Photo: Author provided.
Pastoralism is an ancient practice that archaeologists believe came about between hunter-gatherers and settled farmers. Pastoral communities depend on livestock for their livelihoods. Pastoralism in India used to be profitable and respectable, and the cattle were considered equal in value to gold. When a warring monarch stole the enemy’s cattle from the latter’s territory, the loss was akin to losing one’s dignity – and sometimes the battle itself. These episodes find mention in Tamil literature as ‘aanirai kavarthal‘.
The pastoral communities of India have custody of native breeds of livestock, like cattle, buffalo, sheep, goat, camel, duck, etc. These species have been domesticated over centuries, and reared according to the agro-climatic conditions of their origins. And these species are not adapted for sedentary feeding. Their herd sizes are generally large and require vast areas for grazing, which requires the pastoralists to migrate to places with sufficient resources.
Common property resources like tanks, rivers, streams, grazing commons, penning commons and private properties like semi-arid grasslands and farmlands have thus played vital roles in sustaining pastoralism. But in recent times, such assistance has declined considerably.
Native livestock diversity and practice
We interviewed ten herders and conducted a group discussion during an herders’ get-together held at Alagarkovil, Madurai district, in September 2020. This gathering had no less than a hundred herders, mainly Keetharis, who are chieftains of herders’ groups in south Tamil Nadu.
The state is home to multiple cattle breeds (Malaimadu, Pulikulam, Kangeyam, Umbalachery, Nattukattai, Bargur and Alambadi), buffalo breeds (Toda and Bargur), sheep (Katchaikatty black, Mecheri, Chevaadu, Kilkaraisal, Vembur and Ramnad white) and goats (Kanni, Kodi and Salem black). In addition, there are many non-descriptive species being reared in their native tracts.
Pastoralists maintain the Pulikulam breed in Madurai and Sivagangai districts. Malaimadu cattle breeds are being maintained in Tenkasi, Virudhunagar and Theni. These two breeds are highly resistant to diseases and adapted to arid conditions. They are medium-sized, very strong and make for good draught bulls. Pulikulam bulls in particular are also quite vigorous, with a well-developed hump, and are trained for jallikattu.
Malaimadu herders have managed to graze their herds within their districts whereas Pulikulam herders in Madurai and Sivagangai migrate to Virudhunagar, Theni and Dindigul for grazing. Every grazing herd consists of 700 to 1,000 animals, and a Keethari and 3-5 herders go along.
Their major source of revenue is from the sale of dung, animals and penning the cattle in paddy/farm fallows. The demand for such dung is high in Kerala. Chellapandian, a Pulikulam cattle herder from Vadipatti village in Madurai, said that he makes Rs 50,000-60,000 a month from selling dung to customers in Kerala; each bag weighs about 80 kg and is priced for Rs 120.
After the Supreme Court overturned the ban on jallikattu, the demand for bull calves has increased as well. Vanaraj, a herder from Koomapatti in Virudhunagar, said a bull calf sells for Rs 10,000-Rs 12,000 – versus Rs 4,000 during the ban.
Herders typically don’t sell the milk from the cows and use it within their households, or with the residents of other villages they encounter when they migrate, as a goodwill gesture.
Cattle-herding also provides good job opportunities, especially in arid areas. Vanaraj, for example, said he has seven workers in his employ, who work in shifts to take care of 800+ cattle. Seeman, a herder in Tenkasi, employs ten workers to take care of his 1,000+ cattle. These workers’ wages start at Rs 10,000 a month, with bonuses during the migratory season.
Despite the existence of good opportunities in cattle-herding, this livelihood has been increasingly threatened. Earlier, herders grazed their cattle in forests during summer and the rainy season. But for the last 20 years, the government has banned grazing in forests. The semi-arid grasslands have also shrunk in size, and are being diverted for farming and real-estate development.
Herders at Menadu Chettykullam, Madurai district, have complained that a site earmarked for a local AIIMS hospital used to be a key grazing ground. Other common property resources, like irrigation tanks (known locally as kanmai, kulam, eri, etc.), also used to support water and grazing. But these days, they said, fish contractors have been restricting their cattle from drinking water from the tanks.
In 2019, the Madurai bench of the Madras high court directed the fisheries department and the Tamil Nadu government to enforce cattle herders’ right to use the tank to water their cattle, instead of setting up an aqua-culture facility.
Apart from water, the more fallow areas of the tank would also support grazing — were it not for locals beginning to use this area to cultivate cucumbers. As a result, many of these tanks have practically been lost to herders, and which they feel keenly during the summer.
Finally, the herders said, they face difficulties crossing highways thanks to traffic, especially during the migratory season, and that they are often also interrupted by the police.
According to a Tamil Nadu government policy note, the state’s cattle population increased by 7.4% between 2012 and 2019. The state has attributed this to its scheme to distribute milch cows for free. However, the population of indigenous and nondescript cattle has fallen 27% in seven years – from 2.46 million in 2012 to 1.79 million in 2019. The number of Pulikulam and Malaimadu cattle has also dwindled from a few lakhs to a few thousand today.
The herders said that to reverse these trends, the government has to restore their grazing and watering grounds as well their access to them. The first step in this direction would be to map the grazing and penning commons, and open them up. Next would be to have scientists estimate the capacity of sustainable grazing in forests, and allow their use as grazing land on a rotational basis.
(There is also a perception issue here. Between 1880 and 2010, India lost 20 million hectares of grassland and scrubland and 26 million hectares of forests, particularly after the ‘green revolution’. But while many people mourned the loss of forests, the lost grasslands received much less attention.)
Ultimately, the state also needs to work out how much livestock a given region, its resources (including land) and its people can sustain. After this, the state can identify semi-arid grasslands in different areas to vouchsafe for grazing. The herders said these grasslands should be regulated and treated like an ‘open access sanctuary’.
In view of all these issues, the herders believe it’s time the Tamil Nadu government move beyond milch cows – which are not suited to arid conditions – and focus on the wellbeing of native cattle, which feed on weeds and leftover paddy hay, and whose dung is valuable addition to the local circular bio-economy.
M. Mathivanan is a senior research associate at the Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre, Manimutharu. M. Soubadra Devy is a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).