Foraging through forests: Gaddi

By: Mohd. Sajid Idrisi and Sulagna Chattopadhyay
Among the various transhumant tribes that inhabit the Himalaya, the Gaddi herders share a causal relationship with the deodar and chir forests. Guarded by ferocious dogs the sheep and goat owned or loaned by the herder, forage through ancestral tracks to reach the alpine meadows every summer. With the enactment of the Forest Rights Act in 2008, the lives of the Gaddi are slowly but surely changing for the better as historic injustice is being undone.
Tribes

Gaddi, the nomadic sheep herding scheduled tribe of Himachal Pradesh, are among the traditional pastoralists of Himalayas, the others being Gujjar, Bakarwal, Kinnaur, Kauli and Kanet. Environmentalists have long perceived pastoralists’ livestock as an enemy to wildlife conservation, even though the livestock may not be that different from wildlife. Plus, increasing evidence is emerging for positive effects of pastoralism on the environment (Ilse Köhler-Rollefson and the Life Network, Keepers of Genes). Based on the informal interviews with the Gaddi pastoralists the author met at different locations while undertaking a mammal survey in Himachal, here are some facts that reveal their causal relationship with the forested realms.

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Livestock base

Gaddi herders perceive livestock as asset to the community – their livelihood depends on the sale or exchange of animals and their products to obtain foodstuffs and other necessities. With an economy that is today a mix of commercial herding and subsistence cultivation, the Gaddi sell wool, aging female sheep, and male lambs and kids. Goat milk is the principal source of food for the herders, and goat wool is used to make blankets. Gaddi however are semi nomadic tribes, as they do have some form of permanent dwellings unlike other nomadic grazers such as Gujjar and Changpa who migrate with their whole families from one pasture to another. Gaddi communities undertake cultivation within permanent villages located along the migratory route. Up to two crops may be harvested annually, involving a labour intensive intermeshing of the herding and cultivation cycles. (Vasant K Saberwal, Pastoral Politics)

Gaddi communities are primarily located in and around four districts of Himachal – Chamba, Kinnaur, Kangra and Dharamshala. By caste they belong to Rana, Rajput, Thakur or Khatri and follow Hinduism. Gaddi herders travel extensively and are believed to cover a distance of almost 400-500 km in one season over an elevational gradient of 13,000 ft with single herd constituting more than 500 sheep and goats. The pastoral cycle of the Gaddi largely depends on the availability of forage during different seasons. They usually inhabit marginal lands on the periphery of settled societies and eke resources in a way not possible by sedentary communities. In summer, they migrate to the alpine meadows of Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal while in winters they forage through the Siwaliks. They migrate during the transitional seasons i.e. autumn and spring, walking longer distances and taking short halts in between.

In the forests the stock survives exclusively by grazing. During the lean season in winter the Gaddi source forage through mutual understanding and reciprocity with the sedentary establishments. Farmers invite the Gaddi herders to pen stock on their farms for the night in lieu of land enrichment through sheep and goat droppings. Hay offered by the farmers for this service ensures the survival of the stock.

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Grazing rights

The access of Gaddi herders to the forested realms has been and still is an extremely complex issue. The present government policies take off from nineteenth century mindsets, wherein grazing was seen as a hindrance to biodiversity regeneration, culminating into accelerated soil erosion – necessitating a need to debar such activities. In ancient times the Gaddi may have achieved grazing rights from kings and colonisers – some families still exert formal rights and are granted permits to graze specific tracts herded for generations, but today these rights are a contentious issue. The forest authorities have earmarked developmental projects in various areas where the Gaddi herders are prohibited to forage for a stipulated period, say 5 to 7 years. The Gaddi thus tend to group their livestock with relatives, an activity which is again banned by the forest authorities as denser stocks result in enhanced stress on the carrying capacity of the foraging tract. The Gaddi also migrate to the adjacent states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh depending on the need and agreement with state authorities.

 

Asserting transhumance rights

The Forest Rights Act [Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights)] notified on January 1, 2008, forged new grounds and brought fresh hopes for the battered Gaddi community. The Act conferred rights over natural resources in order to secure a living coupled with the responsibility of using forest resources sustainably. (Pernille Gooch, Van Gujjar: The Persistent Forest Pastoralists) By combining livelihood with use and conservation of natural resources, the Act opens up the possibility of sustainable pastoralism.

On the downside, the Act perpetuates what the colonisers had set up – individual/household permits in lieu of community rights. As sustainability concerns are community driven, perhaps conferring community rights would have been an appropriate option. As of now the Gaddi herders are applying to village/community committees already set up, or are in the process of constituting a village committee.

 

Sustainable foraging

The Gaddi herders believe that they use the forests and pastures sustainably. Considerable consensus is being built up today citing examples from world over that grazing may be beneficial after all and should be encouraged within reserved forests. In fact, pastoralists’ livestock can benefit wildlife conservation as there is a long history of coevolution between wild species and livestock. Evicting the livestock from wildlife reserves may lead to an exodus of predators, or result in habitat changes that make it unattractive for wildlife. The Gaddi herders claim that they constitute a responsible disaster mitigation group, especially in the context of forest fires. Their stocks minimise the growth of high grass, thus preventing fires from spreading too far during the hot and dry summers. The Gaddi and many such grazers in the Himalaya also act as sentinels and first responders, warning forest officials of impending or ongoing wild fire danger. In many cases they have also stepped in as volunteers to stop the spread of forest fires.

Gaddi grazers reiterate generations of learning, which emphasises that foraging livestock help stimulate biodiversity more luxuriant and diverse in growth. Also they claim that browsing on young saplings leads to better root development, making the shrub or tree drought resistant.

These herders of Himachal add that their stocks are healthy and disease resistant as the breed, again named Gaddi, have evolved in the wild. With ever increasing selection pressure, the Gaddi provide a crucial counterbalance to the narrowing genetic base of industrial breeds. This important role of pastoralist production systems in maintaining domestic animal diversity needs to be appreciated and fully recognised. Unfortunately, at present pastoralists’ livestock face scorn from both ends, with wildlife conservationists denoting stock as ‘domestic’ animals, thus opposed to wildlife, while animal scientists dismiss them as unproductive.

 

Policy Interventions

The Gaddi need legally sanctioned and managed access to forest commons to protect the traditional means of conservation of Himalayan flora and fauna. The Forest Rights Act confers access rights, but procedural delays remain. With increased technological upgradation, monitoring the movement of Gaddi and other transhumant tribes can be undertaken through GPS and participation interlinked with tangible biodiversity improvement studies. Research on carrying capacity and changing mindsets of forest and wild biodiversity experts can enhance the role of the Gaddi in establishing sustainable environments. Experiences from other countries should be analysed for their applicability to India and the Gaddi could gain much from exposure to such programmes.

 

Endnote

With various employment schemes and other benefits offered by the government, it is odd that the Gaddi have preferred to bear various levels of hardship in order to continue their traditional vocation. But, times are changing – lucrative short term employment schemes in the offing coupled with reduced long term rights to forage are slowly pushing herders out of business. Agriculture now holds more promise, the Gaddi feel and their future depends on the political decisions made by state and central governments.

A more participatory and inclusive approach by the forest authorities in grazing and herders’ rights would be effective for long term conservation, management of forest resources and sustainable grazing practices.

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