Nomadic pastoralists with their herd on the way to alpine pastures.
Photo: © Athar Parvaiz

From climate change to conflict, Himalayan pastoralists suffer it all

Life has always been hard for the nomadic pastoralists in the Himalayas. But with climate change, ever smaller patches of pastureland and armed conflicts, it is now almost impossible for them to survive, which is why more and more pastoralists want to give up. The government has now introduced countermeasures to address this.

The Bakkarwals in Kashmir and Changpas in Ladakh Himalayas rear sheep, goats and cattle in the upper reaches of the mountains. The Bakkarwals are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Kashmir Himalayas after Kashmiris, Gujjars and Dogras. Numbering around half a million, they migrate to different alpine pastures across the Himalayas. While their hardships were limited to long treks in the past, the nomadic pastoralists say that in recent years, they have been compounded.

“Flash-floods, landslides, cloud-bursts and windstorms are killing our community members and livestock like never before,” complained Bakkarwal Ijaz Choudhary.  “We do not have proper tents to protect ourselves and our livestock from extreme weather events like hailstorms, cloudbursts and torrential rains. Often, our family members and livestock fall sick following intense rainfall or hailstorm.” According to Ijaz Choudhary, hundreds of Bakkarwal families lost their large herds of sheep and goats when flash floods caught them unaware in the past ten years.

Javaid Rahi, the secretary of the Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation (TRCF) said that, “the main migration routes, including the Jamiya Gali, Gora Batta, Nanansar, Ropadi Dharhal Pass and Mughal Road, often got damaged through heavy snowfall and rain during the last winter and required urgent repairs.” Javaid Rahi said that apart from providing facilities to nomads in all the regions of Kashmir Himalayas, the government should support the nomads in getting their livestock insured so that they are compensated for losses in the event of disasters.

Limited access to pastures

Pastoralists complain that forest pastures are increasingly becoming out of bounds for them and that they face many hardships while migrating to the pastures and returning from them. Every year, it takes about two weeks for them to move their livestock to the pastures and as much time for the return journey.

Mohammad Nazir Kalukhair, from Kalakote-Rajori said, herding livestock has now become very difficult for them.  “When I was young, migrating to pastures and staying there for months used to be much easier. But, now we face many challenges,” the 73-year-old nomad explained. “In those years, neither we would face any problems in forests nor during our migration. Now, we are supposed to seek permission several times and are still not allowed to graze our livestock peacefully,” Mohammad Nazir Kalukhair  complained, adding that some pastures were not accessible for security reasons. “We are not allowed to make small mud-houses during our stay in pastures. Also, the forest department has created enclosures in forests, which exposes us to the threat of wild animals and also creates roadblocks for us when move our herds for one place to another.”

Shakil Ahmad Bijran, another pastoralist, said that pastures had diminished as compared to the past.  “The grazing lands are now owned by people in various areas. We have to pay them if our livestock grazes in those grazing lands,” Shakil Ahmad Bijran said. “Some pastures are now with the wildlife department and are not accessible to us.”

Many pastoralists about to give up

“With all these difficulties, many of us feel forced to leave this profession. We have been brought to a stage where we can only survive with a begging bowl because doing manual labour is no different from begging for us – we are only used to live off our own resources,” said Mohammad Nazir Kalukhair. “We are being denied the way of life we love.”  

Javaid Rahi from TRCF said that the lifestyle and culture of nomads was facing the threat of extinction and might soon become history if the government failed to address their grievances.  “They have been facing a number of challenges which include those from the decades-old armed conflict in the region, shrinking grasslands and the challenges posed by climate change,” Javaid Rahi emphasised and added: “The nomads can’t do anything other than rearing animals as they possess no other skills.” 

Government strategies

An official of the Kashmir government’s Tribal Affairs Department remarked that the government would look into these problems and devise a strategy to help them. “We have already started providing transportation facilities to the nomads so that they are able to cover the journey along with their livestock to the pastures quickly and get more time to graze their herds in highland pastures,” said Shahid Iqbal Choudhary, Secretary of Kashmir’s Tribal Affairs Department. It takes over a week for the nomads to trek the distance to highland pastures, and they often lose sheep and goats to speeding vehicles on highways besides bearing other hardships during their journey.

Shahid Iqbal Choudhary also reported that the department had started issuing smart cards for the nomads to make the process of permission for their migration (to highland pastures) easy for them. Without the smart cards, the nomads have to move from office to office to get permission for migrating to the pastures. He added that the department was planning to make transit accommodations for them, too. And in the Ladakh Himalayas, a government official said that the government had a scheme to provide prefab huts for nomads and fodder for their livestock in extreme harsh winters.   

Athar Parvaiz is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar/ Kashmir, India. Contact: atharparvaiz.ami(at)


More information:

Tribal Research and Cultural Foundation



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