Gobar Times
Cover Story

Gypsy Lores

     Trailing the Caravan     

A row of tattered tents rigged against the boundary wall of the park. In front of one, an old man with a hukkah is stoking a dying fire. A gaggle of scantily-clad toddlers are running around. “Huh!,” you say to yourself, “the gypsies have come. What a nuisance.” It’s an annual ritual—the arrival of the bedraggled nomads and your disgust. They litter the park, get into noisy brawls, and generally disrupt your peace...

But hey, look a little longer...See the beautiful patchwork blankets piled inside the tents and the shiny new tools? Oh yes, the dirt-encrusted façade hides some skilled craftsmen. From blacksmiths to fortune tellers to traditional doctors—nomads were once professionals with a hugely diverse range. Hooked, huh? Want to know a little more?

      On the move…why?     

Nomadism has been a way of life for people who have learned to live in regions that have the harshest of climates and terrains. Nomadic groups can be found across the world – from the Far North with its hunting groups like the Eskimos to the parched deserts of Africa. (see Centrespread) About seven per cent of the Indian population is nomadic. While over 200 castes are pastoral nomads (they breed and herd cattle, pigs, camels and a mindboggling variety of animals!) more than 300 groups are non-pastorals.

Why didn’t they, like others, select and cultivate a piece of land and settle down?

      …in search for greener pastures     

The nomadic lifestyle evolved in response to a definite need. Pastorals, for example, were a part of a rural landscape in the arid or mountainous regions—where cultivated land did not assure steady and sufficient food supply. Nomads roamed in places where there was little cultivable land to begin with, or where crop yields are very low. Like in hilly terrains and deserts. So more than half of India’s gypsies can be found in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, parts of Maharashtra or the cold desert tracts of Ladakh.

The people, here, kept livestock and adopted a nomadic way of life because the supply of fodder was never plentiful in any one place. So they moved around in search of pastures.

The non-pastoral nomads responded to a socio-economic necessity – they visited villages from time to time to offer essential services—selling household tools and utensils, medicines, herbs, spices and of course, providing entertainment—-for which they were paid. Both these groups had a finely balanced equation with the settled population.

But first, lets undersatnd the links between land and people. The village...     

There are different types of lands in the village differentiated by the way it is used—cultivated fields, wastelands and forests.


Commons—of uncommon value     

Wastelands or commons are uncultivated land that separate the agricultural fields from the forests. By right these belong to the rulers of the land—the monarch in the days of yore and now to the revenue department. But all members of the village community have access to the commons. They can pasture their animals, cut grass and leaves for fodder and collect dry wood for fuel from it. The commons support the poorest residents of the village—The landless.

      How? Let me explain      

Livestock – linking lands

You already know that in the semi arid zones of states like Rajasthan and Gujarat agriculture is not a stable source of income. So the villagers depend heavily on cattle and livestock to keep the home fire burning. The animals provide draught power for ploughing, seeding and threshing, winnowing and lifting water. And, of course, the dairy (milk and milk products) industry maintains a parallel economy, providing livelihood to thousands—especially during drought-hit years.

Now, the livestock thrives on wastelands. The sheep, buffaloes, goats forage on the shrubs and bushes, resources that are otherwise useless to the villagers. And they convert it into milk, manure and fuel.

Pastorals: reviving lands

In the past, farmers forged natural ties with the pastoral nomads like Rebaris, Gujjars, Gaddis and Nandiwallas. With time the relationship grew into an interdependent one. Even though the resources of the village were stretched at the best of times the nomads were always welcomed.

Why? They contributed significantly to the crop yield. The droppings of sheep, goats and cattle was manure for fields. Earlier farmers vied with one another to pen livestock in their fields overnight. As an incentive they would even pay nomads to rest the sheep on their field. While the animals foraged they fertilised the fields too. The nomads synchronised their spring and autumn movements with the agricultural cycle so that the flocks passed through the fields after one crop was harvested and before another one had been sown. Many of the sedentary peasants used to entrust their livestock to the pastoralists to be fed and watered at the best grazing pastures. The pastoralists were paid in kind by the farmerrs. They were allowerd to graze their cattle. And sell dairy products like milk, butter, ghi and wool. So the pastoral nomads played a key role in the larger economy.

Non-pastorals: masters of all trades

While the pastorals contributed directly to the village economy, the non-pastoral people were providers of essential services. They also made and sold all sorts of useful little items like mats and baskets, brooms and brushes or earthenware utensils. They carried their wares on the backs of their cattle – spices, honey, medicinal herbs. They bartered their goods in the villages through which they passed.

Banjaras and Lambadis moved in larger groups with pack animals loaded with salt. The women in this group would also barter exquisitely crafted silver trinkets.

Gadolya Lohars or the blacksmiths arrived at the beginning of the agricultural season to repair and sell agricultural tools and implements. Vaidus or traditional healers who made medicines from forest plants (see box in page 65). The Ghatiya Jogis made grinding stones for household use.


      Land transfer systems under the British regime     

The zamindari or ‘permanent settlement’ system (1793): Feudal lords (zamindars, jagirdars) were declared proprietors in return of fixed revenue paid to the British.

The ryotwari system (1792 -1817): Individual cultivators (ryots or raiyats) were recognized as proprietors with rights to sub-let, mortgage, and transfer by gift or sale. Their tenure was secure so long as they paid revenues to the Collectors, that is, officials who ‘collected’ on behalf of the Colonial rulers.

The mahalwari system (1820-1840): Revenue settlement was made with entire villages (mahals) as collective units. The state initially got as much as 83 per cent of gross produce which was later cut down to 66 per cent.


      Pushed to the fringes     

So, till then, the nomads were eagerly awaited visitors. Not only did they play a key role in the village economy, they also entertained, healed and took care of all the odd jobs. Are you a little confused now? You are wandering what turned these interesting, enterprising communities into the disruptive, impoverished elements that you see now… Well, it did not happen overnight. In fact, the transition began after the advent of the British Raj.


      A vanishing breed     

200 pastoral castes breed camels, goats, pigs and even ducks. Their profession is10,000 years old !

Raikas of Rajasthan: They migrate in groups or dangs and have bred the Sirohi goat, a breed more productive than imported Swiss goats. But in 2004, they were denied grazing permits into the Kumbhalgrah sanctuary,a region where they till now enjoyed ancestral rights.

Dohi Gujjars and Bakarwals Of Jammu and Kashmir: These sheep, goat and buffaloe breeders travel for 100-200 days annually, and come down to warmer areas in winter. And their herds move into farm lands. Result? Frequent clashes with villagers.

Hatkars of Maharasthra: Shrinking pastures have forced these shepherds to become landless field labourers.


From informants to criminals

At the outset, the British rules found the nomads extremely useful. You see, the gypsies had established an extensive communication network while they crisscrossed the country with salt and honey and herded cattle. They could find their way through dense jungles and knew hidden passes in the mountains and could navigate in the vast deserts.The British used these traders as crucial informants. They relied on them to set up their own trading routes and to guide their armies through unknown terrains.

But soon the British government began to look at their former allies as potential enemies. Why? Because the tribal chiefs were chafing under British dominance. Many joined hands with the rebels during the 1857 Sepoy mutiny. The colonial authorities now grew nervous about the gypsies who moved around, carrying information they could not control directly. So in 1871, many nomadic communities were officially notified as criminals under the Criminal Tribes Act. The rapid expansion of railways and telegraph added to the woes of the nomads.

The scale of the operations of the nomadic traders was drastically cut down. But the more crippling set back was the taking over of the common lands by the government. The British rulers made intense demands on the natural resources of the country—for obtaining raw materials for the factories back home. So these lands were brought under cultivation and made off limits for the wandering shepherds. The new forest laws compounded their misery. Grazing was considered destructive for the forests, so the nomads lost their traditional right to take their animals there.

Land reforms: the body blow

But the most back breaking blow has came not during the colonial rule, but after Independent India. The land reforms of the early 1950s set the trend of land management in our country. And that is—focus on extracting maximum revenue, by systematically neglecting grazing fields. Public lands were converted into private for crop farming. In most villages, commons were maintained by jagirdars. When the land was being reallocated these influential people grabbed these for themselves. So many forest and permanent pastures where grass, trees or bush grew became private.

In Gujarat, the scenario was a little different. In the 1950s and 1960s, under a wave of state government-supported land reforms known as the Bhoodan Movement common lands were given away to low caste landless residents. In Saurashtra, the south central region of Gujarat, huge tracts of commons were converted to croplands, and permanent pastures were reduced to less than 20 per cent of what it was in 1947.

Today, the only remaining common property grazing lands surrounding most villages of Saurashtra are hedges that surround fields, the sides of public roads and paths, and severely eroded shrub land. The nomads chose grazing lands that had plenty of water sources nearby – a pond, stream or rivulet. Because pastures cannot sustain herds if there are no watering points. These have been steadily disappearing.

In Rajasthan for example, they have been reducing since 1960s. Locally known as nadis or tobas they were scattered in various parts of the grazing area. But now farmers managed to prove them to be a part of their holdings and brought them under the plough.

Also, largescale irrigation programmes have been launched to convert grazing lands into agricultural fields. The Rajasthan canal, for instance, has brought vast tracts of lands under cultivation, pushing the nomads tribes—who used this land to graze—out of the picture!


No space to graze

India has 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area and 20 per cent of the world’s livestock population – that is a whopping 450 million animals. For all these animals the government has only demarcated 13 million hectares in the country as permanent grazing lands, and there is simply not enough grass for all the animals.

The resources of the demarcated grazing lands are used up at a frantic rate and these lands don’t get time to recover. In time overgrazing leads to land degradation. The problem of overgrazing has a cycle that is difficult to break. See how this cycle functions. Modern agricultural methods also prove to be a bane for graziers sometimes. Earlier private fields were used for public grazing after harvest. The cattle had plenty to eat off the crop leftovers and undergrowths. But now with tractors clearing the lands, very little is left to graze!

Swapping species

The shrinking commons left the nomads with little choice – they could either travel more and more to reach richer pastures. Or they could change the kind of animals they bred and swap them for hardier species. Like sheep and goats, which can survive on basic minimum. Rajasthan’s case is the most apt example.

Earlier at least five to seventeen households in a Rajasthani village owned herds (or tolas) of camels. But by 1964 most villages in this state had less than three camel per household. This was because camel fed on shrubs and bushes and these were no longer abundantly available. Its the same for the cattle population. In 1955 villages had 23 – 60 chhangs (cattle herds). By 1964 the number of herds had dropped and there were only six cattle herds per village. The number has steadily declined since.

Unwanted wanderers

In the old days all the nomads had to face were the rigours of the road. They were friends of the villagers, and the rulers of the land valued them for their contribution to the total revenue of the land. They were linked to the land and its people. Now those ties have snapped and they are unwelcome visitors. Villagers no longer need the specialised services of the non-pastoral nomads — farming implements are available in shops and the television has replaced the snake charmer.

Now the nomadic traders and entertainers are considered a menace. The state of the pastorals is similar. Earlier farmers used to request them to rest their flock in their field. Now they with the increasing use of chemical fertilisers the pastorals are not needed for the manure.


      Occupational niches     

More than 300 groups earn their living as hunters, trappers, artisans, entertainers, dancers, fortune-tellers and traditional doctors.

Vaidus: They are the traditional village healers and move from village to village dispensing herbal formulations. The forest is their main resource base. They have a vast knowledge of traditional healing methods and uses of various plants, many of
which remain undocumented. Today there is little demand for their traditional remedies as modern allopathic medicines have become popular.

Garuliya Lohars: The Garuliya Lohars were once Rathod Rajputs and during the war between the Rajputs and the Bhamanis they began to cast guns and forge shields and swords. Living around they Chittorgarh fort they had the exclusive
patronage of the ranas. When the fort fell to Akbar they moved out. So from gunsmiths they became travelling blacksmiths. Now competition from mechanised toolmakers and welders has eroded their market.

Bhands and Bhopas: Bhopas were wandering minstrels who inscribed their devotional lyrics in exquisitely painted scrolls, often 20 feet long!They played traditional instruments like the manjeera, damru, dhol and ektara. The Bhands travelled within the kingdom of their patron king extolling his virtues. Neither of these groups can now compete with commercial entertainment industry.



Fighting all the way

In a complete turnaround from the age-old conventions, farmers now beg authorities to restrict the entry of nomads from neighbouring states. Nomads from Gujarat and Rajasthan, for instance, regularly migrate to the forests of Madhya Pradesh. But the local people here are constantly complaining—the sheep destroy their standing crops, they say. So even though the government has specified the migration route, villagers and nomads are at loggerheads.

The government, too, want to keep these communities at arms’ length. Conflicts between the Van Gujjars and forest department officers in Uttrachanchal have been on for decades. The Van Gujjars live in these hilly terrains and they have been using the area around Rajaji National Park as their home during the winters for generations. They depend on forest resources to feed their buffaloes. So, their existence is directly linked to forest lands, and they, in turn, protected the resources with their lives. But now the Van Gujjars are labelled as trespassers, and the forest authorities see them as the main threats to the regional ecosystem!

There are more such tales of decline. The Vaidus (the moving medics of Maharashtra), have moved to cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kohlapur in hordes, to work as wage labourers, because they have lost their profession. With the spread of allopathic medicine, the demand for Vaidu potions has dropped dramatically. In fact, these traditional healers are dismissed as quacks by modern doctors.

      Journey to nowhere     

So now you know why those tents—the eyesores in your park—have been put up there. They probably belong to banjaras, who once made a living out of herding donkeys. But now they come to work in construction sites in cities, where they rent animals and their own labour to haul building materials.

Experts around the world are convinced that nomads make best use of fragile, arid lands. But the growing crop fields, burgeoning cities, and expanding industrial zones are fast gobbling up lands that were once the life line of these tribes.

The trend is similar everywhere. Even in the US, where official systems exist to allow graziers access to government-owned rangelands, they are fighting a losing battle against the urban onslaught. The situation is far worse in developing countries like India. Here rate of population growth is phenomenal, and with it the pressure to increase food production, to provide shelter to millions—keeps mounting. Result: the governments simply ignore the needs of the fringe communities. Like the nomads.

While the future of the pastorals hangs on a thread the nonpastoral nomads who were traders, medical practitioners and entertainers have lost out completely. In 1952, these tribes were ‘denotified.’ But they were reclassified as habitual offenders in 1959.Even today, laws require them to register at police stations in the districts they pass through.

The most scary fact is that the government has no real policy for helping them adjust to the changing environment. The agencies have barely any understanding of the arts that they excel in or the lifestyle that they are used to. Their general attitude is to ‘settle’ them. They are sometimes ‘rehabilitated’ in severely degraded lands, where any permanent form of agriculture is practically impossible!


So these skilled professionals are now reduced to being grossly underpaid farm hands or construction labourers. Don’t they deserve a better, a more promising future? Can you think of a strategy to help them find it?



Slider Heading: 
Trailing the Caravan