Life is unpredictable but when it comes to the poor, marginalised and pastorals, it becomes even more challenging.
Pastoral communities in India who have been travelling across districts and states in search of grazing land for centuries are even more challenged than ever as they are being stranded in several states. Coronavirus threat has halted the wheels of centuries-old tradition and made the lives of pastorals more vulnerable and difficult. Moreover, the issues of pastorals remain underreported in mainstream media, as with many marginalized and minority communities.
Gova Bhai, a pastoral from Rapar block in Gujarat, who has moved to the Durg district of Chhattisgarh, along his group members have not anticipated the turmoil. The irony of the situation is that not only his group members are stuck in the landlocked state Chhattisgarh but they are also seen with full suspicion by the local villagers wherever they stay along with their ruminants. Maldharis were blatantly accused of flouting safeguards and norms of social distancing, making them prohibited to enter into villages. It was reported that they were even ostracized in several places.
According to Gova, when the threats of Coronavirus pandemic first spread, pastorals were seen as carriers of the virus. “Later on when the implementation of state lockdown has deteriorated our condition, our movement became even more restricted. Fodder for our livestock started decreasing and consequently our rations also reached on the verge to extinction. COVID-19 pandemic has fallen major havoc on us,” added Gova.
In the beginning, local administrations were hesitant to intervene, further isolating the maldharis from public life. As the coronavirus is zoonotic (a disease that can be transmitted from animals to people), rumours spread even further that the presence of pastorals and their livestock could exacerbate the spread of the virus. Villagers around began to impose restrictions, barring pastorals to enter their farms and even harassing them if they were to get supplies from village shops.
This situation is not only limiting Gova Bhai and his group. Around 400 pastoral families who entered Chhattisgarh via traditional route are somehow facing a similar or worsening situation.
Salim Sama, a pastoral from Kutch, Gujarat said, “On one hand our livestock saves us as they provide for our food, but on the other hand, as the lockdown has entered its fourth week, new problems keep happening. The price of cattle feed and grasses keeps soaring, but with dwindling purchasing power, it is becoming more difficult for us to sustain our livestock.”
The closure of livestock markets has made it difficult for pastorals to earn their income and this catastrophic impact may jeopardize the chances of returning home for pastoral families.
It is to be noted that in Saurashtra, pastorals and other livestock keepers are entirely dependent on the market to earn their livelihood. They sell mava (a milk product) used to make sweets, but now that dairy cooperatives have shut down, there is no procurement of milk from milkmen or pastorals. Moreover, the declining consumption of milk and the closure of sweet shops are adding woes to their worries.
It is no doubt that the extension of lockdown until May 3rd 2020 is important, but at the same time, it is equally important to keep in mind the ways of life of people of India and how the lockdown has taken its toll on their livelihoods. As time marches on, pastorals are worried that the situation may take an ugly turn into unrest and even extreme famine among the maldharis. It will be heart-wrenching.
Despite this mayhem, there are some positive stories and lessons that we can learn from them. MARAG, a member of ILC Asia who works with the maldharis, has received calls for help from these pastoral families.
We have approached the media, who proactively cover stories on the situation of maldharis and together we reached out to the Nodal Officer for COVID Response, Mr Sonmoni Borah, who is also Secretary of the Government of Chhattisgarh. He immediately acknowledged the matter and instructed the District Magistrates to support and help maldharis, who fall under their jurisdiction. The District Government has been distributing food rations for the maldharis and is now working to support their nomadic ways of life.
The Government of India and all state-level officials should take such prompt measures to support the vulnerable and marginalized communities in order to successfully alleviate their burden in difficult times like these.
We urge the Government of India to frame special guidelines to support the country’s pastoral communities. We urge state-level and national-level government officials to take the following steps:
- Pay more attention to pastoral communities so that they survive COVID-19, especially since they are being away from their families and villages/states
- The rations, medicine and other staple items are made available to the maldharis at the place where they are stuck, irrespective of the possession of ration cards
- Arrange grasses, cattle feed and water by the vicinity of their stay
- Regulate the cost of grasses and cattle feed
- Take the necessary steps to address the increasing conflict between pastorals and the locals to ensure everyone’s safety