Nomadic herders: Natural guardians of the nation’s borders

Their skills, transmitted from one generation to another over centuries, are invaluable but the community remains neglected and impoverished in Gujarat, Rajasthan and even Ladakh

Photo by Uma Mahajan
Photo by Uma Mahajan
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Rosamma Thomas

When Pagi died, he was just short of being a teenager again. He died aged 112 in 2013. Pagi the Rabari, the traditional cattle herder from Gujarat, had become a legend. Ranchhod “Pagi” – his name meant footprint tracker -- of Banaskantha district of Gujarat is remembered today for saving thousands of Indian soldiers in the wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.

When the incursion of soldiers from Pakistan led to the war in 1965, Pagi, from the traditional cattle and camel herding community, had been serving as a guide for policemen in the international border in Gujarat. He took to also guiding soldiers during the war. His close interaction with animals made him a master in reading footprints and the marks of animal hooves – he could tell from the depth of the mark how long ago the animal had passed, at what speed it travelled, which direction it was going in, and what weight it may have carried. This rare and remarkable skill was put to good use, and the “old war camel”, as Border Security Force men called him, helped soldiers in capturing crucial posts at Chharkot and Vidyakot in 1965.

The Border Security Force has a special camel contingent, and about 1000 camels are used by the force to patrol the western border. These animals are sourced from local herders. The importance of herding communities in aiding patrol of the borders is recognized, but not sufficiently studied.

As Chinese troops massed up along the border and entered into this side of the Line of Actual Control this year, among the first to raise the alarm were the Changpa herders who were gradually being pushed away from traditional grazing lands.

Herders of goats, yaks, and other animals in seasonal pastures on the Changtang plateau, stretching from Tibet to Ladakh, they say the land-grab by China has caused the death of many young goats that are the source of the highly valued soft pashmina wool. A report in the Guardian newspaper explained that many herders were forced to abandon their traditional ways of life and look for work in cities, given traditional pasture lands had been taken away and animals had died.

Wandering herders were also the first to warn the Army of intrusion from Pakistan in 1999, during the Kargil War. India Today reported that Tashi Namgyal was out looking for a missing yak through his binoculars when he noticed Pakistani soldiers building their bunkers. He returned and rushed to inform the Army men at the nearest post.

Nomadic pastoralists remain among the most marginal people. They are severely underrepresented in survey data – the last 2011 census, for instance, did not count them. A recent survey of camel herders by Urmul Trust in Rajasthan found that several herders had not received any government rations in months.

He helped soldiers in the 1971 war too, and so impressed by Pagi was Gen Sam Manekshaw that he asked to meet him. Pagi took a helicopter ride to meet the General, and then unpacked his humble lunch of bajra roti and an onion, which the General too shared with him!

In 1998, it was thanks to Pagi that border security personnel managed to capture a camel laden with RDX, before damage could be done. Pagi had begun work with the police when he was 58 – the superintendent of police of the district was looking for someone well versed with the border region, and he interviewed a few people and selected Pagi for the job. Even after he turned 100, he remained eager to work.

The Border Security Force has a special camel contingent, and about 1000 camels are used by the force to patrol the western border. These animals are sourced from local herders. The importance of herding communities in aiding patrol of the borders is recognized, but not sufficiently studied.

As Chinese troops massed up along the border and entered into this side of the Line of Actual Control this year, among the first to raise the alarm were the Changpa herders who were gradually being pushed away from traditional grazing lands.

Herders of goats, yaks, and other animals in seasonal pastures on the Changtang plateau, stretching from Tibet to Ladakh, they say the land-grab by China has caused the death of many young goats that are the source of the highly valued soft pashmina wool. A report in the Guardian newspaper explained that many herders were forced to abandon their traditional ways of life and look for work in cities, given traditional pasture lands had been taken away and animals had died.

Wandering herders were also the first to warn the Army of intrusion from Pakistan in 1999, during the Kargil War. India Today reported that Tashi Namgyal was out looking for a missing yak through his binoculars when he noticed Pakistani soldiers building their bunkers. He returned and rushed to inform the Army men at the nearest post.

Nomadic pastoralists remain among the most marginal people. They are severely underrepresented in survey data – the last 2011 census, for instance, did not count them. A recent survey of camel herders by Urmul Trust in Rajasthan found that several herders had not received any government rations in months.

As the world deals with a pandemic, there is greater recognition now of how these communities have served the ecosystem. There is also greater acknowledgement that industrial farming is destructive of biodiversity and leaves human populations more vulnerable to pandemics. There is an urgent need to examine government policy to see how herder communities can be supported in maintaining their lifestyles, so knowledge that has passed across generations is better conserved.

(Rosamma Thomas is an independent journalist. This report is supported by the The Camel Partnership Fellowship of Urmul Trust, Bikaner)

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Published: 2 Aug 2020, 5:30 PM
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