COVID-19 and Its Aggravated Impact on Tamil Nadu's Konar Herders

The lockdown brought a sudden halt to activities, giving no time to work out their strategies for grazing after their main markets shut down, making a huge dent in their incomes.

The Konar community in Tamil Nadu are traditional pastoralists whose practices have been recorded in Tamil Sangam literature, which dates back to 300 BC.

The literature quotes them as denizens of grasslands or mullai. The Konars of Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Tenkasi districts in Tamil Nadu straddle the semi-arid region located in the rain shadow area of the Western Ghats.

The livestock census carried out in 2019 by the Department of Animal Husbandry puts the sheep population at nearly four lakh, comprising of the native breeds of Sevvadu, Keel Karaisal and Vembur. These are short-haired breeds adapted to the arid landscapes with low productivity.

A small number of Konars own agriculture lands closer to their village. However, both landless and landowning families depend on grasslands or fallow lands belonging to others for grazing. Unlike western India, which has large stretches of grasslands, Tirunelveli, Thoothukudi and Tenkasi districts of southern Tamil Nadu have grasslands which are scattered.

Over time, Konars have evolved a strategy to sustain themselves in the fragmented landscape – by forging interesting migratory routes and indulging in negotiations with land-owning farming communities. Konars migrate with their sheep for a period of five-seven months. These migratory grounds are located anywhere from 60-100 km from their residing villages. They cover three-five clusters of villages during the migration period. From November to February, they graze their sheep in areas not far than 20 km from their homes, on temple lands and other privately owned lands.

Sheep grazing in a dried irrigation tank. Photo: Author provided

From February to October, they migrate to the water-rich areas in the landscape on the banks of the river Tamiraparani and its tributaries which flows from the Western Ghats. They take advantage of the fallow period of paddy croplands during peak summer. They closely track the water release schedules of irrigation systems in various locations.

Once the paddy sowing begins in the region, they move their herd accordingly. The farmers and shepherds have a mutual relationship that has lasted for generations through a practice called kidai, where the Konar camp with their sheep overnight in the farmlands. This is essential for the rejuvenation of soil quality. This is not purely a professional relationship and is also an occasion for socialising. The farmers often support their stay with paddy harvested from their fields. Konars cook a simple meal during kidai, which is unique to the community, and farmers join them under the starlit sky. Konars also participate in various village festivals and offer sheep as gifts to the local deity.

Also read: No Country For Pastoralists

Twenty-five years ago, their winter ground closer home had a bigger stretch of grasslands. Government land records now refer to these grasslands as wastelands completely ignoring the Konar community’s dependence on them for their livelihood. While there are attempts to settle pastoralists in the other parts of the country with land which has its disadvantages, here, even the presence of sheep herding Konars is not acknowledged.

Sheep herders at paddy fallows. Photo: Author provided

Grasslands are now being diverted at an unprecedented scale for developmental activities like special economic zones, airports, windmills, education institutions, industrial parks, housing plots etc. Grasslands owned by temples were used to be safe havens used by herders for grazing their cattle and sheep for hundreds of years.

In the year 2013, the government of Tamil Nadu passed a resolution to lease out temple lands to Tamil Nadu Newsprints and Paper Limited (TNPL) to cultivate pulpwood trees. Over 4,000 acres of land in these districts have been handed over to TNPL which is now establishing Eucalyptus plantations.

One such major diversion was in the year 2016-2017 of the Nellaiappar temple land in Tirunelveli district with an extent of about 1500 acres. This particular land alone supports over 20,000 sheep and 5,000 cattle for grazing from 14 villages. These clusters of villagers had been using this land for grazing for many generations which have now been fenced and guarded. Many of the grasslands owned privately have also been fenced off for the windmills. Many representations by the community regarding this diversion to the government have gone unheard.

There are common property resources – Meichal Puramboke for grazing and Manthai Puramboke for penning the cattle in all villages. Manthai Puramboke lands have since been diverted by the government for various department offices, public utilities like water tanks etc.

The Tamil Nadu government passed an order (G.O no:186, dated 11/Dec/2001) restricting diversion due to massive shrinkage in Meichal Puramboke and in case of essential need, alternate land would be allocated. While some of these might be illegally occupied, it will be a worthy exercise to map and demarcate them and prevent future encroachment.

Today national and state highways crisscross their migratory route, as a consequence of which, they often meet with accidents which not only lead to loss of their sheep but also a loss of their own lives. Many private lands in migratory routes which used to be open earlier are now fenced as farmers as have moved to fruiting tree plantations and other perennial crops which forces the Konars to use the highways.

Also read: Photo Feature: The Endless Search for Grazing Grounds

They also hop between clusters using trucks for lambs who cannot cover the distance while the adults migrate through a roundabout way. In some villages, the local farmers now have large numbers of cattle and sheep and have conflicts with Konars during the seasonal herding. However, the COVID-19 shut down has brought a sudden halt to their activities giving no time to work out their strategies for grazing.

Sheep penned at paddy fallows. Photo: Author provided

After working closely with the sheepherders of Peikulam and Paruthipadu cluster of villages for the past five years, we made a visit to one of the ‘kidai’ in the seasonal ground to understand the hardships that had arisen due to the COVID-19 lockdown. They have now been grazing their sheep in the paddy fallows at the head of the Tamiraparani river basin closer to the Western Ghats and have camped in this cluster for the past two months and are now running out of forage.

It is time for them to move to the mid zone of Tamiraparani. One konar group tried to shift their lambs and heavy penning materials in a van to the other cluster but were stopped by police during the lockdown. The herders were forced to walk and lift the young lambs on their shoulders whilst leaving the penning materials behind.

Many other problems were also listed out by herders. With shutting down of their main markets the mutton stall owners now indulged in direct transactions at a very low price. Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, the price for a pair of sheep ranged from Rs 6,000 and Rs 7,000. It has now been reduced to Rs 4,000 as the demand is low.

According to Thadhiveeran, a relatively a big herder, “over 200 sheep worth Rs 10,00,000 are ready for the market but remain with me due to the lockdown. It is doubly stressing for me as the grazing requirement was high with the bigger herd size and particularly when grasslands are dry in summer in addition to no cash flow”.

Administering medicine for sheep for deworming once every three months is another routine which has been affected. Herders are now stranded without any medicine, which they generally procure from a wholesale dealer and is delivered to them on the spot for a reasonable price. They now get them from retail stores at exorbitant prices. One herder, Perumal, said that he used to pay Rs 490 for 1,000 ml medicine before and now has to pay Rs 610 for the same. This leaves a huge dent in their budget in their already hand-to-mouth living.

Also read: Leaving the Kutch Grasslands, in Search of Grass

The land-owning herders cultivate paddy after the northeast monsoon when they are on grazing grounds closer to home. During the summer, they cultivate cotton in their land when they graze their sheep in the seasonal grazing grounds. The herders go home on a rotational basis to apply fertilizers and pesticides to the cotton crop and are now unable to do so.

Konar woman do not join the herders like in other pastoral communities and carry out minor errands on the farms like watering, weeding etc. For the last two months, they have been hiring labourers to replace the Konar men. The herders are hoping to get two-wheelers passes because there are no buses operating at the moment.

Sheep penned at paddy fallows. Photo: Author provided

States like Himachal Pradesh are making arrangements for the transit of sheep, health care and shearing for the sheep. The government of Tamil Nadu also has to consider the appeals from the pastoralists and arrange appropriate marketing solutions akin to the farmers’ produce market (uzhavar santhai) which will also support the herders’ livelihood.

The larger issue of shrinking grazing grounds also needs addressing by tracing the records and mapping the Meichal Puramboke and vesting rights back with the community, which will secure their livelihoods which have evolved to depend on the local climate and vegetation of the region.

M. Soubadra Devy is a senior fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) working on Ecosystem Services and Human Wellbeing. M. Mathivanan is a senior research associate at ATREE’s Agasthyamalai Community Conservation Centre (ACCC), Manimutharu, working on socio-ecological issues of pastoralists at south Tamil Nadu.