Bakkarwals, amongst the most backward of Jammu and Kashmir’s pastoral communities, are extremely poor and neglected. Contemporary documentation of behaviour towards them shows how discriminated they are, substantially because of their nomadic existence and their lifestyles revolving around their herd of goats and sheep.
The Bakkarwals, who graze their animals in the much higher reaches of Kargil, Ganesh, Pir Panjal, and more, are seen as tribal people. They are also referred to as ‘khanabadosh’, or homeless people.
Sheep rearing is a painstaking job. In the environment, the Bakkarwals do rear the sheep at great risk to their lives. Many men and women have died in the hostile conditions. Herds have vanished. Yet, the Bakkarwals live lives of penury and at the mercy of nature.
For all their hard work, the Bakkarwals get very little return. Rearing sheep and goats is not very remunerative and this is one reason why many of their young do not wish to continue in the family profession.
The Bakkarwal tribal people own over 20 lakh sheep and goats in the Jammu and Kashmir region and cater to the culinary needs of Kashmir’s households. It is an important job in the cold valley - farmers produce rice and greens, and the Bakkarwals provide the region with important animal protein.
A report published by the International Institute for Environment and Development in 2008 notes that,” Extensive research conducted over several decades in arid and semi-arid rangelands has demonstrated that in terms of both protein production per hectare and environmental benefits, pastoral systems are more productive and viable than the ranching and group ranching or sedentary livestock production systems currently promoted by governments and other development agents.”
Scepticism remains, though. National policy makers have not been willing to make these communities secure, even in the face of mounting evidence pointing to how pastoralist communities are capable of sustainable resource management and their contribution in important ways to national economies.
Economic marginalisation remains the bane of pastoral communities. Worldwide, administrators have treated pastoralists as a problematic population - a nomadic lifestyle is considered less civilized, less productive, and more degrading, than a settled lifestyle.
This cultural bias outlines the political and administrative directions of policy and governance, with far-reaching implications for the pastoralists, like Kashmir’s Bakkarwals and more.
Due to the problem of their cultural stereotyping, small population, and migratory lifestyle, the Bakkarwals largely remain side-lined in the various policy-level decisions. Non-participation and ignorance of their due rights and status have, in turn, further marginalized them to the extent that their efforts to articulate their concerns have rarely been noted. Additionally, incorrect and alarmist perceptions of the environmental harms caused by pastoralism have for long had a bearing on policy matters. This attitude is especially reflected in dealings with the forest department.
But rarely do officials see them as producers.
Instead, the supply of meat in Jammu and Kashmir is viewed from a consumers’ lens. The price for a live goat or sheep is fixed as an essential commodity and, in consumer affairs parlance, it is meant to suit the consumer. The market equations, therefore, are vastly tilted against the producers - the Bakkarwals - who complain that the price they get is way too little.
To the uninitiated, it is easy to assume that market forces deprive the Bakkarwals of their dues. In reality, however, the regulatory authority here is consumer affairs and, by design, the calculus of the price settlement is heavily tilted in favour of the consumer. For instance, the price of a live goat or sheep was fixed at Rs. 240 per kg in Poonch district in July 2022. Bakkarwals say that the price is too low. A very robust animal in their conditions weighs about 30 kilograms and fetches no more than Rs. 7,200.
Some of this could change if they were to be seen as producers,just as farmers are. A minimum support price under the umbrella of the agricultural produce market regulations would help both the Bakkarwals and the consumers, instead of a one-way, consumer-alone approach. But the Bakkarwals are not organised, nor are there any advocacy groups taking up their case before consumer bodies of the government. As producers, they are never consulted in the process of deciding the rates.Since the price is fixed with the consumer in mind, the Bakkarwal producer in fact gets much less than even this price, as there is a chain of middlemen each securing their pound of flesh - literally.
The wealth of the Bakkarwals is their sheep and goats that they rear for sale to middlemen. They have an important role in the region’s food economy, but their role is often overlooked or taken for granted. Unlike food-grain producers, they do not have access to a minimum support price regime for their produce. To improve their socio-economic lives, government interventions must make remunerations for the Bakkarwals more attractive, if not handsome. The Bakkarwals are not a potent political force, but they have often done a significant amount to secure the country’s borders since independence.
A market regulatory body that the Bakkarwal community can participate with and obtain a more remunerative price for their produce, will be of big help. Now, there are also advanced technologies to produce dairy products with goat and sheep milk which can be explored. Simultaneously, intervention to procure sheep wool at the best and most competitive rates can be undertaken. This will provide the Bakkarwals with much needed support.
Earlier studies have pointed to the prevalence of fair to good degrees of experiential knowledge on sheep and goat rearing amongst the Bakkarwals. Moreover, the animal husbandry department can undertake mobile education camps for the herders to provide them with better knowledge on livestock production, management, and handling. For instance, there is no practice of isolating diseased sheep and goats or of intermediary individuals quarantining themselves to prevent entire herds from perishing in the event of a disease.
The following anecdote gives a good account of the life of an average Bakkarwal.
Strained under Debt
Mohamed Yakoob of Kosslian village in Poonch is a Bakkarwal with 50 goats and sheep. For all the hard work of walking up the pasturelands and back all around the year, Yakoob says his best bet remains selling a goat for Rs 5,000 around the time of Qurbani, or Eid - while the price in the market exceeds Rs. 10,000.
Yakoob is aware that the economic equation works against him and others of his ilk. The risks are high. “I am not sure how many of my 50 animals will return from the mountains. Life there is tough for both man and animals. At 14,000 feet, the goats start panting for breath and die of heart attacks.”
Over six months, Yakoob says he spent about Rs. 25,000 on the 50 animals that he had given to a neighbour to graze this year because he could not make it to the mountain due to his old age. In winter, he has to buy maize and leaves. Maize costs him Rs. 1,800 for a quintal and he needs 18 quintals of the feed for six months when they are back home. With transport costs, the maize alone costs him Rs. 35,000. Local farmers lease him a tree for the goats to pick the leaves from at Rs. 2,000 per tree and he needs at least 15 trees for his 50 goats - Rs. 30,000 gone there.
Veterinary medicines cost him Rs. 5,000 for 50 animals, if there is no outbreak of diseases. But in case a disease like the Foot and Mouth disease breaks out, Yakoobhas to spend another Rs. 5,000 on the vaccination - it costs about Rs. 3,000 to buy the vaccines and another Rs. 2,000 to give to the veterinarian or livestock compounder or stockman who comes to vaccinate the animals (never mind if these are people in government employment, they still demand this price to reach the herd). In fact, when the animals fall ill, usually in an epidemic situation, the expenses go well above Rs. 10,000 for the 50 animals. These are just some bare and very minimal expenses that Yakoobmust bear. Yakoob also estimates that policemen take one goat from among some 300 goats that flock together either way.Some goats are lost to snakebites, Yakoob says, and some perish from consuming poisonous grass. Then, there are hailstorms, snowfalls, and lightning that are becoming more common with each passing year.
He paid Rs. 1,000 for the permit to cross the Pir Panjal range.
Female sheep and goats reproduce each year, providing him with one replacement, and he should have lady luck smiling upon him to be able to sell 30 animals in a year - obtaining about Rs. 1.5 lakhs. (In reality, his average sale of animals is about 20 heads).
Buying and transporting food and fuel in the mountains is an expensive affair, he says, and Yakoob is left with very little in a year.With a 50-strong herd, Yakoob is an average Bakkarwal. He says that in a good year, he saves about Rs. 70,000. But even this income comes in trickles, and he has to pay huge interest on the loans he accrues from others in the animal husbandry ecosystem. The shop selling him veterinary medicines, for instance, gives him the medicines on a credit basis because Yakoob doesn’t have the money to pay him upfront. The interest on the loaned sum is Rs. 3 for every Rs. 100 loaned for each passing month - or simply, 36 per cent per annum. At any point in time, Yakoob is strained under debt.
Given that many animals die, and in instances when the Bakkarwals are left with nothing due to an act of God, there is little that the Bakkarwals can bank upon.Till a decade ago, Yakoobwould shave wool off his sheep and sell it to middlemen arriving at his doorstep. But with the changes in wool procurement and with no help from the Central Wool Development Board, there are no takers for his wool anymore.
In such a situation, the only help they could possibly get is from the market - and that, as we all know, is a cruel system to leave the vulnerable Bakkarwal to!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.