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Story Publication logo January 10, 2024

Climate Crisis Ravages Uttarakhand’s Nomadic Herders as Government Looks Away


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Forests account for 24 percent of India’s total geographical area, home to Indigenous people and...


Image by Sushmita. India.

With extreme weather hurting their precious cattle and seasonal migration, the long-neglected pastoral tribe of Van Gujjars is fighting a dire—and lonely—battle for survival.

Mustafa Lodha is a worried man, the list of his troubles running long. “When it rained heavily [in 2023], all the places where our cattle were housed were filled with water. Our settlements got washed away. Fodder worth Rs 60,000 got swept away. Due to landslides, our settlements got buried under the rubble.”

Lodha, 55, is a Van Gujjar. The nomadic pastoral community inhabits the foothills of Himalayan states like Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. He, along with his nearly 500 buffaloes, lives in the Shyampur range of the Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, migrating seasonally in search of fodder—moving to lush mountain meadows during the summer and low-altitude pastures during the winter.

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The cattle reared by the Van Gujjars, such as Lodha, is crucial to India’s livestock sector. The sector itself contributes 4.5% of India’s GDP, with two-thirds coming from pastoralists alone. As much as 53% of the country’s demand for milk is met by pastoralists.

But lately, the Van Gujjars, especially in Uttarakhand, have been facing a threat to their livelihoods because of extreme weather events. Recent years have seen growing instances of cloudbursts triggering floods and landslides in the state. In 2023, Uttarakhand saw more than 1,000 landslide incidents—causing the highest number of deaths in eight years—compared to 245 in 2022. Nearly 100 people were killed and over a dozen were reported missing during the natural disasters.

The cattle-rearing nomadic tribe has been hit particularly hard by the changing climate in several ways. One, severe flooding often kills cattle and damages pastures. Two, erratic rains have impacted their migration routes, thwarting their movement and thus the quest for fodder. And finally, the quality of the pastures on which their cattle graze has also suffered over the years, affecting the health of animals. All of this has hurt milk production—the key source of income for the Van Gujjars.

Their problems are exacerbated by the government’s apathy towards their plight. The forest-dwelling community has slipped through the cracks of planning for disaster prevention or management. Moreover, compensation for the loss of cattle or damage to their settlements is hard to come by. Worse, a constant threat of displacement looms large on the Van Gujjars, who—in the absence of clear-cut policies—are often blamed for “encroaching” on forest land to graze their cattle.

In short, the nomadic community is struggling to make ends meet while navigating the double whammy of climate change and long-running neglect by policymakers.

Where’s the milk?

Every time there is a flood, the Van Gujjars end up losing some of their cattle, compounding their hardship. “One buffalo costs more than Rs 60,000. The loss is acute,” says Ghulam Nabi, a Van Gujjar who lives near a river in the Rajaji National Park; the septuagenarian lost some of his buffaloes two years ago.

Ghulam Nabi, a Van Gujjar in his 70s, lost some of his buffaloes to a flood in 2022. Image by Sushmita. India.

There’s another worry. The quality of forage—key to milk production—has “changed for the worse,” says Mohammad Safi, a 55-year-old Van Gujjar from the state’s Kumaon region, who is a veteran leader of the community.

The grass that the cattle feed on is such a reliable indicator of the kind of milk they would produce that there are folk songs about it in the community; Mohammad Rafi, a Van Gujjar in his mid-30s, croons one such song while lamenting the deteriorating forage quality.

There are two reasons for the decline. One, excessive rainfall. The second reason is man-made: The plantation drives undertaken by the state’s forest department to ostensibly mitigate climate change. “Some of the species the [forest] department plants have turned out to be poisonous. Last year [in 2022], some of our buffaloes died when they ate their leaves,” says Rafi. He adds that certain weeds planted by the authorities also hamper the growth of some varieties of grass.

In other words, there’s not enough food fit for the cattle. This has forced the Van Gujjars to buy fodder from the market by shelling out hefty sums. Today, says Lodha, a sack of khal (mustard oil cakes fed to animals) weighing 50 kg costs Rs 1,800, compared to Rs 350 a decade ago. A bag of chokar (wheat bran) costs Rs 1,100, as against Rs 200 earlier.

Apart from forage issues, heat stress among cattle is a big worry. Cattle can experience thermal stress as temperatures go beyond 20 degrees Celsius, says a Lancet study. Animals eat less when temperatures rise, the study notes. The cattle in Uttarakhand are similarly affected by rising temperatures. “The buffaloes’ milk dries up. A buffalo which would produce four litres of milk a day earlier now gives only one litre,” says Rafi. He also worries there hasn’t been enough water for his buffaloes lately, making them restless. As a result, the herds are climbing up mountains towards cooler climes sooner than before—in February instead of March or April—and going hungry because meadows are still covered in snow.

Milk supplies have suffered as a result. Last year, Uttarakhand’s pastoral communities could produce only 50-60 quintals of milk a day, as against 70 quintals the year before that, according to Lodha (one quintal equals 100 kg). The quality has also declined, with milk becoming thinner.

Dwindling milk production has only made things worse for the Van Gujjars, an important cog in Uttarakhand’s milk economy. Traditionally, they have sold milk to rich traders, moneylenders and middlemen rather than supplying directly in the local markets. According to Ameer Hamza, founder of the Rishikesh-based Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan, these middlemen procure milk at lower than market rates. Over the years, the pastoralists have also borrowed money for sustenance from moneylenders in exchange for milk. This basically means that the borrowers end up selling milk to the same moneylenders year after year to repay loans, creating a vicious cycle of debt. 

But their troubles don’t end here. The vagaries of climate change pose another, bigger challenge to the Van Gujjars.

Migration, interrupted

Shuttling between mountains and plains through the year is intrinsic to the forest-dwelling community. Despite changing weather patterns, the Van Gujjars have been able to move around all these years only because of their exceptional familiarity with forests. With time, they have even learnt to predict and somewhat adapt to extreme weather. For instance, while trekking up a mountain, they are able to predict the weather by studying the movement of clouds and the wind. Still, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a nomadic way of life amid the ever-growing weather uncertainties.

Rafi recounts his recent migration experience. In April last year, he, along with his herd and family of six, trekked up to the lush alpine meadows (also called bugyals) high in the Himalayas. While he does this every year—spend the summer in the mountains, where the cattle graze—he says it was especially cold this time around, with lightning strikes killing some animals.

On returning to the plains in October, he found that the river in front of the community’s makeshift huts—or deras in local parlance—had dried up. This is proving to be a major challenge; water scarcity is one thing they can ill-afford. The Van Gujjars typically depend on water from natural sources, setting up camp near rivers as they don’t have access to tap water. With rivers running dry, their very survival is at risk. But erratic rainfall also means that sometimes their settlements get flooded. This is what happened in July last year with Lodha. When it rained heavily, water got filled in the huts and buffalo shelters of his cluster. Some animals even drowned, while others died of pneumonia. Despite the rains, however, the Van Gujjars had to keep moving to sell milk. “We had to cross the river on boats and ended up bribing officials from various departments, like irrigation, forest. We have no facilities for water or electricity, so during the rains, our situation was even worse,” says Lodha.

Mustafa Lodha, 55, is a Van Gujjar who lives in a makeshift hut along with his family in Uttarakhand’s Rajaji National Park. Image by Sushmita. India.

Yakub, who is in his late 40s, also had a harrowing experience during the heavy rains in July last year. The floodwater sloshed into a cluster of huts—including his own—near a marsh in the Rajaji National Park. “We were preparing to cross the river to sell milk,” he recalls. As he and others neared the river, they realized that they could be washed away. “You can imagine the force of the water. Everything drowned, people’s belongings, their hutments. We tried to save lives, although our shelters and belongings were swept away.”

Yakub and others did approach the local administration. Two days later, a local official visited the area and promised help, says Yakub. Although the authorities did eventually drain out the floodwater, the damage had been done. Today, the huts are filled with silt, yet to be cleared.

But climate change has only added a layer of difficulty to the Van Gujjars’ seasonal migration; it is already riddled with challenges every step of the way.

For example, each family is supposed to acquire a “permit” from the state government to move to forests and stay there temporarily so that their cattle could graze. In fact, these permits were first issued by the British, who segregated grazing lands and recorded the number of buffaloes. However, these numbers have not been updated, which means the Van Gujjars need to keep applying every migratory season.

“It’s not easy to get the permits,” says Rafi. “A permit is made for the head of the family and needs to be renewed every year. For the permit, the whole family is required to give their identification, including for a newborn.” The renewal process costs Rs 1-1.5 lakh for a Van Gujjar family, he says, complaining that officials sometimes ask for butter to speed things up.

This is simply emblematic of the government’s overall indifference towards the Van Gujjars. And things get worse when it comes to natural disasters.

No help in sight

There are currently no schemes to protect pastoralists, leave alone the Van Gujjars, from such disasters—and this may have to do with the larger question of their ownership rights. “Compensation or relief requires having to prove land ownership, but in the case of Van Gujjars, whose ownership itself hasn’t been recognized, it becomes more difficult,” says Anirudh Sheth, a research coordinator at the Delhi-based Centre for Pastoralism. Sheth is talking about the implementation challenges that thwart the grazing rights of pastoralists under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

There’s another reason why the climate crisis faced by the Van Gujjars has failed to attract attention. Assessing the real impact of climate change on pastoral communities is no easy feat. “The argument on climate change and adaptation to it can be bolstered if we know the exact number of people who are impacted by it. In the case of Van Gujjars, that number itself isn’t there,” says Sheth.

That’s not to say that India’s pastoral communities have been completely abandoned by policymakers. The Forest Rights Act, 2006, recognizes the rights of pastoral communities over grazing land, including “traditional and seasonal resource access of nomadic and pastoral communities”—and allows them title certificates. Lodha is among the many Van Gujjars who have applied for these certificates, but he hasn’t been granted one yet. However, he says that “ever since we applied, we are at least allowed to bring fodder. Otherwise, lots of questions are asked [by forest officials].”

The Van Gujjars also find themselves at the receiving end of exclusionary policies. Several activists have alleged that the community’s nomadic status is often used as an excuse to deprive them of their traditional rights over forest land.

“While we are the ones who have preserved the forests, and are the reason why the forest stands tall in the first place, we are accused of destroying forests and wild animals,” says Hamza, the founder of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan quoted above.

Even though the law recognises the Van Gujjars’ grazing rights and allows them to collect minor forest produce, they are constantly on tenterhooks because of relocation and—lately—eviction notices from the government.

In May last year, for instance, forest rights activists alleged that around 400 Van Gujjar households in Uttarakhand had faced eviction notices. This came amid the state’s right-wing chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, warning against “land jihad”, saying that “encroachers of government lands will not be spared”. (“Land jihad” is a conspiracy theory promoting the idea that Muslims encroach on properties to displace Hindus; the Van Gujjars are predominantly Muslim.)

It appears the state government is all too keen to ensure that the Van Gujjars abide by the law. But there is no such urgency when it comes to the immediate threat that natural disasters pose to the community. “There are no such reports regarding the special support provided by the district administration for communities living in forests,” says Poonam Kainthola, sub-division officer of the Ramnagar Forest Division.

And it seems things are unlikely to change anytime soon.  As Sheth aptly puts it: “If a farmer loses their crop, they are compensated with money or land. But if a Van Gujjar wakes up to 10 of their buffaloes dead due to an extreme weather event, they are basically helpless.”


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