Climate Change

Is climate change affecting the migrations of Kashmir’s pastoralists?

With summer coming early to Jammu this year, Gujjars and Bakerwals started migrating to higher pastures early only to find the snows had still not melted there

By Zehru Nissa
Published: Tuesday 28 May 2019
A Gujjar with his herd of buffaloes in the valley of the Lidder river, Kashmir. Photo: Mike Prince, Flickr

Tribal leaders are blaming climate change for the misery that Jammu and Kashmir’s nomadic pastoralists, the Gujjars and Bakerwals, are facing this year on their annual summer migration.

Every year-end, as winter approaches, the community descends from the Valley of Kashmir to the foothills and plains of Jammu with their flocks and herds of cattle and sheep. When summer arrives, they head back to the alpine meadows and pastures of Kashmir.

This year though, something has gone wrong.

The recently turned green pastures and grazing grounds in Kulgam district’s Haakwaas are overcrowded with herds of sheep and cattle this May. While these pastures used to be just a short halt for Gujjars and Bakerwals annually, this year, too many herds are stationed around the area, unable to move to their destinations higher-up.

Khan Zaman, a 50-year-old Gujjar, blamed the continuing low temperatures in Kashmir for the delay. “This year, the weather has been too cold and wet in May. Going higher would be dangerous for my livestock,” he said.

At various high-altitude areas, the snow is yet to melt. “The passes used to be clear by this time. Our sheep will not be able to bear such icy temperatures. This year, it is Allah’s wrath,” Zaman lamented.

Moreover, the snow cover, Zaman said, has also made it difficult to find grazing spots. The fear of starvation of the livestock has added to the reluctance to move ahead. “Even if we reach there now, for some more time, the pastures will remain covered with snow. What will our sheep and goats eat?” Zaman’s son, Khan Abdullah wondered.

For families accompanying the livestock, the inability to erect temporary shelters for themselves at places due to objections of the locals has made them bear the brunt of the weather.

Mohammad Saleem, a resident of Sedow village in Shopian district, who sends his cattle with nomads for grazing every year, said he was reluctant and had arranged fodder from the market. The news of sheep and cattle perishing due to lightning and waath, a local term for cold-induced gastrointestinal problems in livestock had made him change his plans, he said.

“My shepherd used to take the cattle with the Gujjars to Kongwatan near Kaunsar Nag at the beginning of May every year. But I will wait till next month this year,” he said.

This month, about a 100 sheep were killed at the village of Loran in Poonch district due to bad weather. Saleem said the cold had killed many more in base camps.

Javaid Rahi, author of many books on Jammu and Kashmir’s tribals and founder of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation said a process that was expected to be completed in 40-50 days, had taken about 75 days this year due to the weather.

He said that due to the early onset of summer in Jammu and other adjoining areas, the move to higher grounds had started early this year, in the beginning of April. However, when the nomads crossed over to higher reaches, the weather was still not apt for the survival of their livestock. “Therefore for weeks, our communities have been stranded and suffering,” he said.

The delay in migration, he said, was considered a “bad omen” among the community. “Rightly so, because it exposed the families and livestock to unspoken miseries like escalated expenses, loss of health and the loss of education,” he said.

At destinations, the families are better protected from traffic that kills their animals and thieves; such places also have migratory schools, and some access to healthcare.

Mukhtar Ahmed Chaudhary, Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir State Advisory Board for development of Gujjars and Bakerwals, acknowledged that nomads had not been able to move at a pace and time best suited for them and their livestock.

He said that the problems were “weather induced” and their solution was not in the hands of the department. “However, what we can and have already started working on is that facilitating the journey of the community by addressing other factors,” he said.

Chaudhary said plans were in place to ease out the migration of Gujjars and Bakerwals on highways and that instructions had been issued to the administrations of all districts as well as other agencies involved to put in steps to make their migration smooth.

“The police department has been roped in to ensure protection to the community that is off-late being mistaken as bovine smugglers and facing public wrath in some areas,” he said.

Besides, the government had constituted a high level committee to formulate plans to redress the issues of migrant communities and “major change” was expected in the coming years, he added.

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