support, like the Great Indian Bustard."

Grazing land for pastoralists is further shrinking as a result of some of these areas being notified as protected land by the forest department, like the move to develop Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary into a tiger reserve which will affect the camel-, sheep- and goat-herding Raika community who graze their animals in this region, said Madan Meena.

Also, "in Rajasthan, after the Indira Gandhi Canal came into being, agriculture got a boost. Increase in agricultural land, however, meant that pastoral routes were blocked," Aakriti Srivastava of Bahula Foods Private Limited, a farmers' collective for agri-dairy products in Bikaner, told IndiaSpend.

Earlier, farmers on pastoral routes would allow herders to stay on their farm for a few days in return for manure, but that is no longer the case, explained Moti Kumawat of Bikaner's Urmul Seemant, a rural health, research and development trust which works towards bringing about social and economic change in western Rajasthan. "There have been instances of hostility (against pastoralists). Instead of walking on their route, many now hire trucks and go to Punjab and Haryana during seasonal migrations."

Ramifications of changing weather patterns for livestock herders

Nek Mohammad and his two sons, aged 14 and 18, are goat herders. His sons dropped out of school to help their father graze their sheep.

Another pressing challenge affecting the pastoralist community is the changing weather pattern. Nek Mohammad, who has 200 sheep, said that he lost 30 sheep in 2022 to a "lung disease" that has struck in the last two years. "It is because of the weather changes. I have been grazing animals for the past 40 years and such a problem was not witnessed earlier," he said, "The winters have become so severe. When it rains, it rains so much. There are long cold and hot spells. Not just me, other herders in neighbouring villages are also facing similar problems with their animals."

We heard a similar concern in a different part of Rajasthan, in Udaipur district. Champalal Meena, a goat herder and the village sarpanch of Dai Ali Gaon said that compared to a few years back, when they could graze their animals within half a km radius, now they have to walk further, about 1.5 km. "This is mainly because of a thorny bush that has started growing here. No animal, whether goat, sheep, cattle or buffalo, eats that. Gajar ghaas [Parthenium hysterophorus] which makes the soil unproductive has started growing in abundance and babool [gum arabic tree] gives goats dysentery," he said. The herders, therefore, have to be more careful while grazing their animals. "Cases of our goats falling sick and dying have increased. Just last night a neighbour lost three of his goats. There is a compounder close by who gives medicines and we are bearing the additional cost but even that has been ineffective."

Chetan Pandya of Gayatri Seva Sansthan, a non-governmental organisation in Udaipur, said that while the landscape still 'looks' green, animals are not grazing because "local species of plants are getting replaced by invasive weed species". "Weed species like lantana, parthenium and juliflora are invading everywhere. Therefore, pastoralists have to walk further and further to graze their animals."

How children of pastoralists could gain both traditional knowledge and modern-day education

Travelling longer distances for grazing has a detrimental effect not just on the main bread-earners in pastoral families, but also on children, many of whom help in grazing the animals. "Children in the tribal belt and among pastoral communities help in grazing animals. Girls, when they are around 12-13 years old, graze goats close by, and boys accompany their fathers in going longer distances," Pandya explained, "Now, with fodder becoming a challenge for animals, children are bearing the brunt too."

Children's lack of education is, however, not seen as a negative by most parents in the community, said Srivastava. "Who will look after our herd, after us? Our children. So, it is good that they learn the trade early," said Kusum Meena, wife of a cattle herder. "There is no other choice: pastoralism is the only source of livelihood we know. Our children have to do the same," Ata Mohammad, a goat-herder, added.

Ata Mohammad, a pastoralist in west Rajasthan. Children in pastoralist communities lack access to schools. In Ata Mohammad's village, the school in the village is only till class 5, and children have to travel five-seven km away to pursue high school.

Access to schools in places where these communities live is also challenging, said Moti Kumawat of Urmul Seemant. In Ata Mohammad's village, for example, the school in the village is only till class 5, and children would have to travel five-seven km away to pursue high school.

The problem of child labour in the livestock production sector, caused by poverty, limited access to education and traditional attitudes towards children's participation in agricultural activities, is often ignored, says the International Labour Organization.

Ironically, it is the children in need of more care and attention—those with physical or learning disabilities—that are sent for grazing first. "It is thought that at least through grazing, these children will be able to do something to contribute to the family," said Srivastava.

At times, some pastoralists also hire children to graze their animals. "If a family has a small number of animals, like five-seven goats, they can send their 14- to 15-year-old son to graze somebody else's animals. For this, they get paid a monthly sum of Rs 5,000-7,000," said Ramzan, a pastoralist in Imamnagar, near Jodhpur.

Some of these instances were flagged by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in New Delhi, after it received complaints of children being employed by the Maldhari community. "We worked on the issue with the Maldhari community of southern Rajasthan for four years, between 2017 to 2020, until the Covid-19 pandemic hit. At a congregation, the leaders of the community gave their word that they will not allow such practices," Priyank Kanoongo, NCPCR chairperson told IndiaSpend.

The issue and the complexity of the challenges that the pastoralist community, particularly the nomadic and semi-nomadic communities face, is however not "understood" by the government, Kanoongo added. "When their animal falls ill, the community does not go to the vet immediately. They will use their traditional knowledge to heal the animal. This rich traditional knowledge, if not preserved, if not transferred to their own children, will be lost," he said. To ensure that children don't lose out on either—modern-day education and traditional knowledge—he said that schools in these areas can amend their school calendar in accordance with the "nomadic calendar". "The nomadic families start migrating around March and return during monsoons. If the lesson plan is changed in accordance with this, pastoralists' children don't have to miss out on school. They will be able to perform in class without losing interest or dropping out."

As a result of these growing challenges, pastoralism as a way of life is on the decline, Anshul Ojha of the Desert Resource Centre, an NGO in Bikaner, told IndiaSpend. This is particularly noticeable among camel herders, where education levels among the community are rising and youngsters are moving to other jobs, given the depletion in the number of camels in the state," he said.

Panwar feels that better marketing of pastoralists' produce can play a big role in boosting their way of life. "Camel milk, for instance, has a short shelf life, unlike cow's milk. Local markets and market linkages have to be developed keeping that in mind," Panwar told IndiaSpend, "Small-scale industries need to be developed for that; the government can play a role in that." While efforts in this direction have been made by some groups of camel herders, like the Kumbalgarh Camel Dairy's Camel Charisma, which sells milk, milk products, camel dung paper and camel wool, much more needs to be done.

This story has been supported by The Work: No Child's Business Alliance, run by Save the Children Netherlands, UNICEF Netherlands, and Stop Child Labour Coalition.

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