Changes in Pastoralism in the Indian Himalaya

The process of development and modernization in the Indian Central Himalaya has affected livestock and the management of resources to a great extent. These changes are having a profound effect on the pastoral people of the region as seen in a shift away from the traditional system of pastoral production and herding to new systems of management, adjustments, and adaptation.

The Indian Central Himalaya is a fascinating case study, as it consists of two geographical regions known as Kumaon and Garhwal, historically divided into two distinct sociopolitical systems--the princely state of Garhwal and the colonial territory of Kumaon. Three different tribal groups inhabit this region. The Jads and Merchas settled in the Garhwal region, and Bhotiyas in Kumaon. These indigenous peoples were border traders between India and Tibet. Later, in 1962 due to Sino-Indian conflict, this border trade was terminated, resulting in economic disaster for these people. Since then, these groups have adapted to some agriculture, pastoralism, and internal trade.

The Bhotiyas of Kumaon are the largest pastoral group who have adopted agriculture, pastoralism, and minor trade in medicinal plants and woolen products on their high altitude summer settlements. The ecological, social, and economic potential is limited by the extremely inhospitable conditions of high altitude settlement. Exploitation and mismanagement of alpine pastures have been the focus of environmental discussions in the region and a number of studies have examined the changes in alpine grazing resources, their growth rate, consumption patterns, and other parameters. There is however, a remarkable gap of knowledge between human activities and the biosphere, the impact of modernization and development on these traditional practices, and the social aspects of high altitude grazing.

The work force in this region of the Himalayas is no longer large enough to fulfill the demands of herding because of the recent influence of non-agrarian income opportunities. Similarly, amongst the other pastoral communities of Indian Himalaya, the actual number of families using the alpine pastures has declined substantially. As a result of developmental initiatives and the market oriented cash economy in Darma and the Byans valley of Kumaon, the intensity of high altitude grazing has and continues to decline. Also, more and more hired laborers accompany livestock to the grazing pastures instead of the families who own them.

Linking remote areas with roads and increasing communication in this region has integrated such peripheral societies with the market economy. Further infrastructural development has also changed the production priorities amongst nomadic communities. Population pressure and external socioeconomic innovations have also influenced the production process, but new income opportunities from nonagricultural employment have contributed a great deal to the changing scenario.

Production Process

For the Bhotiyas of Kumaon, environmental uncertainties have changed the distribution of economic production. The four major linked modes of land production in the central Himalaya are agriculture, pastoralism, production and sale of woolen garments, and trade in medicinal herbs. Livestock thus forms a regular source of income for these pastoralists, and hence, needs to be looked into as a land-based production system. The nature and magnitude of these links between various subsystems differ from place to place, depending upon the natural and environmental conditions and the sociocultural traditions.

Changing Traditional Pastoral Characteristics

The extreme conditions of the high altitude and the meager available resource base has forced these pastoral people to evolve strategies for the optimal management of their resources. The dependence of Bhotiyas on livestock for their sustenance and the migration of these tribal people twice a year between their summer settlement on the high altitudes and winter settlement in the valleys has compelled them to develop management strategies well-adapted to their fragile resource base.

To better manage their huge herds, sheep and goats were divided into three categories--those used for procreation, for wool production, and as pack animals--in terms of care and attention they received. The first category of these animals received the utmost care; they were generally kept indoors during rain and snow. They were also fed the most nutritive grasses and most aromatic plants in the pastures. These animals were not confined to one place in the pasture for a long time so they could take advantage of the diverse grazing resources. Consequently, the second and third category got less care and attention.

This system of livestock management was followed by the entire community. They produced and maintained the breeds of livestock which yielded more income and were more economical to maintain.

Other outside influences have come from increased trade and commerce from nearby towns and an influx of tourists. The introduction of a greater number of schools and training centers increased employment opportunities and brought greater outside exposure. Because of the increased interaction between traditional people and the `other world,' more traditional people visited towns and urban centers for employment. Similarly, the introduction of television in the region exposed the outside world to younger generations who began to move to urban centers in search of employment and a more `modern' life.

The physical hardships of the nomadic, pastoral lifestyle were less attractive than the luxury and glamour of urban living. As a result, new generations began to discard the traditional resource production practices. In the absence of younger generations to graze and manage the livestock, families began to hire servants to graze their animals in the alpine meadows. These hired hands did not follow the traditional norms and rules of herd management which started to change traditional livestock management practices and disrupted traditional institutions.

Changing Traditional Food Systems

In the past few decades, local high altitude crops valued for their medicinal properties like ogal, phaphar, and chuwa, were sold by local middle men who supplied them to urban areas where they fetched better prices. The availability of rice and wheat by new shops and government subsidized food distribution have led to a change in the local food consumption habits. Earlier, the Bhotiyas, Merchas, and Jads cultivated and consumed the traditional high altitude crops. Now, they cultivate these same crops, but do not eat what they produce. They have started consuming rice and wheat, regarded as fine grains, and the social value attached to these fine grains is much more expensive than their traditional coarse grains.

These changes have greatly increased the competition for good agricultural land within and outside the community. Changes in the perception of life, production processes, food consumption, and the availability and attraction of wage employment, traditional subsistence agriculture has suffered seriously in terms of crop diversity. Some crops and a number of vegetables have become lesser known and could conceivably vanish.

Some of the best grazing areas have become protected after their declaration as biospheres and sanctuaries causing a severe threat to survival of their livestock. The declaration of Nandadevi Biosphere and Askote Wildlife Sanctuary in 1992 has taken almost 60% of the grazing resource base, and has completely banned their entry into their traditional resource base. A number of forest areas have been encroached upon by individuals and brought under cultivation, further denying these pastoralists their resources. The frequency of harassment by the forest officials has also increased and pastoralists often have to pay regular grazing taxes and tolls to pass through a number of forest corridors. In the name of development and modernization, not even a single step has been taken by the government to restore and strengthen the traditional pastoralism in the Indian central Himalaya. Thus, they face a severe threat to the survival of their way of life.

Community Regulation of Resources

Evidence suggests that community regulation of resources and livestock grazing must be achieved so resources can be shared equally by the entire community. The ceremonial exclusion of livestock from particular areas for a specified period of time was a crucial component of their resource management system. This practice served to protect village crops and to create a de facto system which lessened the ecological impact of grazing livestock in the long term. This ban also protected the wild grasses for most of their growing season which provided ideal grazing resources illustrating human and natural resource management synchronized with agriculture. Community regulation of resources and pastorialism was an example of self control, discipline, and community well-being which increased the sustainability of the community.

But now, these restrictions are not as strictly adhered to by the communities, partly due to the influence of other societies and partly due to the desire for more income. The younger generation has less regard for their traditional values and practices; they consider their tradition to be old and conservative and are more guided by the forces of commercialization. The individual way of urban lifestyle, values, and modes of behavior are regarded as `modern' and `better' over their traditional ways. Overall, there is a general decline in the community feeling, existence, and resource sharing.

Earlier, the Jads, Merchas, and Bhotiyas lived more collectively, sharing most of their natural resources; there was no concept of hoarding and greed. Now, making money has become a major preoccupation and pursuing material wealth is the first concern of the society. If they are becoming more selfish and greedy it is because it has been imposed on their society in the name of development and these are the major threats to their indigenous system of land use.


Pastoral management skills using the available grazing resources in extremely inhospitable conditions evolved based on the concepts of sharing resources and the survival of the collective society. These are well exemplified with the survival and continuity of nomadic pastoralism in the Kumaon Himalaya to date. But the Bhotiya pastoral community is experiencing tremendous pressure from the outside market-oriented cash economy and their rapidly changing social structures and values. These outside forces have not only concentrated power and resources in even fewer hands, but have contributed directly to the Bhotiya's greater dependence on the forces of market and urban centers. As a result, these changes are threatening the Bhotiya indigenous system of land use, livestock management, and economic production, plant and animal resources, as well as the repository of indigenous knowledge.


Bawa, R. 1995. "Biomass Dynamics of Himalayan Grasslands." International Jour. Ecol. & Environ. Sci. 21 (1): 25-36.

Brower, B. 1991. Sherpas of Khumbu: People, Livestock and Landscape. Delhi. Oxford University Press.

Farooquee, Nehal A. and Annpurna Nautiyal. 1996. "Livestock Ownership Patterns Among Transhumants in High-Altitude Villages of the Central Himalayas." Nomadic Peoples. 39: 87-95.

Farooquee, Nehal A. & Saxena, KG. 1996. "Conservation and Utilization of Medicinal Plants in High Hills of Central Himalayas." Environmental Conservation. 23(1): 75-80.

Farooquee, Nehal A. 1998. "Development and the Eradication of Traditional Resource Use Practice in the Central Himalayan Transhumant Pastoral Society." Int'l Journal of Sustainable Dev. & World Ecology. 5:1-9.

Ives, J.D. & Messerli, B. 1989. The Himalayan Dilemma. Reconciling Development and Conservation. Routledge, London-New York. 295 pp.

Kreutzmann, H. 1993. "Challenge and Response in the Karakoram: Socioeconomic Transformation in Hunza, Northern Areas, Pakistan." Mountain Research and Dev. 13(1): 19-39.

Ram, J., Singh, J.S. & Singh, S.P. 1989. "Plant Biomass Species Diversity and Net Primary Production in a Central Himalayan High Altitude Grassland." Journal of Ecology. 77: 456-468.

Sundriyal, R.C. 1995. "Grassland Forge Production and Management in the Himalaya: A Review." Journal of Hill Research. 8(2): 135-150.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.

CSQ Issue: