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How Kachchh’s Nomadic Pastoralists Are Dealing With COVID-19’s Challenges

How Kachchh’s Nomadic Pastoralists Are Dealing With COVID-19’s Challenges

Featured image: Naniben’s camp in a field in Morbi in March, before the lockdown. Photo: Natasha Maru.

Aavu toh kadi dithu nathi” (I have never seen something like this), said Naniben when I asked her on the phone about the lockdown.

Naniben belongs to the nomadic Rabari pastoralist community of Kachchh, Gujarat. A part of Naniben’s family moves with their sheep and goats throughout the year, living in a migrating camp under the open sky. When the government announced its nationwide lockdown to try and contain the spread of COVID-19 in late March, Naniben and several other families from her community were in a camp far away from home in Morbi district.

While the country has been been focused on the mobility (or lack of it) of migrant workers – and rightly so – what has the lockdown meant for pastoralists like Naniben, who rely on movement for their livelihoods?

When I asked her about her feelings towards the COVID-19 pandemic two weeks into the lockdown, Naniben sounded nonchalant, aware of the unfolding pandemic but unaffected. They were going about their business as usual, she said, moving from farm to farm, village to village, all mobile despite the lockdown. However, cracks in their resilience are also beginning to show as new anxieties come to the fore.

Sometimes 2 km, sometimes 20, the Rabari move every few days, going east to mainland Gujarat for the winter and summer months before moving back west to Kachchh for the monsoons. They use mobility to take advantage of agricultural ‘hotspots’ in Gujarat as well, such as the cotton-growing Morbi region and the wheat-fields of Bhal. These regions have assured harvests even in years of low rainfall thanks to bore-wells and canal irrigation from the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

A map showing the Rabari migration area in Gujarat. Image: John Hall/PASTRES

In these places, the Rabari have a chance to get nutritious fodder for their animals and to earn cash or grain in exchange for manure deposits from their sheep. Sheep manure is very nutritious and costs farmers less than chemical fertilisers. With arrangement like this, the Rabari have cultivated mutually beneficial relationships with farmers over the years and are valued within the local agrarian system.

Characterised by variable rainfall, drought cycles, sandy soils and salty groundwater, the dryland region of Kachchh is home to several pastoralist communities that overcome these environmental barriers through some degree of mobility. Last summer, Kachchh experienced its harshest drought in 30 years, but the subsequent monsoon was unusually late and violent, extending well into November. As a result, Gujarat’s harvest was delayed – as was Naniben’s winter migration. So the Rabari had a markedly short migration period this year, and spent less than three months in mainland Gujarat compared to the eight last year. In fact, Naniben said had never experienced such a short migration cycle before.

By the time the lockdown was partly lifted in the area on May 3, Naniben was already making her way back to Kachchh, although some of her relatives had chosen to go further ahead, to Bhal. The late winter rainfall in Kachchh had allowed for a summer harvest and early rain in June provided new sprouts of grass for grazing, allowing the pastoralists to return early.

Sheep grazing in the commons in Kachchh in November 2019. Photo: Natasha Maru

The primary source of income for the Rabari shepherds is the sale of live animals. A growing global meat market has made pastoralism an attractive livelihood option despite the taboos against slaughter in the region. The pastoralists normally command the price and negotiate informally with the trader, who purchases animals directly from the camp. However, sales since March have been dismal due to restrictions on the export of livestock.

When the lockdown first began, the pastoralists were confident that they would be able to sell animals in a few months’ time, and at comfortable prices. The low input costs and the long lifespan of livestock mean the pastoralists can hold onto their stock until they can charge a price they like. But with the lockdown, and no respite in sight, their optimism has given way to anxiety. “Khule tyaare hachu (when trade opens, we will know),” Ishwarbhai Rabari, a member of the community, said indicating some uncertainty over his fortunes.

India sells close to 7 lakh small ruminants each year, mostly to countries in West Asia such as Oman, Dubai and the United Arab Emirates. The Tuna port in Kachchh, under the Deendayal Port Trust, is the preferred port for livestock exports. In late April, the government issued an order allowing exports from the port but revoked the permission within five days as the port administration grew concerned about novel coronavirus transmission through the animals.

As a result, the pastoralists and traders were unable to make a profit from exports even after peak demand during the month of Ramzan. In addition, restrictions on local movements of traders and vehicles also made local trade harder.

Abubhai, a livestock trader in Kachchh, said they were using their savings to meet their needs. In June, Abubhai had been able to supply animals to the animal market in Anjar for domestic trade, but that isn’t likely to be enough as access to key markets in big cities, especially in other states, remains limited.

Naniben’s sheep being sheared in February 2020. Photo: Natasha Maru

Apart from animal traders, the wool-shearers and contractors associated with pastoralism have also suffered in the lockdown. Manubhai, a contractor from Rajkot, missed the pre-monsoon shearing cycle. Traditional shearers from Rajasthan who he works with were unable to travel to Gujarat. With the drop in international demand for wool in this period, he struggles to sell wool collected in February. The Gujarat government announced no relief measures for this sector, nor for the pastoralists and allied industries.

Gaamwala ne kai aapti hase toh theek, pan amane vagada wala ni koi sambhar nathi leti sarkar (They may be giving something to those in the villages [referring to ‘settled’ farmers] but the government is not checking on us who are in the bush),” Dayabhai Rabari said.

The image of a Rabari pastoralist herding a flock of sheep by the roadside, stick in hand, sack on shoulders, popularly adorns pamphlets inviting tourists to Gujarat. But the government in Gujarat, like many others, provides little or no support to non-milk-related livestock-based livelihoods, often appropriates common grazing resources for big business interests, and hasn’t provided adapted social services, such as education and health, to support their mobile lifestyles.

Operating at ecological and social interstices, pastoralists have imbibed diversity, flexibility and self-organisation within their lifeworld to adapt to their uncertainties. They cut across the fragmented, enclosed and privatised farmlands, roads and highways. During the lockdown, they walked or hitchhiked through their extensive networks criss-crossing districts and bypassing the need for buses and trains. They reduced their dependence on essentials by relying on grain from farmers and dairy from their animals. Meanwhile, they also earned through ancillary sources within their multi-resource income portfolio, which often includes land given on lease to contract farmers, rented tractors or trucks, secondary flocks, etc.

But not all pastoralists in India have had the same opportunities. The Rabari experience favourable interactions with farmers and local state agents, like the police, who provide free passage and other support. The reason is that the Rabari is a large community in Gujarat that falls within dominant religious and caste categories that often mark social ties in the region. Many other pastoral communities have been barred from villages, have faced food and fodder shortages and have also not been able to sell meat or milk. The Muslim pastoralists in the north Indian states in particular have also faced religious persecution due to the deadly communal politics.

Situated in a complex economic, social and political milieu, the Rabari have specialised in managing environmental variability through their movement. A research project called ‘Pastoralism, Uncertainty and Resilience‘ at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK asks what lessons we can learn from how pastoralists engage with uncertainties. (Editor’s note: The author is part of this project.) Based on a six-country study, including my doctoral research with the Rabari in India, this project aims to apply lessons from pastoralist contexts to address global challenges where uncertainty is pervasive, including disease outbreak.

Trapped between uncertainties related to both the weather and the pandemic in the last few months, the case of the Rabari shows how mobility has been enabled and constrained in different ways to adapt to these extraordinary circumstances.

* All names have been changed to protect identities.

Natasha Maru is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, UK, and a consultant on pastoralist issues with international agriculture and sustainability organisations. She holds an MPhil in development studies from the University of Oxford and has experience working with smallholder farmers and pastoralists in western India. She tweets at @natasha_maru.

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