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Sheep farming nomads of India struggle amidst rapid urbanisation and hostile policies


The lives of Dhangars in Maharashtra is a perfect example of the threats faced by pastoralists in India due to rapid urbanisation and hostile State policies.

Dhangars are pastoralists in Maharashtra. (Source: India Water Portal)

Dhangars, a semi-nomadic group in Maharashtra, are traditionally pastoralists. Pastoralists are described as the "members of caste or ethnic groups with a strong traditional association with livestock-keeping, where a substantial proportion of the group derive over 50 percent of household consumption from livestock products or their sale, and where over 90 percent of animal consumption is from natural pasture or browse, and where households are responsible for the full cycle of livestock breeding".

The Dhangars maintain large herds of sheep along with some goats, buffaloes, horses, dogs and chicken. The sheep-rearing Dhangars are called Hatkar Dhangars, who, according to the latest figures, are 5,73,000 in number, and are spread across many districts in Maharashtra. Dhangars use the entire grassland landscape, and move over large distances depending on the rains, water sources and fodder with their large herds of sheep and goats.

With 485 million livestock and 489 million poultry, India ranks first in global livestock population. Livestock contributes to as high as 25 percent of the output in the agricultural sector in India. However, the recent livestock census has shown a decline by 3.33 percent between 2005 and 2012, with the numbers of sheep, goats and pigs falling drastically. The contribution of pastoralists in maintaining livestock is very significant in India, with more than 200 tribes, comprising six percent of the country’s population, engaged in pastoralism.

The livelihoods and survival of Dhangars, however, are largely threatened due to a variety of problems related to urbanisation, such as rapid loss of grazing areas, and fencing off of forests and grasslands that legally and traditionally belong to them. Their identity has deteriorated from being pastoralists to being underdeveloped and backward. Then there are also the policies and approaches in forestry and watershed development that are largely hostile to them.

What these pastoralists like the Dhangars need are policies that understand their needs and cater to them. Research on ecological and sociological aspects of grasslands, a State policy for the development of grasslands and redressal of issues related to grazing lands will help the community’s survival.

Agricultural lands on the outskirts of Pune city are now largely under the grip of the real estate industry. Few sections of agricultural land remain out of it where the Dhangars visit with their sheep and goats.
Baburaoji (70) and his wife, along with his two sons and their families have been coming to the farmlands on the outskirts of Pune for many years. He owns around 250 sheep and goats, four horses and hens. Hailing from a village near Solapur, they travel to Pune during summer when there is acute scarcity of water in their village and then travel further to Shikhrapur, Dhanegaon, Ashtapur and Shirur.
Baburaoji's son Biraji says, “We are Hatkar Dhangars. We keep travelling from village to village and farmers invite us to stay in their farmlands just before the sowing season. Sheep droppings are good manure for the fields.”
The sheep are made to sit in a farm on the farmer’s request for a number of days in a fenced area called wada. During the day, the sheep are taken away to graze in the fields. The fenced areas are shifted from time to time and the sheep droppings provide manure in the fields. The Dhangars are paid a rent of approximately Rs 500 per day for this.
Locals often buy sheep from them for religious festivals. The Dhangars also sell sheep wool in the cities. Sheep milk is also sold on demand but it is mostly used at their homes.
The lambs are separated from the sheep which are often taken out for grazing. Lambs are kept in a special place where they are taken care of and fed during the day.
While men take the sheep for grazing in the surrounding areas, women tend to the young ones.
Milking the sheep is also done by women. Most of the sheep milk is used for household purposes while some of it is left for the lamb.
Cooking is the responsibility of the women. They usually settle down in the fields near the wada and cook in the open air. They also collect wood for fuel and water.
Farmers help them with amenities such as water. Women use water from the borewells on the fields for bathing, cooking and washing clothes.
Dhangar families have very little possession which they carry from one place to another. At times, small temporary tents are made in the fields to keep their possessions and accommodate women and children at night.
The horses are a valuable asset for the Dhangars and help them in carrying their luggage from one field to another. “Horses can carry our luggage including hens and help us travel to inaccessible places where even vehicles can’t reach,” says Biruji’s wife, Shevanta.
Jaruji from another Dhangar family says, “It is getting difficult for us to find grasslands, forests and farmlands. The sheep have nothing to graze on and there is so much garbage now that I am afraid they might eat plastic and choke on them.”

As more and more agricultural lands disappear threatening the livelihoods of the Dhangar families, it is time policies are made keeping in mind the valuable contributions that the Dhangars make to agriculture and livestock in the State.

Disclaimer: This article, authored by Aarti Kelkar-Khambete, was first published in India Water Portal.

 

About the author

Aarti Kelkar-Khambete writes for India Water Portal, a website that shares knowledge and builds communities around water and related issues in India. Managed by Arghyam, the portal is a valuable archive of resources, working papers, reports, data, articles, news, events, opportunities and discussions on water.

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