Climate change has reduced grass cover, forcing nomadic communities in the state to alter their age-old tour patterns and profession
The Gaddis of Himachal Pradesh are grass chasers. For ages, this 0.2 million-strong nomadic community has spent half the year travelling up the Himalayas and the other half travelling downhill. “In summers, when the snow melts in the mountains, we head upwards with our cattle, and in winters we tour the lower reaches. However, there has been a sharp decline in grazing land in the past decade,” says 65-year-old Ajit Ram, a member of the Gaddi community in Karnathu village of Kangra district.
According to the India Meteorological Department, Kangra has not received its average annual rainfall of 2,020 mm since 2004. The deficit has varied from 200 mm to 800 mm. Between 2013 and 2017, the deficit in winter precipitation has been 40-100 per cent. These changes in rain and snowfall patterns have reduced availability of grass and as a result, the routes and stay duration of Gaddis’ nomadic tours have undergone a change.
“It is September. They should have returned last month. But look around, can you see any livestock? Due to a shortage of grass, they have to stay there longer,” says Ram. He is referring to the group of five-odd people that left for Raigahar, which is 5,000m above sea level, but has not yet returned.
Earlier, the entire menfolk of the village used to travel, but now four-five people go on these tours and take with them sheep and goats of all the village residents. In bargain, they get to keep the lambs born in the six-month duration. Till 2010, Ram had 200 sheep, but gave up nomadic life because finding grass in the higher altitudes was too strenuous for him.
“The increase in stay duration has also led to overgrazing, which can loosen the soil and trigger landslides,” says Akshay Jasrotia, advisor to Himachal Ghumantu Pashupalak Mahasabha, an organisation formed in Kangra by pastoral communities in 2017 to draw attention to their problems.
The tour schedules and the places of stay of nomadic communities are fixed and have remained so for ages. The Gaddis of Kangra, for instance, would stay at Tatwani hills for 15 days. “But over the past few years, they camp there for two months because grass is available,” say Naval Kishor of Karnathu.
“Not only has the duration of stay changed, nomads are now going even higher up in the mountain,” says Ranvir Singh Rana, principal scientist at the department of agronomy and grassland management, Himachal Pradesh Agricultural University (HPAU), Palampur. “The Gaddis of Mandi district would earlier go up to a height of 3,000m, near the Trilokpuri pass in Lahaul Spiti district. Now they go up higher, up to 4,000m, because the Trilokpuri pass is not blocked due to snow anymore and grass is available even higher up,” says Rana.
“The loss of grasslands has also triggered conflicts. Sometimes, the livestock stray and destroy standing crops,” says Prakash Bhandari, a forest rights activist with Himdhara, a Kangra based non-profit.
“The decline in snowfall has also doubled the area under cultivation in Lahoul Spiti from 1 to 2 per cent in the last decade. Earlier, we would witness snowfall even in November and March. Now it just snows in December and January,” says Rana.
But access to bountiful supply of grass comes at a cost. “More livestock die in the upper reaches of the mountain,” says Nihal Chand, a pastoralist of Chherna village in Kangra. “Grasses found in higher altitudes are not very nutritious. This could be behind the increased incidence of livestock deaths,” says P K Dogra, a veterinarian in Palampur. “We cannot go to higher altitudes to check the cause of death. The government is planning to provide GPS devices to pastoralist to track their route so that the eating patterns of the livestock can be analysed,” he says.
“The decline in rain and snow has made the higher altitudes warmer. Since warmer temperatures are conducive for the growth of Lantana and Eupatorium, these weeds are spreading from lower Himalayas to mid-range mountains like Dhaulagiri,” says Navin Kumar, principal scientist at HPAU.
Small wonder, the Livestock Census 2012 suggests a decline in livestock population. Their number in Himachal Pradesh was 5.10 million in 1992 but reduced to 4.84 million in 2012. The decline in the number of sheep has been a stunning 25 per cent—from 1.07 million to 0.80 million. The same could be the fate of nomadic and pastoral communities.
(This article was first published in Down To Earth's October 16-31 print edition under the headline 'On a losing streak')
(This is the second article in an ongoing series on climate change in India. Read the first here and third article here).
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