Wildlife & Biodiversity

COVID-19: Himachal’s pastoral community in the shadow of lockdown

As demands of milk products plummet, economy of pastoral community in Himachal stands disrupted 

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Friday 10 April 2020
Pastoral community. Source: Pexels

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak and the subsequent nationwide lockdown has spelt trouble pastoralists in Himachal Pradesh — one of the most vulnerable communities of the state.

Even as the state government doled out relief measures to the community, several multi-faceted issues remained.

Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur on March 24 ordered that movement of nomadic Gaddi and Gujjars and their herds should not be restricted and all preventive measures be taken for their safety. He also directed for the availability of essential commodities for them.

The orders had followed a representation from Himachal Ghumantu Pashupalak Mahasabha (HGPM), whose leaders had underlined the importance of the herds’ movement for survival.

“If forced to stay in one place over a period, the animals would starve,” the leaders said.

Having secured their right to move from winter grazing areas to summer grazing zones, the pastoralists are now grappling with another set of problems.

To begin with, many of them said that the annual procedure of ‘dipping’ of sheep and lamb before they were subjected to shearing was getting delayed at several places.

The ‘dipping’ exercise — where sheep and goat are made to enter a tank of water containing acaricidal chemicals to treat mangy skins and flea infestation — has not begun so far, according to Pawna Kumari, general secretary of HPGM. The process is carried out with help of veterinary experts.

“This exercise starts by early April and about four-five flocks undergo ‘dipping’ on daily basis. Each flock comprises 150-700 animals. The delay would force shepherds to carry it out on their own in running water without chemicals as it was done in the ancient times,” she said.

Another apprehension is regarding routine visits of veterinary experts organised by animal husbandry department during summers. The status of these camps remained ambiguous amid lockdown. 

Pastoral communities migrate from their winter zones in the Shivaliks in the districts of Shimla, Sirmour, Solan, Bilaspur, Hamirpur, lower Mandi and lower Kangra to the higher reaches of Mandi, Kangra, Kinnaur, Lahaul Spiti and Kullu during this time of the year. They move with their sheep, goat and buffaloes.

About one lakh pastoral families with 20,000 flocks live in the state and about 60 per cent of them migrate, according to animal activist Akshay Jasrotia.

“The pastoral economy is almost equivalent to horticulture here. Politicians have confused people about social dimensions on this community. They believe Gaddis are a caste; but they represent a community covering several castes,” he said.

Those who rear milch animals are equally troubled.

“There are many people like me who supply khoya to sweet shops. But the demand has plummeted because of the lockdown. We can only make butter from milk, which would be made into ghee and stored as it has a long shelf life.”

He added that many do not get customers of milk as every house in villages has a cow or a buffalo. They are mainly into producing khoya and cannot take their milk supplies to town for sale.

 “The functioning of veterinary department has been placed under the category of essential services. Our hospitals and pharmacies are open for people. In certain places, even ‘dipping’ is being carried out,” Priyadarshini, director of animal husbandry department, Himachal Pradesh, said.

Veterinary doctors said they are visiting groups of migrating pastoralists whenever there is a call to treat their animals. They added that other concerns about camps in higher reaches and vaccination will be addressed in due course of time.

However, it is crucial that decisions taken at the state level are communicated properly to government functionaries, Jasrotia and Pawna pointed out.

“Herders understand the effectiveness of measures such as physical distancing. Physical distancing is a natural state for them. In the light of this, we request you to send out a written notification to the local police and allow the shepherds and their flocks to continue on their seasonal migrations,” the community leaders had written to the CM on March 25.

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