Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Whither South Asian Pastoralism? an Introduction

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Whither South Asian Pastoralism? an Introduction

Article excerpt

Academic writings, journalistic reports and documentary films routinely speak of the imminent demise of pastoralism as a form of livelihood, and of pastoralists as a social group. Images of globalisation, thrust into the conscious ever more intimately by an expanding media presence, make it almost impossible to visualise even agrarian social relations as having a viable future. Pastoralists then can have a legitimate presence only as outdated, outmoded remnants of a specialised adaptation to marginal, risky environments. Although their likely disappearance is lamented by some, it is often tragic only because it is part of a necessary process of forward social movement. The rapid transformation of cultural diversity that the death of pastoralism would represent is unfortunate but unavoidable. Such a rationalisation precludes any examination of underlying assumptions that conceptualise pastoralist groups as lacking the social and economic resources to continue. By conflating the demise of pastoralism with the forward movement of history, tragic-necessitarian views elide the politics always inherent in the replacement of one way of life by another. (1)

Pastoralists are often viewed in a different light that can be far less sympathetic to their activities and livelihood strategies. Many governmental and non-governmental agencies cast pastoralists as a threat to the environment. (2) In line with a general Malthusian logic, many environmentalists assume that the herds and flocks belonging to pastoralists are steadily rising. Assumptions about the inevitable rise in livestock numbers, coupled with existing land-use practices of many pastoralists and agropastoralists, leads to straightforward predictions of large-scale environmental degradation. Long-term productivity over vast stretches of agricultural, forest and grazing lands is seen as necessarily threatened by the continued pastoralist use of resources. Such dire prognostications rest upon the belief that pastoral societies lack mechanisms to regulate their use of the environment, or keep the numbers of their animals in check. Pastoralists, by the simple virtue of being located in a pre-agricultural mode of livelihood, neither need nor rely on market exchanges and property rights; nor are they seen as possessing the requisite skills or desire to seriously engage in the act of state-making. Their continuous mobility is seen to make them less able to develop community within their social relations. Their missing connections to any particular place are also believed to lead them to exploit available resources without restraint.

These beliefs about pastoralism as an outdated form of social organisation and livelihood that is closely tied to environmental degradation have resulted in state policies that inevitably impinge on pastoralist interests. Postcolonial states have followed development and conservation policies that have denied herders access to many of their traditional grazing grounds. Differential and unfair taxation and pricing policies have aimed at reducing herd sizes. Preferential support for cultivation has shrunk pasture areas available to animal owners. State social services, designed with sedentary populations in mind, have ignored mobile households and facilitated high levels of illiteracy, malnutrition and medical neglect. (3)

Despite political institutional obstacles, pastoralists have in many instances managed to resist the persistent and systematic bias in state policies. Forest departments have often failed in their efforts to keep herders out of forests and protected areas. Pastoralists have sidestepped state policies aimed to encourage agriculture and undermine pastoralism by developing new social and economic relationships with cultivators (Kavoori 1999). They have managed to exploit tensions inherent in the relations within state agencies, especially forestry and revenue departments and between the legislature and the bureaucracy (Saberwal 1999). …

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