Counting Sheep as Grasslands Shrink in Gujarat

Photo: Namita Waikar.

“Is there rain in your village?” It was Karabhai Aal on the phone from Banaskantha district in North Gujarat. “There is none here.” That was in the last week of July this year. “If it rains, we will go home,” he had declared with half a hope.

That he was speaking to a non-farmer in very urban Pune city, 900 kilometres away, didn’t seem to matter to him, so great was his anxiety. Karabhai’s complete focus on the rains arises from the centrality of the monsoons to the survival game he and his family play out each year.

Twelve months had gone by since the 75-year-old pastoralist had left his village on his annual migration with his son, daughter-in-law, two grandsons, and a brother and his family. The 14-member group moved with their flock of over 300 sheep, three camels and the night guardian of their herd – a dog named Vichhio. And in those 12 months they had traversed – with their animals – over 800 kilometres across Kachchh, Surendranagar, Patan and Banaskantha districts.

Karabhai’s wife Dosibai and their youngest school-going grandchildren had remained at home in Jatavada village in Rapar taluka of Kachchh, Gujarat. The clan belongs to the Rabari community (listed as OBCs in that district), and leave their village each year for 8 to 10 months in search of pastures for their sheep. In a normal year, these nomadic pastoralists set out soon after Diwali (October-November) and return just as the next monsoon is set to break.

This means they are on the move all year round, except during the rainy season. Even when they return, some family members remain outside their homes, taking the sheep to feed on the outskirts of Jatavada. The animals cannot reside within the village, needing their space and grazing grounds.

“I thought the village patel had sent you to drive us away from here.” That was how Karabhai had greeted us in early March when we traced him to a parched field in Gavana village of Surendranagar district. That’s about 150 kilometres from Ahmedabad city.

His suspicions had a basis. When times get tough, as they do during a prolonged drought, landowners drive pastoralists and their herds off their territory – they want to save the grass and crop stubble for their own cattle.

“The dushkaal [drought] is very bad this time,” Karabhai had told us. “That is why we left from Rapar in the month of Akhaad [June-July] last year, because there was simply no rain.” The ongoing drought in their arid home district had forced an early start to their annual migration.

“We wander with our sheep until the monsoon starts. If it doesn’t rain, we don’t go home! This is the life of a maldhari,” he told us. The term maldhari is derived from the Gujarati words mal (livestock) and dhari(guardian).

“The 2018-19 drought in Gujarat’s arid and semi-arid regions has been so severe that even some of those pastoralists who had become sedentarised in their village almost 25 years ago, began migrating again in search of grazing lands, fodder and livelihoods,” says Neeta Pandya. She is the founder of the Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG), Ahmedabad, a non-profit active among pastoralists since 1994.

In 2018, rainfall in Kachchh, home to this maldhari family, plummeted to a mere 131 millimetres. The ‘normal’ annual average for Kachchh is 356 mm. But this was not a wayward year. The monsoon in the district has been increasingly erratic for over a decade now. Data of the India Meteorological Department (IMD) show that rainfall in the district fell to 291 millimetres in 2014, to 294 in 2016, but went up to 493 mm in 2017. A similar five-year period four decades ago – 1974-78 – shows one disastrous year (88 mm in 1974) and four successive years in which the rainfall is above the ‘normal’ average.

In a 2018 report titled Gujarat’s water crisis rooted in years of misplaced priorities, Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People writes that over the last three decades, successive governments in the state have pushed the Narmada dam as a lifeline for the drought-prone areas of Kachchh, Saurashtra and North Gujarat. In practice, however, these regions are given the lowest priority. They receive only the residual water after the requirements of urban areas, industries, and farmers in central Gujarat are met.

“The water in the Narmada should be used for farmers and pastoralists in these areas,” Thakkar told us on phone. “The programmes of well-charging and check dams adopted in the past must be revived.”

The maldharis are dependent on common grazing lands and village pastures for their herds to feed. Most of them do not own land and those who do, grow rain-fed crops like bajra – food for them and fodder for the animals.

“We came here two days ago and today we are leaving. There is not much [for us] here,” said Karabhai in March, pointing to an empty field of jeera (cumin). It was also dry and very hot. In 1960, when Karabhai was a teenager, Surendranagar district would have seen temperatures crossing 32 degrees Celsius around 225 days a year. Today, that would be 274 days or more, an increase of at least 49 hotter days across 59 years, according to a calculation from an interactive tool on climate and global warming posted online by the New York Times this July.

Over 63 per cent of working people in Surendranagar, where we met the pastoralists, are involved in agriculture. The figure for all of Gujarat is 49.61 per cent. The major crops grown here are cotton, cumin, wheat, millets, pulses, groundnut and castor. When harvested, their crop stubble is good fodder for the sheep.

Of a total sheep population of 1.7 million in Gujarat’s 33 districts, Kachchh alone is home to 570,000, or over a third of them, according to the 2012 Livestock Census of India. In the Wagad sub-region of the district, where Karabhai comes from, there are about 200 Rabari families like his own, travelling those 800 kilometres each year with a total of 30,000 sheep, according to the non-profit MARAG working with the community. They invariably move within a 200-kilometre radius from their homes.

Traditionally, the herds provided post-harvest manure for the fields with their dung and urine. In return, the farmers gave the pastoralists bajra, sugar and tea. Like the climate, this centuries-old mutually beneficial relationship is undergoing serious change.

“Is the harvesting done in your village?” Karabhai asks Govind Bharwad, who was also with us. “Can we halt in those fields?”

“They will harvest after two days,” says Govind, a member of the MARAG team and an agro-pastoralist from Dhanora village in Sami taluka of Patan district. “This time, maldharis can pass through the fields but they can’t stay. It is our panchayat’s decision, because of the acute shortage of water and fodder.”

That is where Karabhai and his family were headed next – towards Patan. By the time they’re home they will have traversed three major regions: Kachchh, Saurashtra and North Gujarat.

Amidst changing weather and climate conditions, the one constant is their hospitality – even in their temporary homes en route. Hiraben Aal, Karabhai’s daughter-in-law, had patted out a tall stack of bajra rotla for the family, and made hot tea for everyone. “How much have you studied? I’ve never been to school myself,” she said, and began to wash the utensils. Every time she stood up, she pulled her black chunari over her face due to the presence of older men in the family, and drew it back whenever she crouched to the ground to work.

The family’s sheep are of the Marwari breed, native to Gujarat and Rajasthan. In a year, they sell 25 to 30 rams for around Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 3,000 each. Sheep milk is another source of income for them, though this herd’s yields are relatively low. Karabhai says 25-30 sheep give them about 9-10 litres of milk daily. Each litre fetches about Rs. 30 from small local dairies. The family turn the unsold milk into buttermilk and make ghee from the butter it yields.

“Ghee pet ma chhe! [The ghee is in the stomach!]” Karabhai chuckled. “The feet burn while walking in this heat, so eating it helps.”

What about selling the wool? “Until two years ago, people would buy the wool for Rs. 2 per animal. Now no one wants to buy it. The wool is like gold to us, but we have to throw it away,” said Karabhai, wistfully. For him and millions of other pastoralists, landless, small and marginal farmers, sheep (and goats) are their wealth and central to their livelihoods. Now that wealth is shrinking.

The number of sheep in India declined by over 6 million in five years between the 2007 and 2012 Livestock Censuses – from 71.6 million to 65.1 million. That’s a fall of 9 per cent. In Gujarat too, the number declined sharply by nearly 300,000 to its present 1.7 million figure.

Kachchh too saw a decline, but the animal fared relatively better, thanks perhaps to the care of the maldharis. Here there were just around 4,200 fewer sheep in 2012, compared to 2007.

The 2017 Livestock Census data won’t be out for six months, but Karabhai says he sees a declining trend and lists a mix of reasons for the fall in sheep numbers. “When I was in my 30s, there was so much more grass, trees, there were no problems in grazing the sheep. Now the forests and trees are cut down, and grasslands are shrinking, becoming smaller. There is more heat,” he says, asserting the role of human activity in spurring erratic weather and climate patterns.

“During drought years, just like we suffer, the sheep suffer too,” he adds. “The shrinking of the grasslands means they have to walk and wander more in search of grass and fodder. The number of sheep is also perhaps going down because people might be selling off more animals to earn something.”

He’s right about the shrinking of the grasslands and grazing grounds for his flock. About 4.5 per cent of land in Gujarat is grazing land or pasture, according to Prof. Indira Hirway of the Centre For Development Alternatives, Ahmedabad. But the official data, as she points out, do not factor in the large-scale illegal encroachment on these lands. So the real picture remains hidden. In March 2018, the government admitted in reply to questions in the state assembly that 4,725 hectares of gauchar (grazing) land in 33 districts had been encroached upon. Even that figure was attacked by some legislators as a gross underestimate.

The government itself admitted that in 2018, there were 2,754 villages in the state with no grazing land at all.

There was also an increase in the land – some of it acquired by the state – handed over to industry by the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation. For SEZs alone, it handed over to industries 4,620 hectares between 1990 and 2001. By the end of the period 2001-2011 that had risen to 21,308 hectares.

Back in Surendranagar in March, as the day temperature had risen, Karabhai urged the men, “it’s almost afternoon, come on, start moving!” The men walked ahead and the sheep followed. His grandson Prabhuvala, 13, the only member of Karabhai’s group who has been to school – up to Class 7 – scoured the bushes along the field’s boundary and drove the few animals lingering there back to the flock.

The three women packed their load of rope cots, steel milk cans and other belongings. Prabhuvala untied a camel from a distant tree and brought it closer to where Hiraben, his mother, had gathered their travelling home and kitchen, to put it all up on the animal’s back.

We met Karabhai again, five months after, in mid-August, on the road in Rapar taluka and visited his home in Jatavada village. “I too travelled with the family until 10 years ago,” his wife Dosibai Aal, 70, told us as she made tea for everyone. “The sheep and the children are our wealth. They must be well cared for, that is all I want.”

Bhaiyabhai Makwana, a neighbour, grumbled that droughts were occurring too often. “If there’s no water, we can’t return home. In the last six years, I came home only twice.”

Ratnabhai Dhagal, another neighbour, spoke of other challenges, “I returned home after two years of drought and found that the government had fenced off our gauchar land. We wander all day but our mal cannot find enough grass. What do we do? Take them grazing or cage them? Pashupalan [animal rearing/ pastoralism] is the only work we know and live by.”

“There is so much suffering from these droughts,” says Karabhai, tired of the increasingly erratic weather and climate patterns. “There is nothing to eat and no water for the animals, or even for the birds.”

The rains in August brought them a little relief. The extended Aal family jointly owns about eight acres of rain-fed land on which they have sown bajra.

A combination of many factors has impacted the grazing of animals and migration patterns of the pastoralists. Failing or inadequate monsoons, recurrent drought, shrinking grasslands, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the state, deforestation and reduced availability of fodder and water. The lived experience of the maldharis suggests several of those factors both result from, and feed into, shifts in weather and climate. Ultimately, the movement of these communities is seriously affected, reshaping schedules they’ve followed for centuries.

“Write about all our difficulties,” Karabhai says as we leave, “and we will see if it brings any change. If not, there’s god.”

The writer would like to thank the Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG) team in Ahmedabad and Bhuj for their support and field assistance in reporting this story.

Namita Waikar is a writer, translator and Managing Editor at PARI, where this article first appeared. She is the author of the novel ‘The Long March‘, published in 2018.