Travellers in North India frequently encounter groups of nomadic or semi-nomadic pastorals such as van gujars, bakkarwals, bhotiyas or gaddis with their flocks of buffaloes and cows, sheep and goats. In addition, there are non-pastoral nomads like the artisan community of gadoliya lohars as well as some nomads associated with acrobatics and folk-dance.
All of these communities bring a wealth of colour and diversity to our culture, but like the gypsies of Europe, they have been frequently misunderstood. Highly distorted, unjust policies concerning them have been formulated, without taking the trouble to consult them. In India and elsewhere, most governments took it for granted that nomadic life is a sign of backwardness and try to impose ‘settled’ life on them. It is a fact that nomadic pastoral people still constitute a significant percentage of the people in some countries. In India they exist in significant numbers in some regions such as parts of the Himalayas and parts of the Thar Desert.
In India, a much valued traditional role of nomads has been to make available hardy breeds of cattle. The Royal Commission of Agriculture noted, “If inquiry were to be made into the history of such breeds…we believe it would be found, in most cases that their excellence was due to the care bestowed on them by the professional cattle breeders, usually nomadic”. The Van Gujars are a colourful community of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral people, who live in the west Himalayan hills and the plains immediately below these hills. In the winter they live in the forests of the plains with their buffaloes, and in the summer most of them migrate to high altitude hills.
According to a document titled Community Forest Management in Protected Areas, the skills of the Van Gujars in buffalo breeding are evident from the special breeds they have, which are particularly suited to the nomadic life. It says, “Van Gujar buffaloes are not the rather dopey animals one see commonly in Indian villages, but a livelier and altogether more robust breed with the endurance to cover great distances on very little food and the strength to scramble over rocks in high mountain pastures.
A study of the Bhotiyas of the Kumaon Himalayas titled Living on the Move by Vineeta Hoon establishes that “The Bhotiyas recognise the unique seasonal opportunities offered by their mountain environment and utilise them in an ecologically sustainable manner”. Some nomadic groups have also made an important contribution to the development of water resources. To meet the water needs on their preferred routes, some of them in water-scarce areas showed great skills in locating and digging water sources which ultimately proved a blessing for settled villagers as well. The Pichola Lake, an important source of water in Udaipur city, was constructed by Banjaras. The Maldhari nomads of Kutch developed a unique rain water harvesting system called ‘Virda’.
It is possible that a nomadic community may need some help to make its seasonal migration more secure. It is also possible that with changing times they may like to gradually move towards a more settled existence. However, such decisions have to be taken on the basis of a detailed, democratic consultation among the nomads. It is a welcome step that recently some educational programmes have been initiated among the nomadic communities. Unfortunately however, the modern, formal system, of education is unable to play such a role among the Bhotiyas. According to this study, “It has been very successful in eroding indigenous knowledge, and at the same it does not prepare Bhotiya children with survival skills to either live successfully in their own habitat or in the outside world.”
Thus, even well-intentioned development programmes can be harmful if they downgrade the time-honoured value systems, traditional wisdom and self-esteem of nomadic people.