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Narrow, distorted notions 'snatching away' nomads' livelihoods, knowledge systems

By Bharat Dogra* 
Nomadic communities have suffered from increasing marginalization in recent times as both their needs and potential have not received the due attention and understanding. On the one hand their rights are trodden upon and violated by powerful forces, on the other hand whatever development work is initiated for them fails to take account of their real and considerable potential, their wisdom and rich skills in certain areas.
 Both kinds of interventions ultimately lead to continued marginalization of nomadic communities in different ways, as well as the perpetuation of several prejudices against them which has also result in violation of their human rights.
Some time back I visited a settlement of Kabutra community in Mahoba district (Uttar Pradesh). They appeared to be scared of any outside visitors. The reason was not difficult to understand. As they are members of a highly vulnerable community, when some crimes are difficult to solve, it is members of this community which are more likely to be implicated and arrested, leading to high levels of distress among them.
While visiting another settlement of a nomadic community -- the Kalandar community in Tonk district of Rajasthan -- another kind of distress was more visible. Till some years back they wandered to many places with their bears and monkeys, their skilled animals presenting highly entertaining performances in streets and villages. 
The animals were taken good care of as after all they were the sources of livelihood and sometimes such affectionate bonds developed that the bear would not take food if he did not see the family head (with whom the animal travelled) for a day or two. What was of great value in this community was the great understanding between human beings and animals. Much could be learnt from this. 
Entirely ignoring such assets unique to this way of life, new regulations required these ‘madaris’ to give up the animals for ever and along with this their ancestral life and livelihood pattern was disrupted, without anything being created to replace this, driving many towards beggary and destitution.
These disruptions of the life-style and livelihoods of nomadic communities have taken several forms. In several places there have been traditional close relationships between nomadic pastoral communities and settled cultivators. 
The cultivators welcomed pastorals to camp in their fallow farms as the dung and urine of animals would provide free, highly productive manure to the fields. But once intensive cropping patterns were introduced ignoring this mutually beneficial relationship, the system based on this collapsed, making farmers dependent on chemical fertilizers and creating such conditions where they would regard nomadic pastorals as unwelcome intruders, not welcome guests as before.
The increasing dependence being created in India for various kinds of paper identities makes life more difficult for nomadic people. During the pandemic and lockdowns the sufferings of nomadic communities increased the most, for understandable reasons. For those who followed a cycle of nomadic life and settled life, the lockdowns disrupted the cycle in ways which were very disruptive and whose impacts will linger on for quite some time, adding much to their difficulties. 
Hence it is all the more important now that the problems of nomadic communities should receive more and careful attention. The word careful is important here as nomadic communities in various parts of world have often been victims of prejudice and misunderstanding. 
The biggest misconception has been that the nomadic way of life is inherently wrong and solutions should be seen only in terms of settlement. In this distorted thinking the many-sided potential, knowledge and skills of nomadic people are simply ignored.
While in some cases nomadic communities do demand and need settlement, in some other contexts they need better protection of their way of life. This second aspect gets little recognition from those policy makers for whom settlement has to be a pre-condition for ‘development’. 
Such narrow, distorted and wrong notions about nomads have led to the snatching away of livelihoods of several nomadic communities as well as the knowledge systems of great value associated with these livelihoods and life-patterns. A much more pluralist understanding of different ways of life being suitable to different communities is much needed.
In the Sahel region of Africa this lack of understanding of nomadic life proved even more harmful as big agribusiness companies took over a lot of land which disrupted the life-pattern of nomadic pastorals and led of large number of deaths of pastoral people in famine conditions in the Sahel region.
However, those who tried to carefully study the nomadic way of life tell a different story of a lot of hidden wisdom in their patterns of living. Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins write in their widely acclaimed book, ‘Food First’: 
"While the migrations of nomadic pastoral people might look random to outsiders, they are, in reality, patterned to take advantage of variations in rainfall and vegetation.  The nomads may herd their livestock over hundreds of miles from rainy season pastures to oases of perennial grasses in dry seasons…  The nomadic tactics make use of resources that others would not even consider resources."  
In India, an important contribution of nomads has been to make available hardy breeds of cattle
KS Fraudenberger, a social scientist who has worked extensively in Africa, particularly Senegal, says:
"Pastoralists like FulBe play a critical role in the sustainable management of fragmented ecosystems.  Both Third World governments and aid agencies need to recognize this.  The key is to work with local people to develop policies to protect grazing lands and nomadic rights where pastoralism is both more sustainable and more environmentally appropriate than farming."
In India, a very important contribution of nomads has been to make available hardy breeds of cattle.  The Royal Commission of Agriculture noted:
"If inquiry were to be made into the history of such breeds… we believe it would be found, in most cases that their excellence was due to the care bestowed on them by the professional cattle breeders, usually nomadic.  They usually worked under unfavorable conditions, but their skill in selecting and tending cattle was… considerable."
Researchers who have looked at the life-patterns of nomadic communities have helped in clearing several misconceptions about them. The Van Gujar nomadic community in Uttarakhand was frequently blamed for harming forests. However, a study by A Clark, H Sewill and R Walts which examined the evidence carefully concluded:
"From our study we found that crown cover was relatively unaffected by lopping and that there was an increase in ground vegetation in an area with lopped trees with would decrease the possibility of erosion." 
A'Community Forest Management in Protected Areas (CFMPA) plan for involving Van Gujars in forest protection described the several skills and admirable world-view of Van Gujars in detail. On the knowledge of Van Gujars about forests thisconcludedd:
"To walk through the forest with a Van Gujar guide is a lesson in bio-diversity; every species of tree is known, its quality as fodder, the timing of its leaf-fall, medicinal properties and so on. Every sound has meaning, every bird known and its habits noted, every fallen branch or tree noted."
The skills of the Van Gujars in buffalo breeding are also described in this document:
“The van gujar buffalo are not the rather dopey animals one sees commonly in Indian villages but a livelier and altogether more robust breed with the endurance to cover great distances on very little food and the strength to scramble over rocks in high mountain pastures.  Quietly sleeping with eyes closed by day or wallowing contentedly in a mud-hole, they come alive after dark and are said to possess excellent night vision.  
“Either sex is quite capable of fending off predators and indeed deer are said to actively seek out their protection.  Easily distinguished by their appearance and personality, each is named individually, much as human beings are named... Injured animals are carefully tended and unproductive animals are neither killed nor sold."
As for their special needs of migration this document said:
"It is said these buffaloes themselves initiate the migration, becoming restless for the hills as the April heat increases and then again becoming anxious to descend as the mountain air cools in late September.  They know the regular stops along the route, and where water is to be found."
A study of the Bhotiyas of the Kumaon Himalaya titled 'Living on the Move' by Vineeta Hoon has also argued along similar lines that their nomadic life is based on a good understanding of and adjustment with the existing resource base.  She writes:
 "The Bhotiyas recognize the unique seasonal opportunities offered by their mountain environment and utilize them in an ecologically sustainable manner...  the course of many generations they have devised and refined a set of economic strategies and land use practices, and have developed a system of mountain resource mangement attuned to the opportunities of their high mountain ecosystem. 
“Energy analysis and time-space analysis have also demonstrated that pastoral nomadism and transhumance are appropriate eco-technologies which are effective in using a marginal environment without damaging it ...They synchronize their life with the season in such a way that they utilize energy resources in different altitudinal levels as they become available to them within the annual cycle of transhumance and nomadism."
This study emphasized that shepherds are a storehouse of knowledge on high altitude plants:
"They know which portions of the plants to collect as food, medicines and seasoning, they also know the best time for collection and understand the symbiotic relations between different species of plants." 
This knowledge has been passed on from one generation to another on the basis of an informal system of education. Vineeta Hoon says:
“The informal indigenous education system taught the next generation survival skills and economic strategies to survive in the harsh Himalayan habitat. This knowledge was passed down orally and is ingrained in their songs, dances and folklore. They were innovative in their teaching methods with a focus on learning by doing."
Some nomadic groups have also made an important contribution in water conservation. To meet water needs while moving in water-scarce areas nomadic groups showed great skills in conserving water, finding and protecting water sources which also proved helpful for other travelers and settled villagers as well.
Pichola lake, an important source of water in Udaipur City, was constructed by Banjara nomads while the  Maldhari nomads of Kutch developed a unique rain water harvesting system called Virda.
Keeping in view these many-sided achievements of nomads and nomadic communities, it is really sad that in most dealings with them others, including officials, take their assumed backwardness for granted and so invariably talk in terms of asking them to give up their rich traditions. 
A different approach based on sympathy and understanding is needed and media can make an important contribution in this. This will make it possible to understand their needs in changing times and in special problem situations.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril', ‘A Day in 2071’, 'Man over Machine' and ‘Protecting Earth for Children'

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