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Jayanta Kumar Sarma
Date of Publish: 2016-10-11

Traditional practices of livestock management in Northeast India


In some tribal societies in the Northeastern Region (NER) of India, a man used to be considered as resourceful as the quality and quantity of his livestock he had in his life. Livestock are still a key factor in rural economy of the region.

In fact, livestock especially cattle and pig are integral part of rural life in the region across the ethnic tapestry. The animal domestication and livestock rearing practices are linked to location-specific ecosystem, economy and ethos of respective areas and its inhabitants. But with the changing nature of weather, climate regime and anomalies threats are also fraught with in livestock practices in relation to diseases, food and fodder supply.

Livestock are integral part of rural life of North Eastern Region (NER) of India. Cattle and pig are two important animals domesticated by many communities in the region. The entire animal domestication practice is linked to location-specific ecosystem, economy and ethos of respective areas and its inhabitants. But with the changing nature of weather, climate regime and anomalies threats are also fraught with in livestock practices in relation to diseases, food and fodder supply.

On an average 57 per cent of household in NER possess livestock against the national average of 56 per cent. Cattle and buffalo are used for agricultural land preparation through tilling of soil as well as source of milk. They supply manure in the form of dung not only to crop land but also to other rural ecosystems. Moreover, it forms a part of cultural practices.

Similarly, pig rearing is most common in all the states of the NER and closely associated with cultural system of many of the tribes inhabiting the region. North East India possesses a significant numbers of pig populations in the country.

As per 19th Livestock Census of 2012, Assam has a significantly high concentration of cattle, buffalo, goat, sheep and pig population compared to other NER states, which is more than 75 per cent of region’s population in case cattle, buffalo and goat; more than 90 per cent in case total sheep population of the region and more than 40 per cent in case pig. However, other states of the region also possess a proportionate population in comparison to its geographical area and human population. It is mentionable that livestock population against indigenous breed of cattle, pig and sheep are significantly high in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura. 

All these animals are integral part of the agricultural system of the region and also considered as liquid assets by many communities. Many tribal groups have practices like when a girl attains puberty, one female piglet is offered to her by the parents as her property and entire future production from that pig is considered to be her earning. Therefore, the girl is used to look after that piglet. Such practices are very much common among many Garo, Galo, and Rabha villages in the region.

But in case of bovine there is a challenge regarding supply of fodder. Only 0.16 per cent of the gross cropped area has been estimated to be allocated for fodder cultivation in the region. Therefore, farmers largely depend on common grazing lands, i.e. permanent pastures and community grazing areas, wastelands, fallows, excluding current fallows, etc., for fodder.

In relation to this challenge, different communities in the region adopt certain practices, which is location-specific and unique to the prevailing ecosystem, economy and society. Usually, such practices are evolved traditionally as community-based grazing to manage the fodder supply in case of cattle rearing along with cattle health management, protecting crops from the cattle, prevention of animal health, establishing the principle of equal access and right among all sections of villagers. Similar approaches are also there for rearing of pig, poultry practices etc., which create the foundation of different traditional systems of livestock rearing and management. Some examples are highlighted below:

‘Mesi Lakahor’ is a community based cattle grazing system of Rabha community of Assam. It is a system in which one or two persons are given the responsibility of keeping the cattle of all the villagers. Generally, they happen to hail from landless families. They are paid in terms of rice by the every household based on the number cattle they have, and it is paid after harvesting of the paddy. Usually, they collect the cattle from each household in the early morning and take them for grazing, again in the evening cattle are deposited back to the respective owner’s households. Usually, there is a common place where cattle are kept in the afternoon period in summer where they are provided with water. Basically, it is a provision to protect the cattle from intensive heat during the midday time. The practice is adopted by the community to manage their domesticated cattle and protect their crop field from straying cattle. So, the concerned Mesi Lakahor has to work for around nine months in a year. It is a cattle management practice that also provides opportunity of livelihood for the landless people-based on the collective responsibility of the community as a whole.  

In Garo hills area of Meghalaya, successive vegetative growth of grassland in abundant Jhum plots is protected by Garo community as the source of fodder for their cattle. Usually, they shift their cattle shed near this plot for easy grazing and with variation of such grass plot in abundant jhum they shift their cattle rearing sites. It is noteworthy that, shifting of cattle shed near such plot also contributes cow dung and urine to jhum plot.

In a similar manner, there exists a practice among the Nepali community in Sikkim in which temporary cattle sheds are set up near terraces before vegetable cultivation for two to four days before preparation of plot of land. Main idea behind of such practices is to get the dung and urine of the cattle for the agriculture plot, which helps in enriching the soil quality.

There are multistoried cattle sheds in neighbouring villages of Pathsala, many of them belong to Barpeta and Baksa districts of Assam. Here villagers keep their domesticated cattle in multistoried cattle sheds, where one part of ground floor is used for fodder storage and rest is collection space of dung. The first floor of the bamboo-steel multistoried cattle shed is used for keeping the cattle. According to many villagers, these practices ultimately help them to maintain clean cattle sheds and make it easy to collect the dung. The clean cattle shed helps in maintaining cattle health, particularly from diseases that occur in the summer and monsoon season. Moreover, the collected dung is used to apply in agricultural fields.

It is noteworthy that cow dung provides food for a wide range of animal and fungus species, which break it down and recycle it into the food chain and into the soil. Cow dung adds generous amount organic matter and increases moisture holding capacity. It also contain beneficial bacteria which covert nutrients to easily accessible form. Cow urine contains nitrogen from 6.8 to 21.6 grams/ liter along with other material which help in soil health.

Among the Dimasas of Dima Hasao district of Assam there exists a traditional practice to protect their standing transplanted paddy in crop field from the domesticated cattle. To ascertain that, they have specific land use practices. Most commonly, their homestead areas with housing spaces are clustered at one zone and their paddy fields are outside that particular zone. There is an enclosure with bamboo fencing surrounding the homestead area; in the wet paddy season the bamboo gate at the main approach to homestead area are closed, so that their domesticated cattle are unable to go out and that helps in controlling damage of standing crop. However, to feed the cattle in enclosures, they practise stall feeding during that period, which also helps in preventing many diseases of the animals which  usually occur during the monsoon period. With increasing temperature and humidity during the period many microbiological contamination  occur through fresh grasses. Such practices still prevail in villages like Samparidisa of Dima Hasao.

In many Galo villages of West Siyang , people used to develop sheds for their domesticated pig in cluster mode in the villages and maintain a distance from their housing clusters. During monsoon period, they used to stall feed the pig while during pre-monsoon period they are taken for open farrowing. As per the villagers of Jerdin, these practices help them to keep the shed clean, manage pig health and prevent transfer of diseases  to human being. They have been follow this norm from time immemorial.

Above mentioned are some examples only. There are many other traditional practices that prevail in the region among different communities. Systematic documentation of such practices is important because in the context of climate change, it may provide us ways for adaptation and developing resilient system in the areas of livestock management as well as ascertain livestock-based livelihood for sustainable development. Irony is that nowhere in policy framework of livestock farming and management of such aspects are duly considered, neither in National livestock Policy, 2013 nor in different state policies (e.g. Meghalaya state policy of Veterinary department, fourth draft of Dairy Policy,2008 of Assam, Sikkim state policy; other states develop breeding policy only).Therefore, systematic research, documentation and public communication of such practices are contemporary requirement of the region to develop policy advocacy and framing pragmatic agenda for developing livestock management sectors.  

Jayanta Kumar Sarma

( Jayanta Kumar Sarma is a freelance consultant in the area of Environment and Development and  he has been working with NGO, Educational Institutions, private entrepreneurial farm and government agencies of North-east region. He did his Post graduation in Geography from Gauhati University and Post Master in Natural Resource Management from IIFM. He can be reached at jksbeltola@gmail.com )



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