“My goat and sheep do not always take the shortcut I take and one day I lost seven goats. The family trusted me with the herd until that day. Luckily they came back!” says a laughing Harpal Singh, 18, a herder of goat and sheep in Chakrata tehsil of Dehradun district.
All of Chakrata tehsil is mountains and gorges of the Shivalik range of the Himalayas, and there are plenty of meadows and pastures for herders like Harpal to graze their animals. Dehradun district has 43.7 per cent of its land under forest, and sal and coniferous trees are predominant in this western part of the state.
The region was earlier known as ‘Jaunsar Bawar’, a name that everyone in the area still uses. The language is called ‘Jaunsari’ and people refer to themselves by the same name (also spelt ‘Jannsari’). The Census of India 2011 lists the Jaunsari as a Scheduled Tribe and records their total population at 88,664 – including sub-tribes such as Khasas and Koltas (artisans). Most Jaunsaris are transhumance pastoralists – moving their herd depending on the season.
Harpal comes from a long line of pastoralists in Gorchha, a village with a population of 270 in Chakrata tehsil. A student at the government school in his village, he has just completed his Class 10 examinations and is hoping to land a government job in the future. “In school, our teachers mostly advise us to take up other jobs, city jobs, not herding,” he says. College is his next stop: state capital Dehradun, 150 kilometres away, is an education hub and this is where he wants to go.
“Livestock rearing and herding were once important occupations in the area. We got a lot of respect in the community,” says Kunwar Singh, 62, a herder and farmer from Gorchha. “After I am no more, no one will go [herding]. It’s a steep climb and these young people’s legs hurt.”
Kunwar Singh and other rearers are turning to baghbani (apple orchards) to bring in cash. “The next generation will only depend on baghbani,” he says. Locals estimate that around 15 acres of agricultural land has already been converted for apple production across Gorchha and Kunwa villages. “Apple growers get izzat (respect). When we go to the mandi, we get a chair to sit and the sahucar (middlemen) offers us chai,” he adds.
In neighbouring Kunwa, a village with a population of 286 people, Sumit Chauhan, 20, also from a pastoralist family, agrees: “I want to do a proper job and not this [rearing]. This work won’t fetch me money, staying in a city will. All my friends will get a job in the city and tease me that I am still a rearer even after getting an education. My family already does that.”
Sumit has learnt all that he knows about rearing and herding from his maternal grandfather, Johar Singh, 48. Together with his grandfather’s faithful bhutia dog, they have travelled up and down the mountains, traversing more than 20 kilometres a day with their herd of 60 goats and 10 sheep, a mix of Pashmina and Gaddi breeds.
Young people like Harpal and Sumit do not see a respectable or even an economically sustainable future for themselves as herders. Sumit’s grandfather Johar Singh, who started herding when he was six years old, admits: “[Working] in the village will get you food, clean air and water, but no regular cash income.”
In the Jaunsar region, until quite recently, payments were done through the barter system and hardly any cash changed hands. Grain and other crops were used as payment under a system referred to as ‘fasalana’. “From the ironsmiths to construction workers, from singers and drummers to weavers, all jobs were paid in fasalana through the year,” says Kunwar Singh.
However, in the last nearly two decades, cash has entered the economy from the sale of vegetables in the wholesale markets in nearby Sahiya or down in the plains in Saharanpur, as well as construction and road repair work with the Border Roads Organisation and under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
“People want their children to study and you need cash for that – to pay fees and their expenses away from home,” says Johar Singh. His family has about 1.5 acres of land, jointly owned by him and his five brothers, on which they grow rice, wheat, rajma, pulses and vegetables. “Agriculture doesn’t bring an income. Sometimes we manage to send some rajma to the market for sale; it sells at 40 rupees a kilogram. When you share the proceeds between six brothers and their families, it comes to nothing.”
Fresh goat manure was prized among farmers in the Jaunsar and herders would be invited to tie their livestock in others’ fields. “There used to be great demand for this manure. Now even manure comes from the city,” says Kunwar Singh.
Rearing and herding
Johar Singh remembers a time in the ’70s when he herded 800 sheep and goats, ten times what he does now. He says grazing pastures are becoming difficult to find. “Earlier we went uphill,” he says, pointing to the farthest mountain visible from his village. “Now there are no green meadows left in those peaks and at my age I have no strength left to take my herd where it is still there.”
As the eldest in the family, Johar Singh started herding with his father when he was still very young, and never went to school. His five brothers, however, all went to school and have jobs in the plains as drivers, peons, construction contractors and the one with a graduate degree works in a bank.
“The village has emptied. My family home used to have 50 people, now there are six living in our big house,” says Kunwar Singh. His home is built in the traditional style – called kath-kuni – that allows animals and humans to live together: the lowest floor for livestock, the middle floor for storing harvest and the top floor for the family.
Across Chakrata’s villages during the cold winters when temperatures hover around minus 4 degrees Celsius, herders migrate down to pastures in the river valleys. In the summers, they move up to higher meadows that have lush green grass watered by melting snows and stay in a makeshift accomodation called ‘chaanis.’
Pushpa Chauhan, 45, travels to the chaanis with her husband Naresh Singh Chauhan, 52, a rearer from Gorchha. She does all the household chores as well as makes ghee and extracts honey. “I get up at 4 a.m. to milk the livestock, then go into the forest to gather firewood for cooking. I need to bring grass for the animals to eat – we have a cow with us as well, and later it’s time to cook our food.”
Johar Singh says he spends his time in the chaanis spinning thread from the hair of his animals. “I can’t remember how many chauras (coats) I have made the thread for.”
Now these chaanis remain empty. Even Johar Singh has decided to remain in the village for winter and takes the herd to the nearest grassland each day for fodder. “We built several proper houses to be used as chaanis for summers and winters, but everyone is leaving the occupation,” says Kunwar Singh, amused at the irony.
Kunwar Singh’s family now keeps only 50 goats, four sheep and a couple of oxen and cows, a fraction of the herd they had in the ’70s – a thousand goats, 500 sheep and 10 oxen – used on their two acres of agricultural land where they grow paddy and vegetables. “Our biggest worry is the reduction in snowfall. Grass needs moisture in the ground to grow. My goats are used to good grass, but now they will eat anything,” he says.
Kunwar Singh’s worry about the decrease in grass for his animals is supported by a 2019 report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on high mountain areas – Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. It notes that snow depth has declined by 25 per cent and that snow-dependent plants are also affected in their ability to reproduce, adversely affecting herders.
“There used to be snowfall in December, with around five feet of snow that would remain firm upto March. The road out of the village would be blocked for two to three months with deep snow and it had to be manually cleared,” says Puran Singh Chauhan, 48, a resident of Gorchha. “Now it snows for two days and a bulldozer or JCB clears it in a few hours.”
Snow helped them to cultivate chavar – a variety of rice that grows only in very cold water and was used by Jaunsaris in weddings and as offerings in their local temple. “The chavar crop has completely stopped. You won’t even get any seeds easily as not a single family in the village has them,” says Chauhan. “The aroma of that variety of rice travelled as far as one kilometre!” He remembers a time when it commanded Rs. 1,000 for a kilogram, and was served with mutton curry for festivals.
The loss of snow is accompanied by rising temperatures in the Himalayan region. An article published in Science Advances in June 2019 notes a gradual warming trend beginning in the mid-1990s.
Traditions wear thin
This warming trend is also having a domino effect on the culture and livelihood of the Jaunsari people. Herders are shrinking the size of their herds as fodder and grass become harder to find. Warmer weather is doing away with the demand for traditional clothing like chauras (coats) made from pure sheep and goat wool. Johar Singh says, “These chauras have become so warm, we don’t wear it fully, just keep it on our shoulders. Earlier, in November we wanted to wear two chauras together.”
Kesar Singh Chauhan, 30, says, “My grandfather in Gorchha loves wearing the cap and jacket that I purchase from Dehradun. People are not interested in wearing traditional clothes; even people staying in the village are losing interest.”
During festivals and when guests visited, people sat on a kharsa (mat of goat hair), but Jaunsaris now bring up plastic mats from the plains that are popular with everyone. Pingya Singh, 42, a weaver from Kunwa says, “Nobody asks for kharsas anymore, they have become seasonal. A decade ago, there was a lot of livestock and plenty of hair, so we made products through the year. Now it’s limited to just after the shearing season.”
Pingya Singh belongs to the Kolta community and they weave woollen blankets and rugs called pankhi and numda, kharsa, (a thick mat of goat hair) and khurshav (water-proof shoes worn during winter and on snow) and chaura. Explaining his craft Pingya Singh says, “we use a raanch [loom] made of light wood, easy to handle. You can use apple or apricot wood, but never the heavy deodar or even chir,” he says. Every product has a different-sized loom and khursav need only a thread and a needle. Weaving for a chaura can take up to ten days; with warm clothing coming up from the plains, the demand has fallen considerably.
Tikam Singh, 34, is a first generation graduate from a Gorchha herding family. He says, “Young people in my family don’t know what it means to be a Jaunsari. Many of the festivals we celebrated in my childhood are no longer seen. When children come from the towns they want to eat Maggi noodles. They can’t digest pure ghee and rice; they fall sick. The village remains [Jaunsari] only in name.”
Rituja Mitra completed her second master's in development studies from Azim Premji University in 2020. She studied Jaunsar’s livestock rearers and artisans for her thesis and learnt about traditional wisdom and practices of the community. She says, “the colloquium with P. Sainath and later with PARI Education at our campus was an eye-opener. I understood journalistic perspectives on sociology, environment and anthropology, which we otherwise consider as academic domains.”