Adapting to Changing Landscapes: Rabari Migration Strategies across Generations

in Article
Published on: 22 January 2018

Matthieu Salpeteur

Matthieu Salpeteur (PhD in anthropology) is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the Centre d’Écologie Fonctionnelle et Évolutive (Montpellier, France). His research aims at understanding how social and ecological dynamics become intertwined at different spatial and temporal scales to create the world we observe around us. Since 2012 he has been working with the Rabari pastoralists to study the ways in which they cope with the wide array of changes that affect their livelihood.

In Gujarat, the Rabari community was, as in Rajasthan, primarily specialized in camel breeding and herding. However, with the introduction of oil-based engines and the subsequent revolution in transportation, people have switched to breeding other animals, particularly sheep and goats, small ruminants that are well suited to the harsh environments they evolve in. This shift induced important transformations in the livelihood of animal-keepers and in the ways they moved across the entire area.


In the Kutch district, it was not possible for the Rabari involved in sheep and goat keeping to stay all year round near their villages. On the one hand, there was not always sufficient forage to feed the animals in this semi-desert area hosting shrub lands and savannahs, which receives between 300 and 400 mm of rain per year and is frequently hit by drought. On the other hand, their access to potential grazing areas such as forests or common pastures was limited, given their low position in the local political hierarchy. Thus, certain migration patterns progressively took shape, characterized by movements from Kutch to external grazing areas and the reverse. As noted by Aparna Choksi and Caroline Dyer (1996), migration was for the shepherds both a way to feed the animals and a way to earn some supplementary cash through labour in the farms or through the sale of clarified butter (ghee), wool or animals. Thus, migration outside Kutch was driven by a number of intertwined factors: the seasonal and yearly climatic variations determined what food and water was available in Kutch and in neighboring areas; the political setting determined what kind of access to pastures was possible for the shepherds; and at the economic level several options were available in and outside Kutch. Long-distance movements of the Rabari shepherds with their herds resulted from active choices that took into account all these factors, in line with each one’s productive strategy.


Among Kutch’s Rabari community, two parganas were mainly involved in the transhumant sheep and goat keeping: Dhebaria Rabari and Vagadia Rabari. Dhebaria Rabari, dwellers of the Anjar taluka, used to stay within Kutch during the monsoon and moved to Sindh, Rajasthan or central Gujarat once the dry season started. The lower plain of the Indus River, hosting huge pastures, ensured sufficient supply of fodder for the herds throughout the dry season, thus becoming a favored transhumance destination. The Vagadia Rabari, dwellers of the Rapar taluka, used to move towards north Gujarat, where they could find good fodder, water and good migration conditions during winter and summer. Among the Kachhi Rabari, too, shepherds owning large flocks used to migrate towards Sindh, while small herds stayed in western Kutch where the rich forests promised enough forage for the animals all year round. However, these patterns of migration have been constantly evolving in relation with specific events and progressive changes in land use and land tenure systems. We describe here some of the major events and decisions that affected these livelihoods.



When Politics Changed the Migration Game


The India-Pakistan partition of 1947 was a huge blow to the transhumant Rabari community, in that it deeply affected the Rabari who used to migrate to Sindh, mainly from the Dhebaria paragana.  Thus, new transhumance routes had to be discovered. They, the Dhebaria Rabari, switched towards eastern Gujarat, moving progressively up to the area around Ahmedabad, towards the South (Anand, Vadodara and Surat) and then forward, beyond the frontiers of the state. The first migration out of Gujarat happened in 1952, according to Choksi and Dyer (1996). This way some Dhebaria Rabari dangs reached Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. After years of transhumance between these remote areas and Kutch, most shepherds decided to stay all year round in these other states, since the travel to and from Kutch was indeed exhausting, and herds were adapting to the ecological conditions in these new areas. Even until recently, many Rabari dangs were migrating all year round in these other states, where they followed a migration pattern similar to the one they had in Gujarat. During the monsoon, they stayed in forests, out of farmlands, and during winter and summer, they moved across cultivated landscapes, grazing on harvest leftovers in the fields. This move to new grazing areas brought with it several changes in the functioning of the dang. As they did not belong to the states where they stayed, they had to pay taxes to gain access to the forests, and were quite vulnerable to harassment or threats. To deal better with potential conflicts with local pastoralists and villagers and to defend themselves against thieves, they now gather in huge groups in the forests where they take shelter during monsoon. A group consists up to 50–60 families, which is 10 times the average size of a dang doing transhumance across Gujarat. Once the monsoon is over, these huge gatherings split into small groups that scatter across farmlands, and move around until the next rainy season. Thus, the Partition had unexpected heavy impacts on the Rabari livelihood, resulting in the opening of new migration areas eastward that spread all across central India. This extension of migration territories paralleled several adaptations in the nomadic livelihood: the organization of migrating groups is different during monsoon, the herds become used to new environments characterized by higher moisture and rainfall, and people learn to deal with potential conflicts in different legal and political settings.



The Green Revolution and the Shepherds

A large part of the migrations of Rabari shepherds occur in densely cultivated areas. In Kutch, areas where irrigation is available are used as refuge when the weather is dry and water is scarce. Beyond Kutch, green areas in northern, central and southern Gujarat, as well as in Saurashtra are privileged migration destinations during winter and summer. For a long time, the shepherds have maintained a balanced exchange with farmers in all these areas. In areas where rain-fed agriculture was dominant, fields were open to access after the harvest, and thus shepherds had the opportunity to evolve and find their way across large areas. The herds provided for natural manuring, at a time when chemical fertilizers were not available (a thousand sheep produce about 500 kg of droppings and 700 liters of urine per day, according to Trivedi 1995). In return, shepherds had access to fodder for their herds. These interdependencies have considerably evolved in the second half of the 20th century, in line with development schemes and political decisions.


The Green Revolution, launched in the 1960s, enabled farmers to dramatically increase production and thus to better meet Indian food demands. But it also deeply affected the complex equilibrium between the shepherds and the farmers. The spread of chemical fertilizers lowered farmers’ dependency on sheep and goat manure. So the shepherds lost some of their claims in the permanent bargain they needed to have access to farms. In the past, farmers did not ask for anything; nowadays, shepherds may be asked to pay or to provide free labour in return for staying and grazing on a farm.


The spread of irrigation also led to significant changes. It made water available all year round across large areas, making the dry season easier to deal with, for the shepherds and their animals. Irrigated areas are now key places along the migration routes where the Rabari shepherds know they will find water. But irrigation also led to crop intensification, and the increase of crop rotation. Thus in some areas shepherds now have very tight windows between two crops (two weeks on an average) to graze on harvest leftovers. Management of herds also required adaptation to these changing contexts: across rain-fed agricultural areas, large flocks (up to 900–1000 animals) can easily be maintained and moved all day long. In densely cropped areas, on the contrary, the shepherds have to split their herds into smaller groups (around 300–400 animals) that are easy to control and to move from one field to another, in order to lower the pressure on farmland and avoid conflicts with farmers.


As we can see, Green Revolution had a far-reaching impact on the Rabari livelihood. It is quite difficult to assess whether the result was globally positive or negative, because, as we have seen, multiple interactions are at stake. But we can observe that densely cultivated areas are a privileged destination for the nomadic shepherds, in all parts of Gujarat and outside the state. A recent survey we did with Rabari dangs coming from Kutch shows that areas newly irrigated, thanks to the Narmada canal and its secondary canals, are among the privileged migration zones along the route towards eastern and southern Gujarat.


A key concern that the shepherds we met often raised was regarding access to grazing areas. While in rain-fed areas, access to harvested farms is open to all, in irrigated areas, entering a field requires previous consent from the farmer. Thus shepherds have to manage a lot of social interaction during the migration, and need to maintain good relations with all individuals that control access to the farmlands.



Post the 2001 Kutch Earthquake


On January 26, 2001, a huge earthquake hit Kutch. Apart from causing significant casualties and destruction, the earthquake raised awareness among national and federal authorities about the ‘under-development’ of the Kutch region, at that time quite remote and poorly connected to other parts of Gujarat. Shortly after, the Kutch district was declared a ‘Special Economic Zone’ (Sud 2007), in order to foster its industrial and energetic development, leading to the fast development of industrial manufactures and the settlement of many companies across the district, particularly along the south-east coastal zones, and large-scale infrastructure development. This construction spree resulted in a significant expansion of the local labour market. Between 2001 and 2008, the number of daily employees in factories in the district rose from 10.822 to 41.249 (Government of Gujarat statistical abstract 2009). This increased demand for labour in the area of origin of the Rabari shepherds acted as an impetus for individuals open to changing occupation. With the nomadic way of life becoming more and more difficult, particularly due to the loss of available pasture areas, selling their herds and moving back to the village to get a job in a neighbouring factory is a choice that most shepherds are opting for.


The nomadic livelihood of the Rabari of Kutch is undergoing drastic changes at present. The shepherds and their families who are used to travelling daily with their camels and their herds, are faced with increasing difficulties: pastures are shrinking, access to farms is not as easy as it was in the past, and the economic benefits they can earn through this activity are decreasing. Thus, many middle-aged shepherds are selling their herds and going back to their villages, looking for alternative ways of making a living. Younger generations are losing touch with their roots in pursuit of newer dreams and ways of life other than keeping animals and being faced with the same grueling life that their forefathers endured. However, the question now remains: what does the future hold for the nomadic Rabari community?




Choksi, A. and C. Dyer. 1996. Pastoralism in a Changing World: Patterns of Adaptation among the Rabaris of Kutch, Gujarat. London: International Institute of Environment and Development.


Sud, N. 2007. ‘From Land to the Tiller to Land Liberalisation: The Political Economy of Gujarat’s Shifting Land Policy,’ Modern Asian Studies 41.3: 603–37.