oday, herding is still very common in rural India. Poor, uneducated farmers own a few animals to supplement their income, and nomadic tribes tend to depend on their livestock. Nonetheless, herding is not profitable in the way that commercial livestock farming is. Moreover, less and less land may be used for pasturing. Ever more land is being farmed, illegally acquired by industries or turned into nature conservancies.
For these reasons, herding is at risk of extinction in the not so distant future. That would have a tremendous cultural impact however. In our Santal tradition, herding is the way to teach children social values and the rules of harmonious community living. In the past, all members of our community were herders at one point in their life. In many Santal villages, that is still so.
Poor families who have no cattle send their children to better-off families to look after their animals. As wage, the child gets a few sacks of rice, a set of clothes annually and a daily meal. This practice of child labour has continued among the Santals for centuries. It is still not considered a violation of the law that protects children from forced labour. Even the government accepts that this practice serves mutual interests.
The youngest herders are typically five to six years old. At first, the child’s responsibility is to take the goat to the field every day for grazing and ensuring it gets to drink. The child also does its best to protect goat kids from village dogs.
When they are nine or ten years old, the children join their village’s group of senior herders. The cattle are taken out to the fields at the same time in the morning. Juniors must obey the seniors. There are many other rules. More than a hundred cattle are grazed together.
Most of the herders are children and youth, but some are elderly adults. These sub-groups have different roles. The adolescents normally take the leadership in the day’s activities, which include collecting fruits and honey, catching fish, birds, crabs, snails and snakes or hunting rabbits, foxes, rats and mice. Members of the young group stay with the cattle and prevent them from eating the crop in the fields, while the elders mostly remain seated under a tree. They are available, when members of the younger generation need advice or support.
Moreover, they play the flute and sing, and they share stories and incidents with the children. In the evening before they return to their villages they roast meat and share the collected items.
A the age of 15 or so, the children slowly leave the herding group and shoulder family responsibilities at home. Boys join male members in the field work, in repairing their house, making baskets, fishing, making musical instruments or bullock carts. Adolescent girls join their mothers or elder sisters to collect firewood or vegetables from the forests and fields. When they marry, they leave their homes and start a new family.