I went on a field trip to study pastoralism in the Deccan region of India, at the recent conference of the International Association for the Study of the Commons. Here people’s survival depends on their black Deccani sheep, much as our pre-inclosure communities depended for their survival on grazing their animals on the commons.
The Deccani sheep are medium sized with coarse black or brown wool, ideally suited to the extreme temperatures of the region and for long-distance migration (from August to February) in search of food and water.
The breed is important for its wool, meat and manure. The shepherds, during their migration, enter into agreements with farmers who pen the sheep on their land so as to win the dung to enrich the soil, giving the shepherds in return rice, dal and pocket money.
The women sort, card and spin the wool while the men weave it into tough blankets and mats.
We visited Saipet, inhabited by 100 families. The villagers welcomed us and serenaded us with music, song and dance as we walked into the centre of the village.
We removed our shoes and sat on the Deccani wool blanket. The village elders spoke to us, some through interpreters.
We were told of the competition from imported ‘shoddy’ wool, cheap soft merino wool from Australia. The soldiers used Deccani blankets, but no longer. The breed is being crossed with other non-wool, primarily meat-sheep breeds, and the state animal husbandry departments have subsidised the shepherds to replace their Deccani breed with heavier, non-wool breeds. We were told: ‘The government is pushing us to the hairy mutton variety’. These mixed breeds are more susceptible to disease and less able to cope with the long migration. The state is encouraging the shepherds to use antibiotics rather than natural cures for illness.
Worst of all the grazing ground is being enclosed: ‘Never before in the culture of the region have we had fences.’ The sheep survive by grazing on common property—forests and harvested agricultural fields. As soon as the crop is harvested, the land becomes common grazing. The Indian government is liberating the land regimes; this has led to huge land grabs.
And the state is favouring an industrialised land-use of non-food crops. Irrigation and dams have placed restrictions on migration. Increased private irrigation, such as bore wells, has meant that dry-land crops have been replaced by paddy and sugarcane, so that land that used to be freed for grazing after six months is now cropped two or three times a year instead. A new dam had been built near Saipet and much of the grazing land was submerged.
However, Anthra, a group which works with the landless to protect indigenous knowledge, has helped the shepherds form community groups (sanghams), open to all, which meet regularly to share their concerns and provide a voice for the communities, working to improve their livelihoods and restore their control and autonomy over their farming systems.
It made me think of our own Foundation for Common Land here in Britain, which is working to give a voice to commoners. There must be a great deal which we can learn from each other.