Nomadic herding can be a tough life; increasing water stress throughout the country has pushed even settled herders into difficulties over finding the natural resources their herds need, and nomads find it doubly hard. Occasionally they may come across a small water body, or be lucky enough to find a temple well or charitable well that provides water for their cattle. But just as often, they must encounter and overcome obstacles. They give two three chickens or Rs.500 in bribe to forest officials to attain passage through forests; they plead with village panchayats to allow their cattle to graze in the village commons; they have to negotiate with farmers for fodder and water. Villagers do not want to share their biomass and water resources with nomads, either because they are "outsiders", or the villagers themselves have limited resources. Sometimes, resistance takes ugly turns with villagers driving dogs through the herds.

Under these circumstances, what's a nomad to do, to ensure that his livestock get adequate feed and water? There is no formal policy or government programme for migrant livestock and livestock owners. In debates/discussions at the policy levels too, many facets of water are considered but the water needs of livestock, especially issues of migrant livestock, has never figured in any detail. But recently, at the 5th IWMI-Tata Annual Partners' Meet in March 2006 at Anand, Gujarat organized by International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and Sir Ratan Tata Trust and other partners, the problems of nomadic herders were considered at length.

Livestock - vital to the poor

The paper Livestock-Water Interaction: Status and Issues by Dr. S J Phansalkar, laid the groundwork, looking at the country's livestock population and its need for water. India's livestock population of 479 million is nearly half the human population, comprising of cattle, buffaloes, goat, sheep, camel, etc. The animals survive largely on crop residues and biomass produced on common lands. This affords the poor a low-cost option for livestock rearing, which diversifies their income and provides draught power in addition to products like milk, meat, wool, skins and hides. While buffaloes account for a higher proportion of the cattle-holdings in dairy states like Gujarat, Rajasthan, Bihar, UP, and MP, the sheep population is higher in semi-arid, desert-like conditions and in Jammu and Kashmir. Goats are found all over the country, albeit mainly in the fringes of forest lands.

The water consumption of livestock is in the form of drinking water for cattle, water for biomass (green water), and water attributed to crop residue which provides fodder, as well as water for cleaning. With such a variety of needs, it is inevitable that a number of challenges would be thrown up, and Phansalkar's study identified a number of these. How do the poor manage the water requirement of their livestock? What is the water requirement of the livestock? How will this change in the future? How do watershed development programmes impact on livestock water interactions? Do irrigated farms engage in more intensive livestock rearing? What is the impact of water quality on livestock?

While the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development estimates the direct water requirement of livestock at 5 billion cubic meters (BCM), it does not assess the water requirement to produce biomass, crop residue, other feed, as well as water required for cleaning, etc.


 •  Migrant work, migrating debt
 •  The shadow economy

Phansalkar studied the first of these issues - how the poor manage the water requirement of their livestock - at 13 sites in the country, covering a sample size of 887 poor households who had an average landholding of 1.4 hectares. The major finding from this research is that the poor hold more livestock per hectare of agricultural land than the national average. While the national average is 3, the study sample showed that per-hectare livestock holding among the small landholders was as much as 5 to 18, with the exception of Jammu and Kashmir, where the number was only 2. Similar to the overall pattern, small ruminants were a much higher proportion of the animal herd of the poor than the corresponding national average. This is understandable, since smaller animals are far less expensive to raise and tend.

The average contribution of livestock to the economy of the poor is a little over Rs.12000 per year, a substantial part of their total income basket. Over three-fourths of the poor send their livestock for grazing on common lands, forests, wastelands and fallow fields. Water scarcity is reported to be a major issue in Central, Western and Southern parts of the country. While there is a degree of social stigma attached with selling water for survival of livestock, water sales are common where livestock is reared for commercial uses. In water scarce regions, better off farmers do help the poor water their stock at low or zero payment, though it is not clear if there is a tacit consideration for this. The role of public agencies - like the Jivadaya tradition in Rajasthan and Gujarat - in deliberately helping the poor manage the water requirement of their livestock is visible only in four of the study sites.

Migration, out of necessity and custom

Livestock rearing is largely taken up by the poor to augment income from this zero or low input cost economic activity. But the poor possess little land, or are even landless in many cases, and water rights are aligned with land holdings. Hence they do not have their own sources of water for their livestock, although they badly need the animals to augment their income. This forces them to migrate to greener pastures; from areas of scarcity, cattle herds migrate in search of biomass and water. Also, as historically abundant grasslands shrank, and more and more common lands came under cultivation and as the problems due to uncertain and inadequate rains and frequent droughts became intense, their need for migratory livestock-rearing become stronger. While a nine month migration cycle in post monsoon periods is the normal pattern, there are variations. Some groups are on the move the whole year, visiting their homes periodically and leaving their herds with kinsmen.

Additionally, a sizeable cattle population is supported through migration of nomadic tribes like Dhangars in Maharashtra, Rabaris and Bharwads in Gujarat and Rajasthan. How these migrant communities manage the water needs of their livestock was studied by Madhukar Dhas in Maharashtra and Vivek Kher in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

They have no recognized rights over biomass or water during their migration. They negotiate with individual farmers, Gram Panchayats and Forest Departments for places to camp, access to biomass from forests, common lands or fallow fields and water. They use water from streams, canals and other stagnant pools of seepage of canals or pipelines and rainwater when it is available. Elsewhere, they try to get access to water from sources created by Gram Panchayats. When neither is possible, they depend on contracts with individual farmers who run their borewell pumps for these migrant livestock. Intensification of agriculture has a mixed effect on the migrant livestock, enhancing water availability on one hand while making access to fallow fields more difficult. The Jeevdaya tradition of Gujarat and Rajasthan is a blessing for them as numerous individuals and organizations take efforts to arrange drinking water for their livestock. This tradition appears to be weak in Maharashtra.

Vivek Kher's study identified various problems and issues.

  • In Rajasthan, the main problem occurs due to overall scarcity of water. To a large extent it is mitigated by the tradition of Jeevdaya but institutions based on that can arrange water only if adequate precipitation occurs in the monsoons. The problem is thus basically linked to rains.

  • The second issue is the travesty that migrant livestock owners have been in this trade for generations and yet they have no recognised legal rights over biomass or water anywhere and have to either depend on open access resources or negotiated agreements with private resource owners.

  • Migrant livestock owners try to use sources of water created by panchayats. This frequently leads to crowding over these resources and causes conflicts with the local inhabitants in days of acute scarcity. Migrant livestock owners and their herds are viewed as plain nuisance by local inhabitants.

  • Migrant livestock owners have to quickly shift their herds out of areas facing acute scarcity and may have to occasionally use trucks for transporting their herds. During such times, they are stopped and harassed by police accusing them of transporting the animals for slaughter.

  • Migrant livestock owners have to constantly propitiate the forest rangers particularly when they graze their herds in forest areas. This is needed over and above the legal license fees they need to pay. At times there are altercations over death of wild carnivores alleged to be caused by migrant livestock owners.

  • Water quality is a perennial problem for the migrant livestock owners. Since they have no control over the resources, they have to put up with whatever water is available. This leads to health hazards, and even casualties among their animals.

  • The migrant life itself poses challenges: lack of veterinary facilities for the livestock, and inadequate safety of their herds, for example.

Madhukar Dhas's research on how the migrant sheep and goat rearers of Maharashtra manage the water requirement of their herds is based on a field survey of 169 group leaders of small groups of Dhangars. The Dhangars typically migrate for nine months in the post-monsoon period, traveling about 350 km each year. They live symbiotically with the farmers, their herds enriching the farm lands in exchange for the farmers providing them food and cash. The research indicates that the Dhangars use water from common pool water sources such as rivers, ponds and public water sources. However, they need to negotiate with individual farmers in times of scarcity for both fodder and water. There is no formal policy or programme for the benefit of the migrant Dhangars in the state. They do use the water sources created and maintained by charitable institutions such as temples and mosques and at times created by panchayats.

But as elsewhere, negotiations are struggle here too, and these can only be resolved by formal assurances of water rights. Dhas suggests that there is a need for the State to create and maintain water sources to be used by the herdsmen for their animals, if necessary by charging them small fees to be used for the purpose of maintenance of these structures.

Dhangars were never considered untouchables but theirs has been an unattended community, currently given the status VJNT (vimukta jati and nomadic tribes) along with other castes such as Gurmati or Banjara. The main issues faced by Dhangars, reported in the research paper are:

  • Harassment by State officers: Every Dhangar reported that he/she has to bribe the forest guard whenever the community traverses through forest patches. These bribes vary in amount but they must pay in order to continue with their occupation. Each group of 5-7 Dhangars on an average would spend up to Rs.10,000 per year on these bribes alone.

  • State veterinary doctors are reported to be charging fees from Dhangars for treating their animals, and they additionally make them buy the medicines. Most transactions take place without formal receipts.

  • Conflict with farmers who own wells: A farmer in Venikota locked the hand pump in his farm. The hand pump is in a fenced compound and Dhangar women fetch water from that source by going through the barbed wire fence, some times causing physical injury. The farmer complains that herds follow each other in endless succession and they leave the whole area bereft of any vegetation. In each case, the herdsmen want water for their herds and family members, and this too is a problem when there is insufficient water. Some other farmers remove the piston rods of the hand pumps. Farmers complain that herdsmen do not watch their sheep straying in their farms and these animals damage the crops.

  • State veterinary doctors are reported to be charging fees from Dhangars for treating their animals, and they additionally make them buy the medicines. Most transactions take place without formal receipts.
    Dhangars also must face occasional threats of having their animals confiscated and shut in an enclosure ("kondwada") by panchayats or forest people. As usual bribes have to change hands.
  • A few Dhangars reported that the forest guards have at times auctioned their animals when the neighbouring farmers complained about damage to their fields.

  • Particularly at times of crisis they have to water their stock using whatever water is available. For instance Bimrao Gore of Deoli and Jagannath Namdas of Mendla reported that they had to water their stock using the greenish water of gutters from the adjoining towns as they were not allowed to use any public water source by the authorities. Many Dhangars said they used polluted nallah water for their own consumption. Dhangars passing through Wardha district have reported that they had to water their stock using effluent water from a stone quarry. Suresh Sonare of Bhum narrated that in peak summer, only a few stagnant pools of water remain in rivulets. Farmers clean and even shave their animals there, and they must survive using such polluted water.

Increasingly, disputes over access to water have sprung up everywhere around the country. Thus far, the need for water to tend to livestock, especially those of the poor for whom the animals are a necessary additional source of income, has remained marginal to such disputes. But with further water stress these too will likely become more important. It is remarkable that on one hand the continuance of migrant livestock rearing provides private benefits to hundreds and thousands of farmers in terms of enrichment of their farm soils and natural servicing of their herds without the danger of in-breeding. On the other hand, the migrant livestock owners are never welcome due to the problems of increasing tussle for scarce water and biomass. Whether the symbiotic relationship between settled communities and migrant herders will prevail over the competition for resources, will determine the course of many such disputes.