In India, pastoralists have long struggled to make their voices heard. Cultural and religious differences have exacerbated this situation. But a new initiative is allowing them to assert their identity, identify as a collective, and generate political momentum. The Pastoral Parliament represents a key space for pastoralists to meet, discuss and take decisions about the issues affecting them, without political, religious or caste-based segregation.
Like in many countries around the world, Indian pastoralists represent a diversity of social groups with shared expertise around animal husbandry. This includes livestock breeders, herders and dairy producers. However, they remain the unheard and unseen in local, state and national development agendas. In 2008, to address the political marginalisation of pastoralists, MARAG, a Gujarat-based NGO experimented with the idea of a Pastoral Parliament: a space to strengthen the voice and positioning of pastoralists within governance processes. As a result of years of work with pastoralist communities, and from having pastoralists as core staff members, MARAG was very aware of the fundamental need and importance of such a space.
Equity at the core
The Pastoral Parliament is guided by four core values. First, there are to be no explicit religious, caste, sect, geographic or political affiliations or perspectives promoted. The second value is translated as ‘win and help others win’, meaning that there should be no conflicts amongst pastoralists: believe in yourself and in others. Third, all pastoralists are to be given equal opportunities in activities of the parliament. Lastly, all aspects of the Parliament are to be inclusive. This fourth value relates to the principle that during the Parliament everyone has equal rights. To promote equal participation, discussions take place in a round seating arrangement and there is no podium.
Restoring dignity and cohesion
In response to the historic lack of collective organisation, the Pastoral Parliament has served as a platform to develop a social movement and collective spirit amongst pastoralists. In the words of Jaisinghbhai, a pastoralist from Kutch, “Pastoral Parliament unites pastoralists. It will also help us to find ways to sustain pastoralism.” One indication of this has been the widespread uptake of the phrase Jai Maldhari (Long Live Pastoralists!). The phrase was coined during the second Pastoral Parliament and is now used as greeting and as a rallying cry to unite pastoralists.
One of the most consequential achievements of the Parliament has been restoring dignity in being a pastoralist. These gatherings have helped to reconstruct the lost collective and individual identity of being a pastoralist. In India it is common for people to highlight their affiliations (e.g. caste, sect) on their vehicles. Over the last few years an increasing number of pastoralist youth in Gujarat have started writing ‘Maldhari’ on their vehicles.
Another notable outcome has been the revival and strengthening of customary norms and traditions, like the sharing of milk. Sharing milk represents a strong custom in many pastoral communities and is accompanied by rules and norms that work to enhance social cohesion. During the third Parliament an estimated 2500 households from 80 villages contributed 2500 litres of milk, 150 kilograms of ghee and other food items to the Parliament. This set the precedent for the future Parliaments, and subsequent events were organised solely with the contributions of pastoralists.
Women and youth
The Parliament has also been successful in creating spaces for pastoral women to play leadership roles. This has been achieved by ensuring that there are microphones and space for women to talk during parliament. Host communities receive guidance from MARAG and Maldhari Vikas Sangathan (MVS), a community based organisation that has a membership of over 35,000 pastoralists in Gujarat, on how to ensure that the voices of women are heard and acted upon.
Beyond training, this requires that the equal status of women is recognised and accepted in the Parliament. The number of women participants has been less than men, but women have contributed greatly. In the 2016 Parliament in the Kutch district of Gujarat, it was clear that pastoralists cannot succeed in their struggles for land rights without women’s participation. With this spirit, pastoralist women took more responsibility to assert their land rights. Likewise, pastoralist youth have played a vital role in organising the Parliaments, particularly in extending invitations, logistics, facilitation and collecting contributions. Youth have readily accepted the elderly pastoralists as mentors, just as senior pastoralists have recognised youth as potential leaders.
What is the Pastoral Parliament?
Pastoral Parliament is a two-day discussion forum organised annually where pastoralists from across Gujarat meet to set a political agenda and address the issues that impact and affect them. The first Parliament was held in 2008. Each time, different communities of pastoralists host the Parliament. The venue, accommodation, and food is the shared responsibility of the host community. On an average, 2000-2500 pastoralist women and men from all over Gujarat attend the Pastoral Parliaments, but the number of attendees is not fixed. Pastoralists from other states have attended the Gujarati Pastoral Parliament, as have various experts. However, the majority of participants are pastoralists from the different regions of Gujarat.
Breaking down barriers
The Pastoral Parliaments also play a key role in conflict resolution. At the 2012 Pastoral Parliament the Sindhi and Dhebar pastoralists, who are historic rivals, were seen together for the first time on a common platform. This signals a greater social and political movement. One of the elderly pastoralists remarked that, “others try to sabotage the community, but the Parliament is bringing everyone together.” Indeed, perhaps the biggest success of the Parliament is how it has helped to mitigate boundaries of religion, geography, sect, political affiliation and gender, and has helped to unite pastoralists. There are no comparable initiatives elsewhere.
Today, the Pastoral Parliaments are largely organised by MARAG and MVS, with input from the host community. MARAG has worked alongside the hosts to ensure the core values are respected. They have found that until now, training has not been needed as the processes and values of the Pastoralist Parliament are transferred organically. They are passed down and learnt through participation. After each Parliament volunteers from different regions set to work identifying communities that are prepared to host the next event.
The first Parliament was almost entirely financially supported by MARAG, however by the fourth Parliament, the organising communities were contributing towards all the expenses. The Pastoral Parliament has evolved into a community owned process. Instead of taking cash contributions, each region takes responsibility to collect contributions in the form of food (e.g. milk, flour, ghee, vegetables), as well as bedding and other necessities. This system has led to greater trust and transparency, as well as a sense of local pride and ownership of the Parliament. At the same time, it creates a strong incentive for reciprocation, ensuring the continuation of the Parliament as a community driven initiative.
The Pastoral Parliament has matured into a space by and for pastoralists. There is no leader, neither are there set protocols. There is a facilitator, often a youth leader working with MVS or MARAG, to ensure a smoother assembly. While the lack of protocols can be challenging, more often than not this represents an opportunity. As such, the organisation and the events themselves take on unique characteristics reflecting the culture, experiences and needs of the hosts and participants.
Given the success of the Pastoral Parliament, MARAG has started transferring the overall coordination of the Parliament to MVS. As with all community organising, there are lessons learnt that can extend beyond the organisation of Pastoral Parliaments. For example, though it is a flexible process, one of the limitations is lack of a structure. Furthermore, the organising capacity of each community differs. As those engaged in community organisation will also recognise, such processes do not always develop in a clear and linear way. Flexibility, patience, and understanding are prerequisites to participating and supporting the Parliament.
The Pastoral Parliaments have also provided needed space for pastoralists to identify and set a development and political agenda that can be shared with NGOs, community based organisations and even political parties in Gujarat. For example, the work plans of MARAG and MVS have been directly informed by the mandate of the Pastoral Parliaments. Moreover, the Parliament provides a space where pastoralists can discuss their problems and take action. For example, after participating in the Parliament, Sitaben, a pastoralist from Nakhatrana village took steps to address challenges related to low prices for wool and access to land. He met the District Collector and wrote an application to the Chief Minister.
There is a general sense emerging that now is the right time to begin to develop a two-tier structure of the Parliaments: one at the state and one at the national level. With growing interest in other states to organise a similar process, plans are developing to replicate the process in seven other states of India in 2016-17 and in more than ten states by 2019. Such a platform could serve to bridge the gap between the pastoralist communities and the government at the state and national level and hence improve governance. With emerging interest from pastoralists outside India, there is a possibility to develop a South Asian Pastoral Parliament to act as a legitimate representative voice of pastoralists and to function as a pressure group for pro-pastoralist policy advocacy across South Asia.
Note: This article was originally published in Farming Matters, December 2016 Issue
Monika Agarwal (firstname.lastname@example.org) is facilitator of South Asia Pastoralist Alliance (SAPA). Jessica Duncan (email@example.com) is Assistant Professor in Rural Sociology at Wageningen University. Both authors have collaborated with the pastoralist organisation MARAG since 2010.