For more than 15 years, Monika Agarwal has been working with the pastoralists of India, including EDA Rural Systems Consultancy, MARAG (an Indian NGO), the World Alliance for Mobile Indigenous Peoples (WAMIP), and as the International Land Coalition’s National Engagement Strategy coordinator for India.

Her forthcoming publication, “There is dignity only with livestock: Land grabbing and the changing social practices of pastoralist women in Gujarat, India,” is to be published soon in the book Cosmopolitan Rural Gender Relation: International Perspectives on Gender and Rural Development (CABI 2017).

She has just launched new a project that will see her living with different pastoralist communities across India to learn about the challenges they face, and to identify possibilities for securing their futures. She has an MBA in rural management from the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA), India.


The situation for pastoralists around the world is complicated and increasingly challenging. Although there is evidence that pastoralism is a very suitable form of production and land use, especially in dryland areas, as a livelihood and culture, it has come under threat. These threats include legal, economic, social, and political disincentives, but also barriers to being able to graze and migrate with livestock. Can you explain the situation for pastoralists in India at the moment?

Recently, I read that Indian pastoralism is the worst documented of all pastoral populations. This has not improved, and we still do not know the exact population of pastoralists in India. Different experts have estimated that pastoralists make up eight to ten percent of India’s 1.2 billion population, and yet, most people know very little, if anything, about pastoralism. Many a time, when I have told my friends in India that I work with pastoralists, they are surprised to know that there are pastoralists outside Africa, and that a large population of pastoralists exists in India. In this scenario, it is quite obvious that pastoralists are an invisible constituency, and that their issues and interests are not reflected in development policies or more broadly in the governance of this country. The situation of pastoralists worldwide is the same and deteriorating rapidly because of increasing commercial pressures on land, impacts of globalization, and climate change. In India, we have seen they have no option but to drastically reduce herd sizes, and many are eventually pushed out of pastoralism. Pastoralists who have co-existed with nature and livestock for centuries now always complain that “today we cannot decide how many livestock we can keep.”


You point out that there is a clear need for a broader and better understanding of the situation of pastoralists in India. Can you tell us what some of the main threats are to pastoralism?

Monika Agarwal with Dilip, a Gaddi Pastoralist, Kangra District, Himachal Pradesh.

I would like to discuss two main threats that I see: land grabbing, especially of the commons, and youth engagement. In recent times, the corporate interest in land has become perhaps our biggest threat. Let us accept that land grabbing is a global phenomenon and that there is little we can do to stop it. The rush for land to meet capitalist interests is targeting all kinds of land, but it is much easier to grab common land. Often with these common lands, there is no need to pay financial compensation. This is especially the case when the governance framework is weak or non-existent. There are innumerable cases where pastoral lands are taken away without the free, prior, and informed consent of the people who had been living on those lands for generations. The beauty of pastoralist ways of life lies in their ability to convert the marginal resources in dry and arid regions to productive resources such as milk, meat, wool, and manure with few, if any, inputs. Livestock keeping is increasingly becoming unviable for them. This leaves pastoralists with few options. For most of them, their entire lives have been dedicated to pastoralism. While they have extensive knowledge, especially around animal husbandry, they often have no formal education. They, thus, have few skills that might be suitable for other forms of modern employment. What I have seen is that when they give up livestock keeping, most end up doing odd jobs or wage labor. They go from a situation where they had food and income from keeping livestock to needing cash to buy food. This has certainly led to increased food insecurity.

The second threat is the lack of interest on the part of youth. Anywhere in India I go, when I talk to pastoralists, I hear that, “We are the last generation as pastoralists.” The youth have no interest. Pastoralism is a low input, but highly labor-intensive way of life. Without the interest of the next generation, pastoralism, as a viable livelihood, can die, and it is dying. To be clear, this is not a recent phenomenon. Over the years access and control over land has declined; land quality has deteriorated with chemicals propagated by the Green Revolution; more common lands have been brought under agriculture, plantations, industries; migration is becoming difficult; new weeds and grasses are resulting in unknown diseases in livestock; conflicts with farmers and forest officials are increasing; and so on. We also see that a negative image of pastoralists is being promoted at a societal level. It is not surprising, then, that there are poor prices for pastoral products and no political will to support them through, for example, more favorable or appropriate policies. It is absolutely absurd that India is home to the largest livestock population without a comprehensive policy on commons and livestock.

This is related to the current education system in our country, which has already done a lot of damage. It is taking children and youth away from traditional livelihoods and, in so doing, it does not prepare children for a traditional way of life. It is also perhaps not surprising that all ‘educated’ youth want a ‘9 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ job. The elder generation associate livestock with dignity, but the current generation find pastoralism to be dirty work. I recently had a Gaddis shepherd pastoralist from Himachal Pradesh tell me, “We are on 24-hour duty all the year round, with no holidays. Many a time, we go without a bath for days and weeks. We are used to it because we have been doing it since childhood. But our children cannot work so much. They find cow shit and goat shit smelly and dirty. Their bodies start smelling if they don’t bathe for two days.” Other pastoralists have also told me that they no longer get the respect they used to get from other communities and when they migrate. Now, pastoralists have been socially branded as illiterate and uncivilized. I remember one pastoralist explained, “We are told that the rest of the world has moved on, but we have not progressed.” These narratives have greatly influenced the youth. When these children go to school, they are further influenced by children from other communities who are considered more ‘civilized’ and ‘progressive’. Perhaps we need an alternate education model which can balance literacy and traditional knowledge.


You have been actively engaged in promoting the links between land tenure, food security, food sovereignty, and pastoralism in India. This has led you to remote villages and to UN meetings. Can you explain how these issues are related?

A pastoralist feeds a motherless goat.

To put it simply, food sovereignty is not possible without land sovereignty, and land sovereignty is not possible without peoples’ sovereignty. Pastoralists in India remain the unheard and unseen people.  Pastoralists are always moving in search of greener pastures and water for their livestock, and they depend on common property resources, such as grasslands, fallow lands, forests, even what are called wastelands. Technically, their mobility helps them to convert otherwise unproductive resources in dry and arid regions into livestock products. Traditionally, they have co-existed with these commons and managed and maintained these resources. Because pastoralist livelihoods are tied to being able to graze animals, many pastoralists live mobile lives. But, because they are moving to find food for their animals, they face barriers to political engagement and activities, like voting. Consequently, they have very little influence or say in the policies that directly affect them. On top of that, the current lack of people-centered land governance results in unfavorable land policies for pastoralists which, over the years, has led to reduced access and control of commons lands. No access to land means no grass and no water, and hence, no livestock. This obviously means no pastoralism.

People sovereignty and land sovereignty are interrelated and essential for realizing food sovereignty. Pastoralists have lived in relative isolation from one another, and that is why we lack a pastoralist movement in India. When I tell pastoralists in the Himalayas about pastoralist communities in Gujarat, they have never heard about them. There is an urgent need to organize so that their collective voices can be heard, and we are better placed to negotiate for their customary rights.

Your work speaks to the importance of the commons—meaning cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society. Why is recognizing the commons an important step for food sovereignty?

Food was never a commodity for the pastoralists I have worked with. Pastoralist culture is about the relationship that communities have with land, environment, livestock, and other people. Pastoralists have co-existed with nature because of these relationships. Alarmingly, this relationship has been drastically changing over the last few decades. It started soon after the green and white revolutions in India and was exacerbated by liberalization and globalization. Let me illustrate with an example. Two weeks ago, I was with the Gaddis pastoralists. The Gaddis migrate between lower and higher Himalayan ranges throughout the year for alpine pastures and water. In a few weeks, they will start migrating towards higher altitudes to reach the Lahaul-Spiti district in Himachal Pradesh where they will camp for the next three to four months, until early winter. Amazingly, they told me that during these months spent at these higher altitudes, they do not engage in any form of monetary transactions. The people of Lahaul-Spiti provide them with all they need during their stay, such as food, grains, vegetables, and any other requirements, in exchange for meat. The people of Lahaul-Spiti even arrange to send the Gaddis the provisions by mules. Can you imagine there still exist communities who practice age old traditions which are based on relationships of sharing and non-monetary exchange? These relationships are the basis of food sovereignty for everyone involved in it. But, I need to be clear. This is not a simple exchange, but a complex web of life where each element of the relationship is mutually dependent on the other. Any change or dilution disturbs the balance that exists in this web of life. Now, if farmers in Lahaul-Spiti start encroaching on common land for cultivation or if the government plans to put up solar park units on common lands (and this is in the pipeline), this relationship will be affected, and so too the ability of pastoralists and farmers to share common resources and ensure food sovereignty for each other. Pastoralism is not about living off the nature, but living with nature.

You are working with the International Land Coalition on a National Engagement Strategy which aims to improve coordination and to aggregate the efforts of the Coalition in India, and other countries in Asia, by sharing lessons learned. Can you tell us about the major lessons for India that have come out of this strategy?

Gaddi pastoralist near Kareri Lake, Kangra District, Himachal Peadesh.

To say that India is diverse would be an understatement. There are 29 states in India. This diversity is good for many reasons, but it also serves to complicate governance issues. For instance, though land falls under the jurisdiction of states in India, issues related to land acquisition lie in the concurrent list which means both states and the central government have powers to legislate. One of the first lessons for us working with the International Land Coalition was to recognize this diversity and accept the contradictions within. Land governance in India is not people-centered. There is tremendous commercial pressure on land, but lately, while land has remained on the political agenda across India, there has been limited political will for land reforms. Communities traditionally dependent on land are increasingly alienated, and, most worrying for me is that there is no comprehensive policy framework for commons. The second important lesson for us is ‘unity in diversity’. The Indian members of the International Land Coalition’s National Engagement Strategy platform recognize diversity, as well as different tools, as needed to address the challenges related to governing the commons. We need a multi-prong approach in India, including evidence-based research, new models, advocacy, networking, and, if required, dissent. In the times to come, the National Engagement Strategy platform will be able to simultaneously address these issues, and move us towards people-centered land governance in India.

You also work with pastoralist communities to find creative solutions to engage youth and to take advantage of new technologies to promote pastoralism. In your view, what are the most promising solutions and what is needed to get those solutions implemented?

Currently, I am on a personal mission, travelling to live with pastoralists in different regions in India with the aim to find creative solutions to keep pastoralism alive. Everywhere I go, I ask, “How can we engage youth in pastoralism?” We cannot insulate small food producers from the impacts of globalization and capitalism. But, can we use these forces to our advantage? There is very little value addition done by pastoralists themselves. I see hope in food technology to attract youth. The technology that can create value addition in milk, wool, hide, hair, and get them better prices. Each pastoralist community is also known for their handicrafts. But these are also slowly vanishing. Why can’t we link their handicrafts to markets? We live in a mobile world ourselves, why can’t we experiment with mobile dairies?

Last week, I met a sixty-year-old pastoralist who migrated with his entire family for thirty years. He was forced to quit because of age and not one of his five children are interested in taking up pastoralism. I asked him, “How long will pastoralism survive?” He replied, “I am not sure, but nature has its way. I believe in nature. Nature will do something.”

Pastoralism in its current form, existing alongside rapid developments underway in India, will not survive, but I believe we can certainly find models around pastoralism that can revive the dignity that youth no longer see. While I still have many questions around the use of new technologies, I do hope we can use technology and the digital world for the advantage of pastoralists. For example, I want to engage with social media to spread real, positive stories about pastoralists in India. I am also now working towards setting up a pastoral museum in India.

Imagine a future in which the pastoralists of India have food sovereignty. What does that look like, and what needs to happen now to get us there?

We need to continue to work to find ways to develop favorable policies so that the drudgery can be reduced. I imagine an ideal future where there are pastoralist corridors and adequate infrastructure support provided to them when they migrate. More importantly, I imagine a future where there is widespread societal awareness of pastoralist ways of life and positive narratives about pastoralism. This future would mean engaged youth whose needs and aspirations are compatible with the traditional livelihood. There would be pastoralist-owned institutions that bring together pastoralists from different parts of India, enabling them to engage in effective policy advocacy while simultaneously experimenting with creative solutions and new uses of technology. There is a huge global demand for organic produce right now. In the future, maybe we can have a market for pastoral foods in India.

When we look at pastoralism, there is a clear justification for supporting this livelihood whether we look at it from the perspective of food sovereignty, the environment, biodiversity, culture and tradition, even employment. We often say that pastoralism is a solution to the major crises in the world—the food crisis, climate crisis, job crisis, peace crisis, and energy crisis. But, first and foremost, we need to stop both romanticizing pastoralism and undermining it. We need to work with pastoralists and other stakeholders towards building solutions that will work. Let there be a business case too, for the pastoralists themselves to continue doing it.


Jessica Duncan

Jessica Duncan is Assistant Professor in Rural Sociology at Wageningen University (The Netherlands). She holds a PhD in Food Policy from City University London. Her research areas include: food policy;...

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