JAMMU, India (Thomas Reuters Foundation) - Some half a million nomads in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir are losing the battle to maintain their way of life amid conflict, scarce development opportunities and a changing climate.
Every year, as winter gives way to spring in the Jammu region, the nomads of the Bakarwal and Gujjar tribes set out on their seasonal migration, a tradition they have practised for centuries.
Basharat Ali, a Bakarwal, remembers how one evening, two decades ago when he was 15, as the caravan of nomads was trekking through the lofty Peer Panjal mountains on its way to the Kashmir valley to escape the scorching summer, an unseasonal snowstorm hit their camp. Their livestock, including hundreds of sheep and horses, perished in the hostile weather conditions.
Tribal nomads traditionally move with their livestock to the upper slopes of the northern Himalayas during the summer, and return to the plains in winter after covering hundreds of miles on foot along serpentine tracks.
According to official statistics, there are about 2.5 million Gujjar and Bakarwal in Jammu and Kashmir state. Of these, around 500,000 are nomads who rear buffalo, sheep, goats and horses for their survival.
At his home in Mansar in Udhampur district, nearly 65 km from the winter capital of Jammu and Kashmir, Ali described the long-term impact of the freak snowstorm: “We spent the whole night under a tree. All we had to protect ourselves were hand-made woollen blankets. About 50 families gave up seasonal migration thereafter.”
Other disasters have also affected his relatives in the past decade, he said. In 2010, three died in a landslide near Kukarnag in Kashmir, while eight were killed at Daksum in an earthquake. And yet more have lost their livestock, forcing them to quit seasonal migration and work as migrant labourers or on construction sites, he added.
Ali is afraid he may be ordered to evacuate his present home, which stands on government land, any day. “The government has a rehabilitation policy for surrendered militants but not for us,” he lamented.
His 28-year-old neighbour, Mohammad Adris, nodded in agreement. “My livestock died of an unknown disease which broke out following unseasonal rains, six years ago. Then I worked as an ajhardi (livestock assistant) before settling here,” said Adris who lives in a tarpaulin tent with his wife and two children. Tribal nomads who tend to the livestock of others are called ajhardi - in lieu of their services, they receive food, money or shelter for their families.
The local media report on nomadic tribes getting stranded in the northern Himalayas by bad weather every year. But the combination of worsening climate stresses, border conflict with Pakistan - which also claims the territory of Jammu and Kashmir - and the Kashmir insurgency against the Indian government has pushed the tribes into an identity crisis, with adverse impacts on their economy and culture.
“Six members of my family were shot dead by militants while we were on our way to Kashmir, a couple of years ago. We stopped migrating after that tragedy,” said Mohammad Aslam, who lives in Surankote block in Poonch district.
Mohammad Sagir, a Gujjar and former resident of Manjakote in Rajouri district, described how, in his childhood, his family’s livestock would get stranded in the landmine fields along the Line of Control with Pakistan and be killed by the explosive devices.
“During migration, we would suffer immensely due to untimely rain and snowfall,” he added. “Eventually, my family abandoned the pastoral-nomadic life and my father worked very hard to ensure our education.” Sagir has just passed the Kashmir Administrative Services exam to qualify for an elite job as a state bureaucrat.
But he is an exception. In general, nomads suffer from a lack of education, health and communication facilities.
Nomadic tribes in the northern states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pardesh face similar problems, according to a study by the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation. Nomads who usually live in isolation in high-altitude meadows have struggled to settle on the plains, it found.
Dr Javed Rahi, the foundation’s national secretary, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that 37 percent of nomadic tribal people have abandoned their traditional lifestyle in the last 25 years. “I fear that tribal migration will become history in the next few decades,” Rahi warned.
“While hundreds have died in armed conflict, nomads are also suffering because of natural hazards like landslides, forest fires, unseasonal rain, snowfall, hailstorms, sudden rises and falls in temperature and man-animal conflict. Unfortunately, the government does not have any disaster management policy for them,” Rahi added.
Jammu and Kashmir has three distinct geographical regions with different climates: Jammu is sub-tropical, Kashmir temperate, and Ladakh cold and arid.
A 2010 study by Indian researchers and government officials pointed to a rise in minimum and maximum temperatures, as well as the number of rainy days by 2030 in the Himalayan region, which encompasses Jammu and Kashmir.
Annual rainfall is likely to increase by 5 to 13 percent by 2030 compared to 1970, with some areas of Jammu & Kashmir showing a rise of up to 50 percent, the report said.
Nomads have the lowest literacy rate in the state, at just 5 to 7 percent compared with 28 percent among settled members of their tribes. “Only 2 to 3 percent of people belonging to nomadic tribes are in government jobs. Others mostly do menial or unskilled work for survival,” Rahi said.
Many animal species have also suffered with the changing times, according to the foundation’s study. Some traditional breeds of sheep, goats and horses have gone extinct, and others – including the Bakarwali (shepherd) dog – are on the verge of doing so, it said. “No genetic study has ever been conducted for the preservation of the primitive traditional species of (nomads’) livestock,” Rahi added.
Choudhary Bashir Ahmed Naaz, vice-chairman of the State Advisory Board for Development of Gujjars and Bakarwals, said his body had recommended the government should formulate and implement an insurance policy for nomads’ livestock losses.
Other measures are already underway, he said. Of 290 mobile schools for the migratory population, many have been turned into stationary facilities, as around 30 percent of nomads have stopped moving. But a further 100 mobile schools have also been proposed to meet education needs. And the government is giving scholarships to tribal students and providing hostel facilities for them, the official said.
As the security situation has improved thanks to a decline in the intensity of the insurgency and a 10-year ceasefire along the border with Pakistan, the government has opened veterinary units and health centres along all traditional migration routes, Naaz added.
Meanwhile the trappings of modern life are putting other nomads like Choudhary Fazal off their annual trek. “Due to the growing number of vehicles on the roads, it’s getting increasingly difficult to move with huge herds of sheep and cattle,” he explained.
In addition, forest officials won’t let nomads inside forest areas as grazing land is fast depleting, and local residents “also have an aversion to us”, Fazal said.
“Given the sudden changes in weather conditions in the middle of migration, it seems even nature wants us to discontinue nomadic life,” he said. “If the government helps us, we would also settle permanently.”
Whatever the state does, it is clear that the complex web of factors thwarting the nomads’ once simple way of life will make it tough for them to find an alternative model that is both sustainable and suits their particular needs.
Ashutosh Sharma is an independent journalist and media fellow with the National Foundation for India, currently reporting on the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.