Raika pastoralists in Rajasthan


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ACADEMIC writings, journalistic reports, and documentary films routinely speak of the imminent demise of pastoralism and pastoralists. Images of a post-global world, thrust into the popular conscious ever more intimately by an expanding mediagenic presence, make it almost impossible to visualise even agrarian social relations as having a viable future. Certainly, pastoralists seem to most people to be an outdated, outmoded remnant of specialised adaptations to risky environments. Such views conflate the demise of pastoralism with the forward movement of history. In so doing they erase the politics inherent in the replacement of one way of life by another.

For many government agencies and conservationists, pastoralists are also a major threat to agriculture and the environment with their migrant sheep and cattle. Beliefs that livestock numbers follow a Malthusian growth pattern lead mistakenly to straight-forward prediction of large-scale environmental degradation. These predications are mistaken because they seem to ignore the many different mechanisms through which numbers of livestock have remained in check, and pastoralist societies have regulated their use of environmental resources.

Nonetheless, governments have typically relied on policies that affect pastoralist interests adversely. Conservation policies deny herders access to traditional grazing grounds, and push their animals out of protected areas. Differential and unfair taxation and pricing policies aim to reduce herd sizes. Preferential support for cultivation shrinks pasture areas that may be unsuitable for agriculture. State social services are designed for sedentary populations; mobile pastoralists are therefore often unable to gain access to education, health, and jobs which other sedentary social groups are able to take advantage of simply because they are settled.


But despite such social, political, and institutional obstacles, pastoralists have managed to resist the persistent and systematic bias in state policies in many instances. Forest departments have often failed in their efforts to keep herders out of forests and protected areas. Pastoralists have gotten around state policies aimed to encourage agriculture and undermine pastoralism by developing new social and economic relationships with cultivators. They have managed to exploit tensions inherent in the relations within state agencies, especially forestry and revenue departments, and between the legislature and the bureaucracy. They have changed their migration routes and taken advantage of scarce resources that would go unused but for their presence. They have effectively deployed kin and other networks to exploit changing socio-economic contexts. In these and other ways, they have worked to show the resilience of a mode of livelihood that many others have assumed as out of step with modernity.

However, most mainstream social science scholarship by South Asian social scientists has been strangely oblivious to the neglect or/and marginalization of pastoralists in policy-making, and to their ability to resist such marginalization. Peasants and agrarian relations, tribal groups and environmental processes have typically occupied the attention of political scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists interested in domestic socio-economic processes. Even those who have claimed to give voice to the subaltern have found relatively little time to engage with or write about the processes that work against pastoralists. Analogous to their marginalisation from the mainstream of social and political processes, pastoralists also seem to suffer a marginalisation within the scholarly imagination.

Fortunately a small group of scholars working on themes related to pastoralism in South Asia has begun to question long-standing assumptions and prejudiced beliefs about the livelihoods and actions of migrant animal-owners. As new research on different forms of pastoral organisation and practices becomes available, it is abundantly clear that many policies affecting pastoralists are founded on durable misperceptions. Many policies that shape their lives adversely are enacted without even considering them as possible victims. Their migratory and mobile lifestyles often leave them ill-equipped to engage state officials easily; in consequence, they are often forced to use the forms of resistance about which Scott (1985) has written so persuasively.


This paper examines the lives of Raika pastoralists in Rajasthan to document how recent views about mobile pastoralists are changing. Raikas’ lives demonstrate that common images of pastoralists as irrational, whimsical and politically passive are tragically incorrect. Their sophisticated strategies help them engage sedentary farmers in market exchanges, overcome the problems that ill-designed development projects introduce in their lives, and work together as communities despite long periods on the migration cycle when they have no particular place they call home.


The ‘multi-resource economy’ that Salzman (1972: 66) describes, talking of nomads in Baluchistan and North Africa, also characterises the Raika pastoralists. In general, writings on pastoralists have begun to move away from earlier stereotypes of herders’ self-sufficiency (Fratkin et al. 1994; Galaty and Johnson 1990; Smith 1992). The economic interactions of Raikas with farmers raise important questions about the nature of barter vs. commodity exchanges, the reliance of pastoralist economics on exchanges, and the role of power in market exchanges.

The Raikas often exchange what they produce – milk, meat, wool, and manure among other goods – for grains, vegetables, and other goods produced by their settled neighbours, often without use of money. However, the insistence that such barter exchanges must be qualitatively different from those mediated by a currency seems untenable. If the objective is to defend some idea of modernity from which pastoralists are excluded, it is an impossible task: after all, many modern exchanges of international trade are equally based on the barter form. Nor is it the case that money-mediated exchanges are universally more efficient in comparison to barter.

The extensive reliance of pastoralists on economic exchanges with their neighbours notwithstanding, it is also necessary to examine the extent to which such exchanges are systematically weighted in favour of or against pastoralists. It might be fair to say that as state policies have shifted to aid agriculture and farming in dry and semi-arid areas, they have affected pastoralists’ livelihoods adversely. At the same time, the Raikas’ ability to enter into favourable exchanges in markets has also declined. For example, many Rajasthani pastoralists who migrate with their animals in the drier seasons are forced today to concede lower prices for the manure of their animals to farmers, and to pay higher prices for grazing and browse (Agrawal 1999; Kavoori 1999). In many other situations, pastoralists are not even welcome in farmers’ fields because better off farmers can get chemical fertilizers in the market far more easily than sheep manure from camping pastoralists.

As recently as a couple of decades ago, cultivators competed and paid for the privilege of having herds manure their fields in addition to allowing herders to graze in their forests. Weber, remarking on market exchanges has observed that ‘money prices are the product of conflicts of interest and of compromises; they thus result from power constellations’ ([1922] 1978: 108). His point applies to exchange in general as well as in markets. It is evidently true for the Raikas.


Since pastoralists often face a persistent disadvantage in market exchanges, this constitutes an obvious arena for well-designed state interventions. Some of the reasons pastoralists are forced to contend with unfavourable prices have to do with asymmetric information about buyers and prices. Other reasons have to do with the uneven distribution of access to property in grazing resources and to means of contract enforcement. Because of their mobility, pastoralists are neither well placed to develop long-term contacts with government officials, nor to gain reliable and timely information about changing market prices. Both these factors suggest points at which governments can intervene to improve the terms of exchange for pastoralists.


However, the record of interventions is not one that inspires confidence that the Indian state will undertake policies to improve the pastoralists’ life chances substantially. Policies regarding irrigation, forests, agriculture, fodder, famine relief and migration are only some of the instruments that contribute to the political-economic context in which pastoralists exist, and which shape the channels along which their lives flow. Of these various policies, some are aimed specifically at pastoralists. Attempts to improve fodder supply, aid during famine or after the failure of rains, and initiatives to provide water for cattle and sheep count among some of the positive instances of such policies.

Other policies affect herders even if they were not the conscious targets of the policy. For example, extension of irrigation aims at improving crop yields. But it also simultaneously accomplishes a shrinking of common lands, enclosure of private lands that might be available for grazing during the fallow period, and water-logging and salinity. All of these consequences simultaneously reduce the grazing area available to pastoralists’ animals.

Pastoralists often also encounter state efforts at development that tragically miscalculate the nature of pastoralist livelihood strategies and result in consequences that are almost inbuilt into the design of these programmes. Almost all efforts by governments to sedentarise pastoralists fall into this category. Such efforts take no account of the fact that mobility is a specialized adaptation that allows the Raikas to take opportunistic advantage of spatio-temporal variations in levels of production across ecological conditions. Efforts at sedentarisation hobble this strategy without introducing compensating mechanisms that pastoralists can deploy in defence of their livelihood.

Although pastoralists can settle down voluntarily, government efforts to force the same goal seldom produce attractive outcomes. In part, the failure of state policies can be traced to the desire of state officials to ensure territorial regulation over mobile populations. Such objectives are typically embedded within the rhetoric of development policies that claim to improve pastoralist lives, but their repeated and consistent failures should force any observer to question the relationship between intentions and outcomes and indeed, to question the stated intentions of policies.


Territorial regulation through spatial fixing and monitoring is not the only form of control that state officials deploy. The state also uses a system of passes to monitor movement of Raikas with their sheep across state borders. The presence of border guards in different states and quotas to regulate the entry of animals into forested areas are other similar mechanisms. These strategies of control correspond to what Van dergeest and Peluso (1995: 388) call ‘territoriality’. But these strategies of monitoring and information management also move beyond the attempt to fix objects within a governed space. They show that the exercise of power by the state is ultimately aimed at control over crucial information for collection, storage, and analysis.

But the state is not always successful in preventing pastoralists and others from accessing and entering forests and grasslands that are designated protected areas. Wildlife sanctuaries in India, with comparatively fewer legal strictures on keeping people out in comparison to national parks, almost invariably continue to be used in many ways and by many communities. Few state governments have attempted to enforce the wildlife protection measures strictly. Both electoral pressures and divisions within different state agencies may work to help the Raikas in specific instances.


Facing adversity in market exchanges and interactions with state policies alike, where Raikas show their greatest resilience and ability to engage state officials is in their own social organization. Mobility is often seen to accompany rootlessness and to erode community. In general, travel and movement reduce the likelihood of individuals meeting each other frequently over sustained periods. Multi-stranded relationships that are the presumed hallmark of community begin to change, replaced instead by unidimensional interactions. It is not surprising that discussions of community take it for granted that it is to be found among people connected to a place.

The story of Raikas is in stark contrast, however, to these conventional narratives about the relationship between mobility and community. They face the problems they confront with an enormously lively sense of community. They may see themselves as a community of wanderers, but they are wanderers with a sense of purpose, even pride. ‘Our home is under the sky. Our village is the forest… each new path takes us to new places. Each new place is a destination.’ These words from one of the Raika shepherds we interviewed are marked by a quiet self-assurance strangely at odds with other sentiments of deprivation and marginalization that shepherds can also express. Perhaps movement is a condition that shepherds experience so regularly that it is a part of their very being. Those who lead a settled life might find it hard to imagine how comfort can be gained from a condition of constant movement and newness. But shepherds, even when they complained about their life, did not find it odd that their sense of community grew out of familiarity with travel.


When association with a place becomes difficult owing to constant movement, members of a group must rely on other markers of their shared fate if they are to construct community. Shepherds in their migrant camps focus on their shared histories and common activities. Such a focus on the collective, and on how it is strengthened or undermined, leads to a far more conscious investment in the everyday building of community. This investment into community is evident from the enormous range of tasks that are shared and performed collectively in the migrants camp. Conscious attempts to invest in community become especially critical when groups and individuals possess the mutual possibility to disengage voluntarily from interactions. When life is lived in close proximity it creates interactions that are routine and frequent.

The problems involved in building community are of a quite different type when even the proximity and interactions themselves have to be created. The Raikas must decide upon who it is they will meet as they migrate, in whose fields would it be best to spend the night, and try to recall the past interactions in which particular farmers might have helped during some minor crisis. Because the shepherds are not tied to any particular farmer, the community they construct with farmers must be advantageous to both. Mobility, as it opens a plethora of new possibilities for creating community, also makes it far harder to achieve.


It would be useful to conclude this short review of the lives of Raikas with an overview of evidence regarding a central question: is pastoralism inimical to the environment? There are many who believe that pastoralists’ animals compete with wildlife populations, that their feeding habits negatively affect the regenerative capacities of forested landscapes, and that the unpredictability of their movements makes it impossible to put institutional arrangements in place that regulate environmental use. Yet, we also know of instances in which herding has been encouraged.

Prior to the establishment of a profitable timber market in Himachal Pradesh, for example, local kings encouraged herding to maximise tax returns from lands grazed by herders (Singh 1998). Even today, in Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and different parts of western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, pastoralists enter into contracts with both state agencies and cultivators where sometimes they pay for their animals to graze and at other times are welcomed for the manure of their animals (Saberwal 1999).

In India, the rhetoric against herding acquired greater urgency with the coming of the British. This was in line with a general hostility towards a variety of land use practices that interfered with the regeneration of Indian forests. Foresters in the early 20th century fuelled fears of a changing hydrological cycle in areas intensely grazed by pastoralists. In dry regions of western India, they claimed that unrestricted grazing by animals of pastoralists would translate into an eastward expansion of the Thar desert. In the Himalaya, overgrazing was associated with a reduction in vegetation cover, and in consequence, expectations of a drying of mountain streams, massive soil erosion, and, eventually, intensified flooding in the Indo-Gangetic plains.

The motivation to exaggerate environmental degradation as a result of grazing could be that an organisation such as the forest department would gain a greater role in managing the environment if grazing were a menace. Historically, however, state officials have seldom managed to enforce reductions in grazing pressures, and even when institutional arrangements succeed in limiting grazing in one area, it often only means the displacement of grazing pressures elsewhere.


The Raikas have certainly been at the receiving end of environmental concerns. Over the past several decades, they have faced a closure of village commons by the more powerful cultivator population of the villages. Such closures force herders to spend more time away from their home village, thereby reducing their ability to participate in village-level politics (Agrawal 1999). A key assumption in descriptions of herder rationality is that all herders are continually attempting to increase the size of their herds. But this routine homogenisation of herder rationality scarcely withstands scrutiny. Herders move in and out of pastoralism with remarkable fluidity, and in response to a wide array of factors: market conditions that can alter the profitability of herding, the availability of alternative options, including cultivation and jobs in existing or emerging markets, and the very real problem of accessing forage owing to competing interests staking a right to land resources.

For many parts of India we know that grazing pressure by pastoralists is not a particularly important cause of decline in biological diversity (Saberwal 1999; Naithani et al. 1992; Vijayan 1990). It seems fair to conclude that adverse ecological impacts of grazing are more limited than they are commonly made out to be. We urgently need, therefore, to move away from an alarmist rhetoric that calls upon graziers to make sacrifices in the national interest, and to understand these issues in specifically local contexts using more systematic evidence than is currently available.



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