Pastoralists in the Modern World

Pastoral Nomads and their Movements

In the mountains

  1. In the 19th century, Gujjar Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir migrated there in search of pastures for their animals.
  2. The Gaddi shepherds of Himachal Pradesh followed a cycle of seasonal movement.
  3. The Gujjar cattle herders in Garhwal and Kumaon in the east came to dry forests of the bhabar in winter and went to high meadows called the bugyals in summer.
  4. The Himalayan communities of Bhotiyas, Sherpas and Kinnuaris followed patterns of cyclical movements between summer and winter pastures.
  5. In the nineteenth century, Gujjar Bakarwals of Jammu and Kashmir migrated to the mountains in search of pastures for their animals.
  6. The Gujjar cattle herds from the further east came down to the dry forests of the bhabar in the winter and went up to the high meadows – the bugyals – in summer.
  7. This pattern of cyclical movement between summer and winter pastures was typical of many pastoral communities of the Himalayas, including the Bhotiyas, Sherpas and Kinnauris.

On the Plateaus, Plains and Deserts

  • Among the pastoralists that lived in plateaus, plains and deserts in India, the Dhangars of Maharashtra are a significant one.
  • The seasonal rhythm of their movement was defined by alterations of the monsoon and dry season.
  • Another important group were the Banjaras in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
  • The Raikas lived in the deserts of Rajasthan where rainfall was meagre and uncertain.
  • Pastoralists were also found in the plateaus, plains and deserts of India. In Maharashtra, Dhangars were an important pastoral community who were mostly, shepherds, blanket weavers, and buffalo herders.
  • During the monsoon, they used to stay in the central plateau of Maharashtra. By October the Dhangars harvest their bajra and move to the west.
  • After they reached Konkan, they were welcomed by Konkani peasants. After the kharif harvest was cut, the fields had to be fertilised and made ready for the rabi harvest.
  • In the state of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the dry central plateau was covered with stone and grass, inhabited by cattle, goats and sheepherders called Gollas herded cattle.
  •  The Kurumas and Kurubas reared sheep and goats and sold woven blankets. During the dry season, they moved to the coastal tracts and left when the rains came.
  •  Banjaras were yet another well-known group of graziers, found in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
  • Raikas lived in the deserts of Rajasthan. During the monsoons, the Raikas of Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner stayed in their villages, where pasture was available.
  •  By October, they moved out in search of other pasture and water and returned again during the next monsoon.
  • Pastoral groups life was sustained by a host of factors. They had to judge how long the herds could stay in one area, and where they could find water and pasture. They needed to calculate the timing of their movements and ensure that they could move through different territories.
  • They had to set up a relationship with farmers on the way so that the herds could graze in harvested fields and manure the soil.

Colonial Rule and Pastoral Life

  • The changes were implemented by the British in the following ways:
    • First, the colonial rule wanted to transform all grazing lands into agricultural farms.
    • Second, various Forest Acts were being enacted in different provinces by the mid-19th century.
    • Third, British officials held suspicions about nomads.
    • Fourth, the colonial government collected tax from all possible sources to expand its income through revenue.
  • Land revenue was one of the main sources for finance of the colonial state. So, the colonial government wanted to transform all grazing lands into cultivated farms through which they could expand cultivation and increase its revenue collection. All uncultivated land was seen as ‘waste land’. From the mid-nineteenth century, Waste Land Rules were enacted in various parts of the country. Under these rules, uncultivated lands were taken over and given to select individuals.
  • By the mid-nineteenth century, various Forest Acts were being enacted in different provinces. According to these Acts, forests which produced commercially valuable timber like deodar or sal were declared ‘Reserved’ and other forests were classified as ‘Protected’. These Forest Acts changed the lives of pastoralists as they were prevented from entering many forests.
  • British officials were suspicious of nomadic people. The colonial government wanted to rule over a settled population. In 1871, the colonial government in India passed the Criminal Tribes Act. By this Act many communities of craftsmen, traders and pastoralists were classified as Criminal Tribes. They were stated to be criminals by nature and birth.
    • Taxation was imposed on land, on canal water, on salt, on trade goods, and even on animals. In most pastoral tracts of India, grazing tax was introduced in the mid-nineteenth century. In the decades between the 1850s and 1880s, the right to collect the tax was auctioned out to contractors. By the 1880s the government began collecting taxes directly from the pastoralists

How did these changes affect the Lives of Pastoralists?

  • After imposition of restrictions on pastoral movements, quality of pastures declined in grazing lands that were continuously used.
  • This led to shortage of forage for animals and deterioration of animal stock.
  • Due to these measures, there was a shortage of pastures. When grazing lands were taken over and turned into cultivated fields, the available area of pastureland declined. As pasturelands disappeared under the plough, the existing animal stock had to feed on whatever grazing land remained. When restrictions were imposed on pastoral movements, grazing lands came to be continuously used and the quality of pastures declined. This, in turn, created a further shortage of forage for animals and the deterioration of animal stock

How did the Pastoralists Cope with these Changes?

  • Pastoralists reduced the number of cattle in their herds as there was insufficient pasture to feed them.
  • After the partition, many migrated to Haryana.
  • Richer pastoralists settled down in their newly bought lands and gave up their nomadic life over the years.
  • The poorer pastoralists borrowed money from moneylenders in exchange of their cattle and sheep or worked in fields or small towns as labourers.
  • Pastoralists reacted to these changes in various ways. They reduced the number of cattle and some discovered new pastures. After 1947, the new political boundaries between India and Pakistan stopped the camel and sheep herding Raikas, to graze their camels on the banks of the Indus. Over the years, some richer pastoralists bought land and settled down, giving up their nomadic life. Some became peasants by cultivating land, others indulged in trading. On the other hand, poor pastoralists, borrowed money from moneylenders to survive. They still continued to survive and in many regions, their numbers have expanded. In many other parts of the world, new laws and settlement patterns forced pastoral communities to alter their lives.

Pastoralism in Africa

  • Bedouins, Berbers, Maasai, Somali, Boran and Turkana are some communities that depend on some form of pastoral activity for survival.
  • Some engage in trade and transport while others combine pastoral activity with agriculture and other odd jobs.
  • Due to imposition of law and regulations, their lands had been taken away and movement was restricted, which affected their lives during droughts and reshaped their social relationships.

Where have the grazing lands gone?

  • In 1885, Maasailand was divided into two parts: British Kenya and German Tanganyika.
  • The Maasai lost 60% of the lands and became confined to an arid zone with uncertain rainfall and poor pastures.
  • The loss of such fine grazing lands and water resources created pressure on the small areas of land that the Maasai were bound in.

The Borders are Closed

  • The lives of pastoralists and their pastoral and trading activities were affected by new territorial boundaries and restrictions.
  • In the nineteenth century, African pastoralists could move over vast areas in search of pastures. But, from the late nineteenth century, the colonial government began imposing various restrictions on their mobility. White settlers and European colonists saw pastoralists as dangerous and savage. The new territorial boundaries and restrictions imposed on them suddenly changed the lives of pastoralists, which adversely affected both their pastoral and trading activities.

When Pastures Dry

  • A large number of Maasai cattle died of starvation and disease during drought as they were no longer shifted to new pastures.
  • Pastoralists’ lives were affected by drought everywhere. That is why, traditionally, pastoralists move from place to place to survive bad times and avoid crises. But from the colonial period, the Maasai were bound down to a fixed area, confined within a reserve, and prohibited from moving in search of pastures. As the area of grazing lands shrank, the adverse effect of the droughts increased in intensity.

Not All were Equally Affected

  • The British appointed chiefs for different sub-groups of Maasai and they were made responsible for the affairs of the tribe.
  • Raiding and warfare was restricted and the traditional authority of the elders and warriors was affected adversely.
  • The poor pastoralists who depended entirely on livestock did not have resources to overcome tough times like war and famine.

­­Not All were Equally Affected

In Maasailand, not all pastoralists were equally affected by the changes in the colonial period. In pre-colonial times Maasai society was divided into two social categories – elders and warriors. The elders formed the ruling group and met in periodic councils to decide on the affairs of the community and settle disputes. The warriors consisted of younger people, mainly responsible for the protection of the tribe and defended the community and organised cattle raids.

The British introduced a series of measures that had important implications, to administer the affairs of the Maasai. They appointed chiefs of different sub-groups of Maasai, who were made responsible for the affairs of the tribe. Restrictions were also imposed on raiding and warfare. These chiefs managed to survive the devastations of war and drought.

But the life history of the poor pastoralists was different. In times of war and famine, they lost nearly everything. They had to go looking for work in the towns. Some used to work as charcoal burners, and some did odd jobs to earn their living.

The social changes in Maasai society occurred at two levels. First, the traditional difference based on age, between the elders and warriors, was disturbed, though it did not break down entirely. Second, a new distinction between the wealthy and poor pastoralists developed.


Pastoral communities in different parts of the world are affected in different ways by changes in the modern world. Their pattern of movement was affected by new laws and new borders. Pastoralists find it difficult to move in search of pastures and grazing becomes difficult. During the time of drought, cattle die in large numbers. Yet, pastoralists do adapt to new times. They change the paths of their annual movement, reduce their cattle numbers, press for rights to enter new areas, exert political pressure on the government for relief, subsidy and other forms of support and demand a right in the management of forests and water resources.