Research: understanding pastoral systems

CfP’s research efforts are driven by the fact that both grasslands and pastoral communities in India have remained at the margins of research in both the social and natural sciences. So much so that neither grasslands nor pastoral communities are reflected in the routine ways by which the state attempts to categorize, enumerate or understand open landscapes or pastoral communities. Grasslands are routinely categorized as wasteland (based on the assumption that the absence of forest cover reflects some form of degradation) and neither human nor animal census operations attempt to enumerate pastoralists and their animals as distinct from the landed agricultural communities that feature in decadal census operations. Not surprisingly, India has no policies that attempt to manage grasslands as grasslands and there is an absence of investment or other policies specifically targeting pastoral communities. The assumptions are that grasslands need to be brought under forest cover and pastoralists need to settle, and policies are geared accordingly.
There are complicated reasons for why our policies continue to be framed on ideas that are largely discredited within both the social and natural sciences. The failure to see grasslands and pastoralism as distinct ecosystems and communities is rooted in the same basic problem: the Forest Department that manages 21% of the Indian landscape, including grasslands and/or wastelands, has historically been oriented towards the management of forests – largely through the lens of sylviculture (timber production). Some of this has changed to include a focus on biodiversity conservation, but sylviculture has remained a cornerstone of forester training since the late 1900s. Ample research now points to the context specificity of pastoralism, and to the fact that pastoralism has demonstrated a sophisticated capacity to exploit seasonal variability in moisture and to thrive in environments that are largely un-supportive of settled agriculture.

However, the core problem is the overarching absence of sustained research on Indian grasslands or the pastoral communities that inhabit them. Ecological research in India has tended to focus on mega-fauna and on forests; research on agrarian India has tended to focus on agricultural communities. For the most part, research on either grasslands or on pastoralism in India has taken the form of isolated studies – a PhD here, another there, with no real attempt to build coherent bodies of work. The body of work in India simply lacks the long-term, cross-disciplinary engagement that has been the hallmark of pastoral/grassland studies in Africa. See the work of the NREL amongst the Turkana; that of Rodgers and Homewood amongst the Maasai, the sustained debates between Sam McNaughton and Joy Belskey on the impacts of grazing on east African grasslands, etc.
RAMBLE, a research station in Banni, Kachchh © Nirav Mehta

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CfP’s research thematic works in two ways: (i) it undertakes or commissions research on issues of immediate or policy-related interest; and (ii) it is part of a consortium, Forum for Research on Pastoralism and Grasslands (FRPG), that hopes to facilitate research via provision of fellowships, the maintenance of a network of field stations and the building of a repository on pastoralism and grasslands.
Ongoing Research
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