How one of the oldest professions in India is facing adverse effects of climate change - Hindustan Times

How one of the oldest professions in India is facing adverse effects of climate change

May 26, 2024 10:30 AM IST

The plight of India's pastoralists amidst climate change calls for sustained efforts to restore degraded lands and support adaptive practices.

"The grazing season has shortened, and our yaks have less pasture to feed on. It's becoming harder to maintain herds. We are approaching solutions through agroforestry but the altitude poses difficulties,” said Tsering Dolma, a pastoralist from Kibber village in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.

A nomadic pastoralist of the Changpa community with a goat walks along the barren Tsaga La Pass in India's union territory of Ladakh on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
A nomadic pastoralist of the Changpa community with a goat walks along the barren Tsaga La Pass in India's union territory of Ladakh on May 19, 2024. (Photo by Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP)(AFP)

Dolma is just one of the pastoralists forced to adapt to warmer temperatures and reduced snowfall in the alpine meadows of Himachal’s high-altitude regions, which are crucial for his livestock's summer grazing. His situation is emblematic of a phenomenon affecting pastoralists across India and the world: land degradation.

Land degradation is wounding one of the oldest professions on the planet — pastoralism — by undermining the health and productivity of rangelands, which includes grasslands, deserts, and alpine meadows, jeopardising the livelihoods and cultural heritage of pastoral communities.

Earlier this week, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification’s (UNCCD) Global Land Outlook Thematic Report on Rangelands and Pastoralists report revealed how nearly half of the world's natural pastures are degraded. This statistic impacts pastoralists, especially in India, where livestock production contributes 4% to the country’s GDP and covers nearly 40% of its land surface area. Even more concerning, climate change is accelerating pasture degradation, placing the livelihoods of pastoral communities at greater risk.

As an embodiment of traditional knowledge and environmental resilience, communities practise pastoralism, a form of animal husbandry involving extensive, often nomadic, management of livestock such as sheep, goats, and horses. Further characterised by seasonal movement, the practice provides meat, milk, and other animal products while maintaining biodiversity, sequestering carbon, and sustaining livelihoods.

The UNCCD report indicates that communal rangelands decreased from 70 million hectares in 1947 to 38 million hectares in 1997 and continue to shrink. Data from the Indian government presented to the UNCCD during the 14th Conference of Parties held in September 2019 highlighted that India lost 31%, or 5.65 million hectares (mha) of grassland area in the decade between 2005 and 2015. The country lost around 19% of its common lands in this period, the report said.

“The UNCCD report highlights the neglect towards rangelands, grasslands, and the pastoralist communities that are dependent on them, as compared to other types of vegetation like forests,” said Raman Sukumar, an honorary professor of Ecology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

India hosts 20% of the world’s livestock, including 193 million cattle, 149 million goats, 110 million buffaloes, and 74 million sheep. About 77% of these animals are reared, producing 53% of India's milk and 74% of meat, according to the UNCCD report. On the other hand, Indian rangelands occupy about 121 million hectares, ranging from the Thar Desert to the Himalayas, inhabited by an estimated 13 to 35 million pastoralists from 46 communities.

Dual impact of climate change and marginalisation of Indian pastoralists

In India, where pastoralism is integral to rural life, climate change has exacerbated this degradation, leading to severe consequences for communities. “Climate change causes changes to ecosystems, which we do not necessarily understand. We know that temperatures increase, and temperature increase alone can lower the productivity of rangelands. The second issue is the increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which favours the spread of woodlands over grasses. We are seeing this all across India. Therefore, grasslands and rangelands are under increased pressure,” said Sukumar.

Another crucial aspect is the marginalisation of Indian pastoralists in public policies, leading to insecurity in their occupation and restricted access to common resources, the UNCCB report said. “One way to understand this is through the concept of marginality, which explains historical bias and prejudice against pastoral communities. Policymaking in countries like India has had a productivity slant and has rendered commons as wastelands and seasonal livelihoods on these lands as peripheral to the economy,” said Kanchi Kohli, a legal and policy researcher.

Bans from forests, protected areas, and restrictions due to mining and energy projects further limit the movements of pastoralists. However, as the report points out, “the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) is helping pastoralist communities secure their land rights.” For instance, the Van Gujjars community in Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, claimed grazing rights and received titles for 43 families to graze their buffaloes following a high court judgement. Similarly, migratory routes and grazing zones had been delineated for pastoralist communities, including 2,000 sq km in Lolab, Kupwara, and 6,000 sq km in Pulwama for the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities​.

“The degradation of pastoral commons needs to be understood as a systemic problem and requires revisiting this governance bias. Rights-based legislations like the FRA are important frameworks that can present opportunities where ecological and livelihood security can counter the idea of marginality,” added Kohli.

Climate change impact on the Gujjar pastoralists in Himachal Pradesh

The Gujjar pastoral community are facing changes in their livelihoods due to rising temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns, and unseasonal snowfall, as detailed in studies by the international non-profit ActionAid Association. “This has led to the degradation of rangelands and reduced the availability of grazing resources for their livestock,” said Tanveer Kazi, associate director, ActionAid Association.

According to a March 2024 ActionAid report, the traditional migration patterns of the Gujjars are disrupted, forcing them to adapt by seeking new grazing areas or changing the timing of their movements. “This adaptation process is challenging, as it requires a deep understanding of the changing environmental conditions and the ability to make swift decisions to ensure the survival of their livestock,” added Kazi.

The report recommended climate justice and adaptive strategies to support the Gujjar community. “Climate justice is not just an environmental issue but a matter of human rights. Efforts include advocating for policies that protect the rights of pastoralists, promoting sustainable land management practices, and enhancing the community's capacity to respond to climate-related challenges. Also, the community’s traditional knowledge combined with modern practices can significantly enhance their resilience,” said Kazi.

States battling drought and desertification

Rajasthan, known for its arid and semi-arid landscapes, has historically been vulnerable to climatic extremes. The state has witnessed increasing instances of severe drought, which disrupts traditional pastoral practices. According to the UNCCD report, about 9.5% of India's land is degraded, with Rajasthan being a significant contributor due to its expansive desert areas.

"Unpredictable rainfall patterns and prolonged droughts have made it difficult for us to find sufficient grazing land for our livestock," says Bhanwar Singh, a pastoralist from Thar desert. The diminishing water resources and degraded pastures have forced many to migrate in search of better conditions, Singh added.

Climate models over the last several decades generally predict a decline in average rainfall in the northwestern part of India, said Sukumar. "These models need further refinement, but one thing is clear: temperatures will keep rising, especially in northern and northwestern India. We are increasingly seeing this with temperatures in some locations in Rajasthan reaching 50 degrees Celsius for the first time." On Saturday, Phalodi in Rajasthan recorded a temperature of 50 degrees Celsius.

Similarly, pastoralists in the Kutch region in Gujarat have withstood the harsh impacts of climate change. This region, traditionally reliant on livestock, faces extreme weather events and prolonged periods of dry conditions. “The scarcity of water and forage has significantly impacted livestock productivity,” said Ranjitsinh Jadeja, a local pastoralist from Kutch, adding, “Our cattle are weaker, and milk production has dropped drastically.”

The state government has initiated water conservation projects such as the Mukhyamantri Jal Swavlamban Abhiyan (MJSA) and the ‘Catch the Rain’ campaign under the National Water Mission, but the long-term sustainability of these efforts remains uncertain. "This kind of temperature increase will put significant pressure on the primary production of rangelands and grasslands in the northwest," Sukumar said.

Maharashtra's Vidarbha and Marathwada regions have been hit hard by climate change, experiencing frequent and prolonged droughts. "Amidst parched lands and dwindling pastures, Maharashtra's pastoralists grapple with the harsh reality of climate change. Severe droughts and land degradation have stripped away their lifelines, leaving livestock productivity at an all-time low,” said Anjal Prakash, author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Pastoralists also face increasing debts due to climate change. “Suicides are not limited to farmers owing to crop losses but the pastoral community as well,” said Rahul Todmal, assistant professor of geography, Vidya Pratishthan’s ASC College, Baramati, Pune district. Todmal’s studies on climate impacts on agriculture predict a rise in temperatures between 0.8 and 1.2 degrees Celsius by 2050 across 80% of districts in Maharashtra. “The catch here is that regions in Vidarbha and Marathwada witness untimely and erratic rainfall, which affects crop production, food security and thereby, pastoralists. What is worse, climate change has made traditional knowledge and practices less effective," he said.

Meanwhile, a substantial part of north interior Karnataka lies in the semi-arid zone, concentrating pastoralist communities in districts such as Bellary, Raichur, and Chitradurga. “If climate change further degrades the ecological health of these rangelands through more droughts, these regions will face similar issues as Rajasthan,” said Sukumar, adding that for instance, in 2023, southern India experienced deficit rainfall due to the El Niño phenomenon, resulting in much lower rainfall in north interior Karnataka. “This added pressure on the grasslands, affecting their production and, consequently, the livelihoods of the pastoralists dependent on these rangelands. Grasslands have generally been thought of as wastelands, and converted into woodlands, degrading their natural biodiversity.”

India's response to the UNCCD's findings includes land restoration projects and climate adaptation strategies, said officials. The country aims to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. “Programmes including the National Mission for a Green India are focused on enhancing forest cover, which indirectly benefits pastoral lands. We are also focussing on expanding the cover of schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Integrated Watershed Management Programme that aim to address drought mitigation needs​ across states to ensure maximum rural areas are covered,” said a senior official from the Union ministry of fisheries, animal husbandry, and dairying, requesting anonymity.

“Unfortunately, forests have received a disproportionate amount of attention in India. There is neglect in our conservation planning regarding rangelands or the grasslands,” said Sukumar, adding that more attention was needed through policy and conservation strategies for both grasslands and rangelands.

The plight of India's pastoralists amidst climate change calls for sustained efforts to restore degraded lands and support adaptive practices. While India marches towards its ambitious restoration goals, the journey of pastoralists — key to the country's food security — highlights both the challenges they face and the hope for a future where they are not left behind.


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