For centuries, Jammu and Kashmir’s nomadic community, known as Gujjars and Bakerwals, have undertaken arduous journeys on foot as part of their seasonal migration to find better pastures for their livestock. They often lose cattle and, on occasion, family members to accidents and hardships along the way. However, technological solutions and transport services have been offered this year to help them cover long distances in less time and more safely.
J&K’s Tribal Affairs Department has surveyed 98,000 such families to map their routes and transit locations. “Technology has been leveraged in various aspects, including the development of smart cards to replace multiple annual (No Objection Certificates) NOCs and permissions for migration. A pilot project covers 10,000 families over the next three months,” Dr. Shahid Iqbal Chaudhary, Secretary to the Tribal Affairs Department, told The Hindu.
Using remote sensing technology and geographic information system, officials delineated pastures and the grazing land in each district. This step was followed by mapping of routes and the migration pattern to understand when Bakerwals and their livestock use the highways, first in spring when they start from the plains of Jammu and then in autumn when they leave the upper reaches of the Kashmir valley. A communication network was worked out and radio messaging was used to reach those grazing livestock in the upper reaches to relay messages about free transportation and the halting points.
The Tribal Affairs department also collaborated with the Forest Department and the Census Operations Department to provide smart cards to tribal families. “The smart cards will replace the multiple permission regime and offer a unified central database to all the organisations and agencies for smooth and hassle-free movement of families during the biannual vertical migration,” Mr. Chaudhary said.
Embedded with a chip, the smart card contains demographic details, transit routes, originating place, destination and other vital statistics.
Every year, Niyaz Khatana, 67, his wife, two younger brothers and four children, migrate from the Jammu region's Rajouri in May, when the temperature soars and becomes unbearable for cattle. They walk along the Mughal Road for 230 km distance to reach Margan Top in south Kashmir, where the highland meadows offer a cooler environment during summers. Thereafter, they trek up to subalpine and alpine meadows and grazing pastures along with their sheep, the main source of income for the family.
“It takes two or three days to reach our bahaks (traditional mud huts) from Margan Top to grazing pastures. From May till October, sheep live in pastures surrounding Margan Top and are able to gain weight due to quality grass available in these areas,” Mr. Khatana said.
However, after working hard for four months on sheep-rearing, the journey gets difficult and dangerous when they return to the Jammu plains from Kashmir’s hills in September or October.
“I lost 112 sheep to a speeding truck on the Kokernag-Shopian highway in the middle of the night in 2017. In 2015, our family got stuck and lost cattle due to the harsh weather on Mughal Road (which connects Shopian valley with the plains of Poonch),” Mr. Khatana said.
Transhumance refers to the practice of moving animals to different fields in different seasons. According to the first-ever survey conducted by the Tribal Affairs Department on transhumance in 2022, around 98,000 families undertake biannual vertical migration in Jammu and Kashmir. Close to 12,000 of these families use the Mughal Road and the Srinagar-Jammu national highway.
“Their journey takes 30-45 days end-to-end, out of which more than half is on roads, involving several transits and halts. Hundreds of animals and even several people were lost in accidents during migration. They also cause traffic obstruction,” Dr. Chaudhary said.
However, the journey to the plains along these highways has eased this year after the intervention from the government.
“In April 2022, the department provided transport for families and livestock during migration, mainly on highways and the Mughal Road. This move is also an outcome of policy collaboration with the University of Shkoder, Albania,” Dr. Chaudhary said.
Fifty trucks and 100 light commercial vehicles were deployed and Deputy Commissioners were authorised to hire vehicles to ferry nomads and their livestock safely on the highways. The service is presently offered in 13 districts with the migration routes.
“Out of 13 districts, Anantnag, Shopian, Ganderbal, Pulwama are focus areas with maximum migration followed by Kupwara, Baramulla and Bandipora. Ten trucks each, along with lighter vehicles, were provided in Anantnag, Shopian and Ganderbal,” Dr. Chaudhary said.
He said two transit accommodations have been arranged and work on seven such facilities are going on. “More than 12,000 families will be provided services over a period of one month up to October 25 this year,” he added.
The free transport service will see families travelling from Kashmir to Khwas and Budhal in Rajouri, Akhnoor in Jammu, Mendhar in Poonch and Mansar in Samba, reducing their travel time considerably and saving the livestock from any natural disaster on the highways. “In the first four days of the launch of the service in September, 1,688 families have been provided transport service across all districts,” Dr. Chaudhary said.
The Tribal Affairs Department has sent messages to people in dhoks (mud hutments) in the upper reaches. Announcements were also made on the radio and several help desks were established at roadside points to inform the nomadic families about the transport service.