Many ask: why is pastoralism important in this day and age of industrial agriculture and animal husbandry? Here’s why: India has an estimated 74 million sheep, the third highest population of sheep in the world, managed entirely by pastoral communities. Up to half of India’s 148 million goats, also in the top two or three numbers globally, are managed by pastoralists. Close to 20 percent of Indian dairies are stocked by cow and buffalo breeds developed by pastoral populations. Close to 40 per cent of India’s domesticated animal population (73 of 179 breeds) has been developed by pastoral communities. Extensively managed pastoral livestock populations contribute to the agricultural sector by providing fertilizer to cultivating communities. Pastoralists and their livestock then are major contributors to our agricultural, meat, dairy and leather industries.
It would, however, be unfortunate to view pastoralism solely through a material lens, particularly given the minimalist lives they lead. As has been made clear, pastoralists occupy a wide variety of geographies, their material culture and spiritual outpourings reflective of this diversity. Even today many artisans, photo-makers, poets and creators continue to take inspiration from pastoral cultures.
Pastoral communities also contribute to biological diversity, a realization that has been widely panned within mainstream conservation circles. The reality is that pastoralists have been grazing certain landscapes for decades, if not centuries, and the rich biological diversity we associate with these landscapes – in the Himalayas, western India and the Deccan – is almost certainly linked to, if not derived from, this history. Overgrazing IS a concern, but so too is under-grazing. Blanket decisions to curtail grazing in these landscapes will likely have myriad consequences, and few of these are well understood.