Every winter for the past decade, Mirkhan Gafoor Jat has watched tourists flocking to the white salt desert of the Rann of Kutch to participate in Gujarat Tourism’s annual Rann Utsav. Most of the tourists pass through his home turf, the expansive Banni grasslands at the southern edge of the desert, and stop by at the many new “Kutch-themed” resorts, restaurants and souvenir shops that have sprung up in the region.

Since 2005, the Rann Utsav tourism festival has opened up a range of alternate employment opportunities for the Maldharis, or livestock-breeding tribes, for whom the Banni grasslands are home. Like most other Maldharis in the region, 21-year-old Mirkhan credits the Bharatiya Janata Party for bringing this form of vikas or development to Kutch, and has chosen to vote for the party in the ongoing Gujarat Assembly election.

Unlike many of his peers, however, Mirkhan likes to believe that tourism in the Rann of Kutch is merely a passing fad.

“This trend of having the Rann festival and setting up resorts is not going to last long. But our traditional livestock rearing, just like farm cultivation, is eternal,” said Mirkhan, the son of a gram sabha member from Banni’s Mota Sarada village. “Even when I finish my studies and get a job somewhere, I will always do Maldhari work on the side.”

Mirkhan’s wistful statement comes from a place of fear, an apprehension that his community’s ancient pastoral livelihood may in fact be under threat.

These threats relate to choices about land use in the Banni grasslands.

Banni, one of the largest and most biodiverse grasslands in Asia, has been designated as a protected forest since 1955. The 2,500-sq km expanse is home to a variety of grasses and wildlife, 54 villages of different Maldhari sub-tribes and a livestock population of more than one lakh, including the unique Banni buffalo and Kankrej cattle.

For at least 500 years, the nomadic and semi-nomadic Maldhari tribes treated Banni as common community property with no specific village boundaries. By letting their cattle graze anywhere in the grasslands and rotating grazing routes based on their extensive knowledge of grass types, soil salinity and rainfall patterns, Maldharis were able to prevent overgrazing and preserve the local ecosystem.

To safeguard their traditional way of life, some Maldhari villages have filed claims asking for the recognition of their community forest rights. Under the Forest Rights Act, these rights allow forest communities collective ownership and self-governance of their shared land and natural resources. Individual forest rights, on the other hand, allow for up to 10-acre private land titles where resources are not shared.

“If we don’t have collective ownership of the grasslands, then people will sell private land plots or use it for farming or running businesses. And that will leave no room for our cattle to graze,” said Mirkhan, who was the first in his village to pass Class 10 and is now studying information technology at an Industrial Training Institute in Bhuj. “Community forest rights are important for the future of our livestock and for the future of Banni.”

Not all Maldharis, however, have the same ideas for the future of Banni. While educated youth like Mirkhan have been involved with the large-scale protests for community forest rights, other young voters, attracted by the promise of the tourism industry, would rather focus on individual property titles for their families.

“Not everyone wants to do Maldhari work now,” said Hakim Pathan, a 22-year-old from Hodka village who works at a tourist resort. “It would be nice to have our own private land so we can set up a business.”

While the question of community forest rights has become so vital for the inhabitants of Banni, the debate has not been a major election issue this poll season. Neither the Congress nor the BJP has raised it in a big way, and the BJP government is yet to act on the claims submitted by the Maldharis for approval.

Despite this, most Maldharis of Mirkhan’s generation – youth who were born during BJP’s 22-year rule in Gujarat and have never seen another party form the government – are confident about voting for the BJP in the Gujarat election. Even though community forest rights will determine the nature of development in Banni, it is the idea of development that has drawn young voters towards the BJP.

“Our families have been voting for BJP for many years,” said Mirkhan. “They have done good development work here. I just want the government to grant us our community forest rights.”

The Banni grasslands are a 2,500-sq km expanse of protected forests. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

The unknown status of forest rights

In 2008, Maldhari activists teamed up with local non-profit organisation Sahjeevan and the state’s animal husbandry department to organise Banni’s first Pashu Mela, or livestock fair. The annual event gave a boost to Banni’s dairy industry, led to the formation of the Banni Breeders’ Association and gained recognition for the Maldharis’ pastoral culture.

In 2012, buoyed by this renewed pride in their pastoral heritage, 47 villages in Banni filed claims for community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. This law is meant to protect the rights of India’s forest-dwelling communities over the lands that sustain them, and for the Maldharis, the Act offered an opportunity to help preserve their traditional way of life and prevent Banni from breaking up into smaller landholdings.

Five years down the line, however, the status of the Maldharis’ forest rights claims is in limbo.

Scroll.in reviewed a letter that the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs sent to the Gujarat tribal development department on June 16 confirming that the Maldharis’ claims were approved by the Kutch district collectorate at least two years ago. The ministry instructed the state department to urgently distribute the land titles based on the approved claims. Similarly, in response to a Right to Information request last year, activists say the district authorities confirmed the Banni community forest rights claims have been approved by a district-level committee.

On the ground, however, district officials have not officially informed the community and the gram sabhas about this approval of their claims. Most Maldharis have no idea whether their community ownership of Banni has been recognised or not. While they wait for their claims to be formally approved, many Maldharis fear that the forest department will resume its plans to fence off Banni’s open grazing areas.

A Maldhari woman grazing her buffalo.

Assessing development

In some villages of Banni, young men who labour in the remote parts of the grasslands barely know what forests rights are, and are not even involved in their families’ livestock and dairy professions anymore. In times of election, their main concern as first-time voters is assessing their idea of development.

Savan Halepotra, for instance, spends all day chopping branches of the gando bawal or Prosopis juliflora, an invasive tree species that the state government had introduced in the region in the 1980s to curb soil salinity. The move backfired, and the weed took over more than half the land in Banni, killing indigenous grasses and proving toxic for grazing cattle. Locals now try to control the plat by cutting and drying its branches to be sold as charcoal.

“My brother and I earn Rs 1 per kilo of charcoal that we sell, and it fetches us Rs 300 a day,” said Halepotra, a 20-year-old from Banni’s Reldi village who has never been to school. Despite his new voter identity card made in time for his first state election, Helpotra does not know what to think about the election. “Voting is done based on what the big people in the family say. In my family, it is probably Congress because people are saying the BJP did not make roads to our village.”

Mirkhan Gafoor Jat is a first-time voter from the Maldhari livestock breeding community in Kutch. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

In contrast, roads are the main reason why Anwar Pathan from Vardi village is eager to vote for the BJP. “When I was a child, we had only kachcha roads in Banni, but this government has built good roads connecting my village to others,” said Pathan, 20, who works as a waiter at a four-year-old tourist resort on the highway off Hodko village. “My family has 15 buffaloes and I used to graze them, but resort work is so much better. Rann Utsav has changed everything.”

For Mirkhan, there have been both pros and cons to the government’s development efforts in Banni. “My village now has two anganwadis that function properly, good water and electricity supply and more boys and girls are getting educated,” said Mirkhan, who aspires to get a government job. “We are also getting good milk prices at the dairy co-operatives – between Rs 40 and Rs 50 per litre per fat.”

On the downside, however, is the fact that Banni has four government-run public health centres in the grasslands, and just two doctors between them. Similarly, the area has five animal doctors to tend to cattle, but just one veterinarian doctor handling all of them.

Anwar Pathan works as a waiter at a tourist resort. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

Let Banni remain Banni?

Both Halepotra and Pathan are vaguely familiar with the protest rallies that members of their larger Maldhari community have held in the past few years, demanding their rights to the grasslands with the slogan “Banni ne Banni rehva do” (Let Banni remain Banni).

Despite his love for Banni, however, Pathan is among the young Maldharis who does not believe community ownership of the grasslands is a good idea. “I would love to have private land belonging to my family,” said Pathan. “That way I can take a loan and start my own business on it.”

In the village of Mota Sarada, 20-year-old Husain Jat is just as convinced by the opposite view. “My family doesn’t have enough buffaloes to dairy work, and I have to rely on cutting charcoal wood for a living,” said Jat, who has studied up to Class 12 and has participated in some of the rallies demanding community forest rights. “If more and more private businesses come up on our properties, our cattle will be affected, and even I won’t have any place to cut wood.”

Husain Jat wants Maldharis to have community forest rights. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari