I’m Somnath Dadas (22), a young Dhangar (shepherd) man, and this is my journey of self-discovery, a story of chasing my dreams and returning to my cultural roots. I’m a native of Kothale village of the Indian state of Maharashtra, the second child to my parents, and I have two twin siblings. I belong to the Dhangar community, an Indigenous nomadic pastoral community, which traditionally rears large flocks of sheep. Traditionally, Dhangars do not pursue formal education, as their nomadic lifestyle does not allow them to, even if they wanted to. Neither my parents nor my elder brother had formal education, and I was next in line. But I wanted to change things! I can still vividly recall, after my graduation from high school, my father asked me to join him in our traditional occupation — shepherding. He wished to increase the flock size by my joining him, but I told him I had other things on my mind — pursuing higher studies.
With great difficulty, I convinced my parents and set out to pursue my dreams of higher studies. In fact, I was the first person from our family to pursue higher studies, and recently I graduated with a Master of Social Work from the prestigious Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, Maharashtra, India.
The journey, however, was not so easy! Having studied in a vernacular medium until my intermediate studies began, it turned out to be an uphill climb to follow English language-based instruction in undergraduate studies. It pushed me into a state of despair and led to the development of a severe inferiority complex. It is extremely difficult for people like us to survive in spaces where higher education is taught predominantly in English.
My dreams almost came to a standstill after I graduated from higher secondary school. My grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, and my father sold half of our sheep flock to cover her medical expenses. The entire family was stressed out because of our poor circumstances. I decided to accept admission at a public ashram (boarding) school to pursue further studies. It was a hard choice for me to leave my family and move into a hostel. I had to move away from my parents, as they migrate with the livestock and cannot stay in one place.
I was lucky to get access to formal education, which was possible because of the public ashram school scheme promoted by the Government of India for students belonging to the nomadic tribes-denotified tribes (NT-DNT) communities (an official designation referring to certain nomadic tribal groups who have been persecuted historically, and still are today). The Indian government launched the scheme exclusively for NT-DNT children, as their nomadic families do not have permanent settlements and keep moving from place to place once every three days or so. The quality of education at ashram schools is usually inferior. Usually a single teacher teaches all the subjects — languages, science, math, and so on. Also, ashram schools usually have very poor infrastructure and facilities. It was not surprising that I ended up without basics and never saw even a single piece of lab equipment. Furthermore, the quality of food provided for us was pathetic! A few times I even found worms in the food served for us. I never faced discrimination while enrolled at the school, as the pupils hail mostly from NT-DNT communities.
During the Diwali festival and summer vacations, I would call my family and find out the location of their temporary home and join them to lend an extra hand. During the entire period of my studies at the boarding school, I was enrolled in an “earn and learn” scheme: I used to work for four hours after school and earned the equivalent of 1 U.S. dollar per day. I dreamed of pursuing a Master’s after graduating from the ashram school. Neither my immediate nor extended family are formally educated, so I was left without anyone to guide me. Originally, I dreamed of pursuing medicine but could not, as I did not have access to information regarding the admission process. Instead I enrolled in undergraduate studies in the sciences.
I took a loan from the bank and borrowed money from relatives and friends to begin to pay for the college fees and maintenance. As it was not enough, I started working part-time during college days and full-time during vacations at a local catering firm to cover the remainder of my expenses. My family was not in a position to support me financially, and I refused to put pressure on them either. This has created a kind of friction and gap between my parents and me.
I toiled hard and finished my undergraduate studies. Then I made the leap to the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai to pursue my Master’s in Social Work with an emphasis in livelihood and social entrepreneurship. It was here that all my nightmares came true! Life in a large metropolitan area and having English as the medium of instruction at TISS were hard. I was unfamiliar with the language and would hide in the classroom during the first semester, afraid to respond to questions asked by professors. Dealing with economic hardships, staying away from family, and having challenges with communication in English put me under tremendous pressure and often left me feeling despondent! When I approached the bank for an education loan they refused, as none of my family members have steady jobs. Somehow, I managed to get a large education loan. I have spent many sleepless nights thinking about loan repayment. My classmates used to discuss their hopes and future plans, but there was only one thing on my mind — repayment of the loan!
During my graduate studies I had an internship at Anthra, a non-for-profit organization, based out of Pune city, that works to empower the mobile pastoralist communities of India. I had been familiar with their work since my childhood. As a child I used to participate in events organized by Anthra at our village. However, it was the exposure to the outside world through my higher studies, along with the internship at Anthra, that gave me a fresh perspective on mobile pastoralism and my own Dhangar community. Also, I did my Master’s thesis on the Dhangar community in Maharashtra, which was an eye-opener. It helped me to see our community in a different light. My observations of our community from a different angle helped me to take pride in our mobile pastoral knowledge, culture, and traditions. Soon after my graduation, I accepted a position at Tata Motors Limited-CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility), and started working with farmers, the landless community, and a women’s self-help group in the Kallam block of Osmanabad district (Marathwada region) of Maharashtra. With my newfound knowledge, I have started working towards strengthening the traditional occupations of our pastoralist community, farmers, and the landless community.
Livestock rearing traditionally has been the core livelihood source of my community, and its success is determined by the availability and health of the pasture and other natural resources. For the past two or three decades, however, our traditional mobile pastoral system had been undergoing changes due to a decline in pasture lands, shifts in agriculture patterns, restrictions on access to customary grazing lands and forest lands, expansion of highways, rapid urbanization, and depletion of water resources, to name a few. The rapid changes all around have left the mobile pastoral communities and similar resource-dependent poor communities at a crossroads.
Currently, nomadic communities are left vulnerable in a rapidly changing modern India. The traditional nomadic lifestyle makes most government schemes inaccessible to them. Often, Dhangars are excluded from basic citizenship rights, such as ration and voter ID cards. Nomadic life also poses other challenges, such as limited access to formal education, health care, etc. As a result, the illiteracy rate among Dhangars is one of the highest among the mobile pastoral communities. Moreover, mobile pastoralists do not have permits for grazing their livestock. The lack of proper policy for development and conservation of common property resources, especially village pastures and grazing lands, and increasingly stringent impositions of the forest department on accessing customary grazing lands inside the forests, has been killing traditional mobile pastoralism in India.
In this discouraging scenario, neither Dhangar parents nor youth want to take up livestock rearing. Young people have been diverting towards any employment other than pastoralism and they aspire to a different future than the lives of their parents. But there are instances of a few people returning to mobile pastoralism due to insecurities and challenges in other occupations. Overall, though, the young generation of Dhangar is more likely to stay away from our traditional occupation.
Further, climate change in India will bring more challenges to the livelihood security of mobile pastoralists. I would like to use my formal education, new job, and the networks I have developed to good use. I am working with organizations like Anthra to reach out to the government to design and implement insurance schemes for mobile pastoralists. There is a lot to be done in securing access to proper health care for both livestock and humans of mobile pastoralist communities in India. I feel that the government should prioritize the supply of provisions to mobile pastoralist families at the public distribution centers at villages on their migration route. The road is long and I would like to do whatever little I can for the well-being of pastoralist community. Also, I have plans to organize a grassroots group to advocate for issues of concern to my community.
Somnath Dadas belongs to the Dhangar community, an Indigenous nomadic pastoral community of the Indian state of Maharashtra. He has a Master of Social Work with an emphasis on livelihood and social entrepreneurship and is now employed at Tata Motors Limited-CSR, Maharashtra. He’s interested in work with farmers, pastoralists, and the landless community.
Kanna K. Siripurapu is a researcher interested in biocultural diversity of the Indigenous nomadic pastoral systems and agroecological systems of India. He is associated with the Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network, Telangana, India.
An Invitation to Young Indigenous People
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is a year-long project (2019) linked to Terralingua’s flagship publication, Langscape Magazine. We aim to collect and publish personal stories from young Indigenous people who are involved with one or more of the following four Focus Areas:
The Indigenous Youth Storytellers Circle is recognized as an official project of the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, so your story has the potential to reach a global audience. Read more stories from Indigenous Youth.
If you are a young Indigenous person who would like to tell about your experiences connecting to your ancestral languages, cultures, and lands, we want to hear from you!