Livestock Research for Rural Development 18 (9) 2006 Guidelines to authors LRRD News

Citation of this paper

Water for migrant livestock: issues, concerns and policy

M Dhas, K Vivek and S Phansalkar

IWMI-Tata Water Policy Programme
Elecon Engineering Complex
Anand Sojitra Road
VU Nagar, Anand, India-388120


About four million people are engaged in migrant pastoralism in the regions studied in India. They have their homes in Western districts of Rajasthan, Saurashtra and rain-shadow belt on the Deccan plateau; all regions of scanty and uncertain rainfall. They migrate for several months depending for watering their animals on upon water sources controlled by forest departments, free access public resources, sources owned by village government agencies like Panchayats, sources owned by individual farmers and sources owned by charities. All the sources are controlled by local territorial individuals or authorities who have far better codified legal rights to their water resources than the customary rights of the migrant pastoralists have. Further, all territorial authorities have greater allegiance to the local populations and not to migrant pastoralists from distant places. Increasing intensification of agriculture and periodic failure of rains have caused frequent conflicts over water which the pastoralists desperately need to enable their stock to survive.

While the problematique appears quite complex, it is conceivable that greater articulation of the invaluable environmental services rendered by the migrant pastoralists as well as playing up the sentiments of traditional values could significantly alleviate the problem. This needs to be accompanied by hardware solutions that involve adding on necessary infrastructure to make the current public water sources multiple use systems.

Keywords: Environment, live stock, pastoralists, water


Large herds of cattle, camel and small ruminants are seen migrating across Indian country side. Rajasthan and Gujarat have cattle and camel pastoralists. Maharashtra and Karnataka have communities such as dhangars who keep small ruminants. The keepers of these herds need to ensure that water requirements of their livestock are met both when they are in their "native" village and when they are on the move. Yet they may have no control on water resources either at home or on their migration routes. This paper characterizes the situation faced by migrant livestock owners in regard to access to water and the way they manage the water requirements of their livestock. It is based on field work done by the authors during 2005.

After presenting a brief literature review on migrant livestock owners (pastoralists), in the next section, we move to a brief characterization of the communities, their pattern of movement and various mechanisms adopted by them to cope with the difficult situation they face. We then look at the issues of policy concerns and the difficulties in formulating effective policies for these people. We end by suggesting possible practical steps that can ameliorate the situation faced by these animal keepers.

Literature review

Animal husbandry is either sedentary or nomadic. Sedentary animal husbandry is observed in "mixed crop and livestock production systems" as well as "industrial livestock production systems." (Devendra et al 2005). Pastoralism often refers to extensive husbandry of herds of different species (cattle, sheep, goats, camels, equines) requiring periodic migration to access pasture. (World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism, IUCN 2005)). Nomadic livestock production systems are observed in purely pastoral production systems as well as mixed crop-livestock systems. Purely pastoral systems are observed in many parts of the world, most notably in Central Asia and Africa regions and in these vast stretches of commonly owned rangelands are used by a large number of pastoralists who may be constantly on the move literally in search of greener pastures. Mixed crop livestock systems such as those found in Gujarat, Rajasthan and the Deccan plateau are those in which some nomadic pastoral communities specialize in animal rearing but where the erstwhile rangelands are over long periods almost completely converted into privately owned farms, settlements such as villages and village common lands. The specialized animal rearers form a sub-set of the larger class of nomadic people.

In his Key Note Paper in the ODI's pastoral development network, Blench writes that extensive pastoral production systems are seen over nearly a fourth of the World's land area and employ over 20 million households, supplying about 10% of the world's meat production in all animal husbandry systems. (Blench 2001). Blench further notes that pastoralism is further split in two classes: the extensive enclosed systems seen in North America, Australia and some parts of South America and the open access systems of Asia, Africa, Siberia and Andes. The grasslands on which pastoralists graze their animals can often not be used for cultivation though with increasing population pressure and political considerations, cultivators have settled on erstwhile grasslands and programmes for sedentarization of pastoralists are undertaken time and again further marginalizing the remaining pastoralists and pushing them into more inhospitable conditions.

Pastoralism is on the decline in most of the regions as can be seen from the Table 1 below:

Table 1.   Regional Zonation of pastoral systems


Main species


Sub-Saharan Africa

Cattle, camel, sheep, goat

Declining due to increasing area of  land coming under cultivation.


Small ruminants

Declining everywhere due to enclosures

North Africa

Small ruminants

Declining due to increasing area of  land coming under cultivation.


Camel, cattle, small ruminants

Declining generally but peri-urban livestock production increasing

Central Asia

Camel, yak, small ruminants

Expanding following de-collectivisation

North America

Sheep, cattle

Declining due to enclosures

Central America

Sheep, cattle

As above

South American lowlands

Sheep, cattle

Expanding where forests are converted to savanna but otherwise static

Source: Blench 2001

In certain regions, stability in rate of forage production due to climatic conditions allow pastoralists there to maintain an equilibrium in forage need and production by adjusting the number of their animals. Since rangelands of the North American type are enclosed, external animal intrusion is avoided and the stocking rate adjustments work. Such adjustments include considerations of damage caused by wild life. Pastoralists living in regions with uncertain rainfall and hence uncertain level of production of grasses find that migration is necessary to support their livelihoods as the rainfall is both too erratic and inadequate to create equilibrium conditions. The initial pastoral development programmes did not recognize this and tried to encourage livestock systems on the lines of rangelands animal husbandry in the regions where necessary conditions did not exist. Such programmes failed. (Haan 1993)

White (2003) notes that nomadic pastoralists live in conditions of high supply side uncertainties (that is, uncertainties connected with inter alia availability of forages and water required for their animals). He hypothesizes that as a result the nomadic communities organize themselves in by building strong tie networks in regions to which they travel in terms of ensuring supply. Secondly, while sedentary populations such as settled agriculturalists or sedentary pastoralists have highly differentiated types of networks for fulfilling their total needs, but nomadic pastoralists have stronger, multi-purpose networks within which community hierarchies ensure that all needs are met.

In India, animal husbandry is practiced by cultivators, who keep cattle and other livestock in addition to cultivating their lands for crops. These are mixed cro- and livestock animal keepers. Animals are also reared for animal products by people who specialize in the trade, who stay in one place through out the year but do not cultivate crops. These people are sedentary animal rearers . Finally, animals are also reared by some people who may or may not have land to cultivate, but who migrate for a large part of the year and thus can be called nomadic pastoralists or, following IUCN definition, simply pastoralists. . All the three categories of people exist in the country and may some times actually co-exist in the same village. This paper focuses on such pastoralists.

India also has a large population of nomadic people not all of whom are pastoralists. Indian pastoralists studied and being discussed here live in mixed crop and livestock production systems in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Deccan plateau regions. These pastoralists hail from regions of fragile, semi-arid ecologies that were arguably more suited for grass lands but have seen increasing advent of settled agriculture. They have been engaged in pastoralism as a traditional occupation for generations and have evolved coping strategies that help them co-exist with the agriculturists though the effectiveness of these coping strategies is now increasingly in question (Agrawal 1999, Mehta 2000, Kohler Rollefson 1993, Kher 2006, Dhas 2006)) .

Indian nomadic pastoralists form a sub-set of the nomadic people in India (Dutt 2003). Dutt reports that 7% of the population of India is nomadic but despite their sizeable numbers they are generally neglected by the policy planners. She states that when communications were not very easy, nomadic groups served as useful adjuncts to a largely sedentary population of settled agriculturists as the former provided useful services to them. There are three nomadic occupational groups: the pastoralists, the artisans and craftsmen and the hunters and trappers. Artisans and craftsmen and pastoralists form possibly (Dutt 2003) equally large groups in terms of numbers. The precise size of the population engaged in nomadic pastoralism in India is not known, but if the number of 20 million pastoralists given by Blench (op cit) is reliable, the actual population of nomadic pastoralists must be far smaller than 7% of the nation's population of 1100 million. While the number of people in the castes in which traditional Indian society pigeonholed them may account for the 7% of the population, it is doubtful if such a huge number is nomadic in reality. For example, the clan of sheep pastoralists called dhangars is said to number 9 million in Maharashtra, but the actual number of people engaged in nomadic sheep rearing is perhaps less than a tenth of that, the rest having settled in agriculture or alternate professions. Agrawal (op cit) too mentions estimates of population actually engaged in nomadic pastoralism that runs to possibly a hundred thousand rather than to millions.

Agrawal (op cit) has done a pioneering study on the life of raikas, a nomadic pastoralist group in Rajasthan engaged in rearing sheep. He notes that both in the whole state as well as any specific location their numbers are too small for them to be called a majority and hence they must carefully orchestrate their engagement with the dominant groups. Due to their dependence on a resource that is commonly owned and increasingly being eyed by every one else, they need to negotiate access to it. Often, common pasture lands of a village may be reserved for the people from that village and outsiders denied access to it, thus the raikas struggle is not for enhancing their position, it is to just maintain their current access. He mentions that the interaction of raikas witht the State are asymmetric but unpredictable. The independent Indian State has by and large ignored them since they have neither the "guns nor the money", two coins which the State in India recognizes and to have their voice heard, the raikas have learnt the democratic game of bringing numbers together for influencing the State actors. Even then, since their numbers are small, their voice is heard but only occasionally and on issues which concern them the most, such as denial of permission to enter reserved forests with their flocks or the fees levied on them. Irrigation department regards them as if they do not exist. State action in bringing the waters of Sutlej to Rajasthan has significantly reduced the grazing lands available to them as more areas have come under cultivation but this has also opened a new opportunity in terms of grazing on biomass that grows around irrigated fields in winters. Forest departments treat them as plain nuisance since they believe that overgrazing in forests tends to destroy the forests. Nomadic pastoralists often tend to cross Interstate borders though they no longer can follow routes into Pakistan which their forefathers took. To monitor them, the State has introduced a system of registration of each flock and fees are levied on them on a per animal basis for allowing them to migrate within and outside States.

Grazing lands in fragile ecologies have come to attention as sites in which biodiversity is threatened due to relentless grazing pressure. This aspect has also caught the attention of conservationists in regard to forest and wild life. Shekhar Singh (2006) discusses the pressure of animal grazing on forests in the vein of "illegal activities" and the title itself sums up the orientation of foresters and forest conservationists to nomadic pastoralists.

Barring the paper of Mehta (op cit) and the negative mention made by Agrwal (op cit) of irrigation departments completely ignoring the pastoralists, the literature reviewed above indicates that writing on nomadic pastoralists have tended not to specifically focus on the issue of how the nomadic pastoralists manage the water requirements. This is perhaps water is clubbed with biomass as the essential input on the supply side for pastoralists to manage their livelihoods. We hypothesize that supply side uncertainty (White, op cit) in respect of fodder hits the pastoralists first and that water for watering animals tends to be a less binding constraint on their livelihoods. We present the field data gathered from India to further explore this hypothesis.

Characterization of the issues facing Indian nomadic pastoralists studied

Kher (op cit) has studied the maldharis and to a smaller extent the raikas, these two being the two most dominant nomadic pastoralists in Western India. Dhas (op cit) has looked at the dhangars, the dominant clan of shepherds, the sheep pastoralists in the rain shadow belt of Western Ghats in the Deccan plateau. While they have attempted to characterize situations in which these nomadic pastoralists live, their life styles, patterns of economic exchanges etc., both had primarily focused on how these groups manage the water requirements of their flocks. Kher reports that about while the communities in the sense of castes names by which they are identified may be larger, nomadic maldharis number about 1.5 million while nomadic raikas number about 1.2 million. Maldharis are mixed breed pastoralists: cattle, small ruminants and at times camel. They hail from Saurashtra and Kuchch. Raikas were originally camel breeders but now keep mainly sheep. Raikas live hail from districts with near desert conditions of Western Rajasthan. Dhas reports that dhangars number some 9 million but not over a tenth of them are actually engaged in sheep rearing.

Neither the maldharis nor the raikas or the dhangars are "pure nomads" (a pure nomad being a member of a group of people who have no fixed home and move according to the seasons from place to place in search of food, water, and grazing land; Living in a mixed crop and livestock production system, most of them have acquired permanent homes and even agricultural lands in their native villages. They migrate since their primary occupation is animal rearing and since the biomass available from their lands or their villages is not sufficient for them to rear the animals. Kher has noted the following patterns of migration of the nomadic pastoralists of Gujart and Rajasthan:

Several raika groups travel with their herd in Madhya Pradesh for years together, visiting their families in their native Rajasthan villages periodically but leaving their herds in charge of other members of the group. Thus while they maintain their social kinship networks with their native villages, their herds always remain in Madhya Pradesh. The same pattern is observed in case of some groups from Saurashtra. They travel with their herds through out the year in South Gujarat and Charotar regions, periodically visit their families in the native village leaving the herds in charge of their colleagues in the group.

Dhas notes the following patterns of migration of dhangars

The nomadic pastoralists migrate towards the regions that are expected to have biomass and water for survival of their animals. Such biomass and water is obtained from forest lands, other public lands and water sources, from facilities run by village panchayats, through barter with individual farmers who allow them to sit their animals in their farms and from people who provide these inputs out of their sense of bhot-daya(Also called jeev-daya in Western India and signifies the sense of compassion towards all living beings) .

The major patterns of exchange are as follows:

It is possible to infer that with increasing population pressure on land, greater intensification in agriculture and with little or no reduction in uncertainties inherent in rain fed agriculture and pastoral systems, the situation regarding access to fodder and water for the nomadic pastoralists is steadily worsening. While advent of surface irrigation in general reduces land area available for grazing, it brings in the possibility of additional biomass useful to pastoralists and improves the situation regarding water from the sources of irrigation. However, in regions which have not received any surface irrigation, uncertainties in rainfall and farm intensification together have made water scarce. Such accentuated scarcity augur ill for the nomadic pastoralists as they have to compete with the sedentary populations who too hold animals. There have been numerous instances of heightened conflicts between sedentary animal herd owners and migrants on the issue of grazing lands and water sources. Since such pockets of water scarcity may lie between the origin and the eventual destination of the nomadic pastoralists, they have either to change routes or to engage in a mixed strategy of negotiating and paying bribes or engaging in fights with local communities for water. As a result what was seen as a traditional livelihood that contributed to farm economy as it received what the farm economy could easily give by way of biomass and water is now increasingly under threat. The issue is what, if any thing needs to be done about it.

Why should one concern with the nomadic pastoralists?

Nomadic pastoralism in India is on the decline and it is possible to consider to allow it to die a natural death as a default option. We do believe that there are several reasons why the default option is not worth serious consideration.

In the first place, the nomadic pastoralists directly contribute significant economic value to the country in the form of wool, milk, meat and other animal products. Virtually the entire wool production in India valued at Rs. 4 billion (about USD 100 million) (Source: ) and about 200000 MT (FAOSTAT, figure refers to 2005) meat with a like value are produced by sheep reared by nomadic pastoralists. Milk production contributed by these pastoralists is significant for the societies in which they pour the milk though difficult to estimate precisely.

Secondly, an issue of social equity is involved here. The nomadic pastoralists are a disenfranchised group of people, constantly on the move and dependent on settled farmers, the State and local self-government organizations for their survival. Their numbers run into a few million and their well being is a matter of concern for any one conscious of the need to be equitable.

Thirdly, the nomadic pastoralists provide natural servicing to the female livestock of settled agriculturists and this reduces the chances of in breeding of the live-stock of the farmers.

Fourthly, the nomadic pastoralists contribute important manures to farm lands and common lands on which they graze and sit. Sheep and goat manures are regarded as particularly nutritive to the soils. Again, no precise economic value of these manures is known but clearly its value for maintaining the soils of the farmers is beyond doubt.

Finally, they had lived in a harmonious symbiotic relationship with agriculture and such a relationship would not have evolved unless its functionality was recognized by the larger society through history.

Issues and concerns

The most critical issue is regarding rights and relevant legal framework. The pastoralists have only "customary rights" (Vedeld 1993, Parthsarathy 2002)) over the public resources such as grazing lands or water from streams they use for their animals. There is no legal enactment at all which specifically accords these rights to them. Such customary rights are recognized only through a process of mutual consent since there is no codified law that sanctifies or legitimizes them. Agrawal (1999) discusses how in the new situations of much accentuated scarcity, customary rights of the pastoralists have to be re-negotiated by them in a political process with outcomes that are uncertain and no better than mere maintenance of a permission to use the resources so essential for their survival.

The second issue is in contrast to the above. That is, rights of sedentary communities to resources in "their" precincts are far better legitimized than those of nomadic pastoralists by laws governing local self-governance (e.g. the 73rd Amendment) and certainly far better and more jealously guarded due to territoriality. A village grazing land under the control of the panchayats "is meant for the animals of the villagers"; the watering troughs or other animal watering sources controlled by the village are "for the animals in the village".

Thirdly, while the nomadic pastoralists have their homes hundreds of kilometers away from the places where they may need water, each such location is firmly in the administrative control of some State or local self-government institution. Forests are guarded by foresters, dams and canals by irrigation authorities, ponds and watering troughs by local village panchayats. Further, each of these controlling authorities would have a much stronger need to heed to the user groups that live proximate to the resource. Even if the State were to design and build water sources at hundreds of locations along the known migration routes, each one of them would have to be created in the territory under the jurisdiction of some local authority more concerned and responsive to the local population.

Fourthly, there is a strong bias against nomadic pastoralists arising out of the feeling that they and their flocks use the local resources irresponsibly, often destructively and have to bear no consequences at all for doing that. That is how foresters regard grazing inside forests by nomadic pastoralists as "illegal use and activities" and farmers and villagers talk of unending processions of nomadic pastoralists who come, browse and graze every thing in sight and leave a trail of destruction behind all vegetation behind them (Kher 2006). Such biases are at times compounded by usually unfounded allegations of pilferage or other misdemeanor on the part of the nomadic groups. In essence, the relationships between local people and migrant pastoralists are full of tensions.

Finally, the typical response of the State in trying to sedentarize the nomadic pastoralists (through for instance Sheep and Pastor Development programmes) are designed to fail as the paramount presence of uncontrolled uncertainty in the fragile ecologies can never make for equilibrium conditions.

It does seem to us that this problem is of a small community that is at the fringe of the society, that the problem is slowly accentuating over time but varies by the state of the rains each year, that the problem seems to occur in a large number of highly dispersed locations and can only be tackled by cooperation of a large number of entities each of which enjoys disproportionate advantages of territoriality over the nomadic pastoralists. In other words all the ingredients of an insoluble problem are present in the situation.

Conclusions: So what can be done and how?


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Received 2 July 2006; Accepted 30 August 2006; Published 16 September 2006

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