Tradition is a strong yardstick by which life is followed in the Banni grassland in Kutch. Spread across more than 2500 sq km, this vast grassland – a thriving ecosystem that is home to a rich variety of fauna – is the lifeline of the nomadic Maldhari, or pastoralist, community who depend on it to graze their livestock. It is said that centuries back, the erstwhile Maharao of Kutch gave the custody of Banni to the Maldharis as a reward, and since they were pastoralists, added that the land be used only as a pasture and not for agriculture. Ironically, it is agriculture that has become the major form of encroachment in these grasslands today, and the National Green Tribunal’s directive in May this year – to remove all such encroachments within six months – is, to the Maldharis, a victory that upholds their heritage and their livelihood.
The NGT also said that in accordance with Section 3 of the Forest Rights Act 2006, the Maldharis will continue to enjoy the Community Forest Rights titles given to forest dwellers. Banni was declared a reserve forest in 1955.
Both of these decisions – addressing the issue of encroachment as well as the Maldharis’ rights under the FRA – have come as a huge relief because it finally upholds the community’s fight over many years.
A battle spanning decades
“It all started in 1955 when Banni was declared a reserve forest but the people (Maldharis) did not get their rights,” said Ramesh Bhati of Sahjeevan, the NGO that has rallied for Banni’s Maldharis and ultimately helped form the Banni Pashu Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan. BPUMS, also known as the Banni Breeders Association, is a community-based organisation that takes up issues affecting the breeders.
There are 54 villages under 19 panchayats in Banni. According to Bhati, 7,000 families in this community are pastoralists and collectively, they own almost a lakh (100,000) animals, mainly cows and buffalo, but also sheep and camels. When the grassland was declared a forest reserve, there was a sudden “change in the traditional grazing site”, leaving the community unsure about their future, said Ramya Ravi, PhD scholar with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment, or ATREE. Ravi’s research has been on the Banni grassland and its related socioeconomic and ecological factors.
Thereon began a web of confusion between the forest department and the revenue department over who would take decisions pertaining to the grassland. Bhati said that although it was declared a forest reserve, Banni’s administrative control was with the revenue department. “Whenever locals went to the district commissioner over the land usage, they would be directed to the forest department; the forest department would, in turn, send them back to the DC saying they have not yet taken possession,” he said.
In 1988 the Gujarat government gave the possession of Banni to the forest department. But the survey settlement process was not completed and the forest department could not take over. In 2003, after a satellite survey, the forest department created a working plan, and in 2010, started implementing it. Initiatives, like demarcating land for grassland regeneration, made the locals nervous and there was a sense of doubt that the forest department would “take over our land”. The cause of this worry stemmed from the traditional system of commons; according to Sahjeevan, around 60 percent of Kutch falls under common lands that have been used by communities like the Maldharis, saltpan workers and fishers for their livelihood. Putting demarcations on this fluid system of land usage made them panic.
This is when the encroachments began.
Mistrust fuelled encroachments
Ganibhai, a member of BPUMS, said, “Locals began to encroach land for private usage, mostly for agriculture. The main sentiment was that it’s better the locals take their own land before the forest department does.” That there were no rules, no norms by the Gram Sabha on the issue, made the process easier. “Whoever had more money, encroached more. Agriculture increased, income increased, but so did mistrust and fights among the community members. The main idea, on asserting our right over our common grazing land dissipated somewhere in between,” Ganibhai told Mongabay-India. At times the village panchayats would take cognisance of such matters and remove encroachments; “at other times they were involved in the encroachments themselves”. Political clout among some community members furthered the cause and in some cases, over-rode the local administration’s efforts to remove them. In 10 out of 19 panchayats, such encroachments became increasingly visible.
Dadhar is one of the panchayats where the village panchayat took the decision to remove such encroachments on its own. Haji Hasan of Dadhar said that the collective decision was prompted by their livestock, mostly buffalos and cows, falling into ditches dug near the farmlands, and dying. “There were agricultural lands on either side of the grazing route of the livestock, hindering their path; plus the ditches were posing a risk,” Hasan said, “We were determined to remove these encroachments. We gathered the elderly of the villages to negotiate better, and also informed the block level officials, the forest department and the police.” The ones doing agriculture agreed to remove their encroachment but requested two months time since the seeds of the crops had already been sown. “We agreed,” Hasan said.
Tourism: the lesser evil of the encroachments?
Agriculture is however not the only type of encroachment in Banni. Tourism is another one. With the growing popularity of the Rann festival, villages in the Dhordo panchayat in particular, which are close to the road leading to the salt desert, have benefitted from a spurt in home-stays and other tourism-related activities. Dhundhiara and Bhojardo, two other panchayats, have also benefitted from the same, but have large portions of agricultural encroachments too. So when the other panchayats applied for CFR titles under the FRA, 2006, these three did not. In 2015, 47 CFR titles were given to 47 villages of 16 gram panchayats.
“On ground, however, the community never got the titles that recognise their traditional rights over the grassland,” Isha Meran Mutva of the Gorewali village and a member of BPUMS said.
In 2018, therefore, the BPUMS (or BBA) filed a case in the National Green Tribunal over encroachment in Banni. As part of this case, the 16 gram panchayats also made a submission over neglecting their community forest rights. The tribunal, in 2019, ordered demarcation of the grassland’s boundaries and that no non-forest activities be allowed here. This May, the tribunal furthered that all encroachments be removed within six months and for this, directed a joint committee of the divisional commissioner, Kutch and the chief conservator of forests, Kutch to prepare an action plan within a month.
Interestingly, the Maldhari community does not view tourism-related activities as ‘encroachment’. “Most of the tourist establishments are on the roadside and do not extend to the interiors, therefore they are not encroachments,” Ganibhai told Mongabay-India, “Moreover, the amount of land that these hotels or homestays occupy is not much. If one hotel occupies two acre land, it would mean 200 acres for 100 hotels. That’s the size of one khet (agricultural land).” Agriculture is therefore the only form of encroachment that the community is fighting against. And not just within the community but also at the peripheries of Banni where farmers in the vicinity have extended their farmland into the grassland.
Ravi further said that rain-fed agriculture is a means of livelihood diversification for the community. “It’s not that pastoralism has come down as a result of an increase in agriculture,” Ravi told Mongabay-India, “People are farming in addition to keeping livestock in order to increase their income.” Again, this is where the Maldharis have a problem: a privatised agricultural system benefits only one or a few people. The concept of commons, on the other hand, benefits everyone, and aids in boosting, for example, the milk economy. Haji Hasan, who has 100 cows and buffalos, said that earlier, when they had to rely on external milk collection vans, they would get Rs. 10-12 per litre of milk; with the dairy business coming to their villages, they now get Rs. 50-60 per litre. “One good rainfall and Banni provides enough fodder for our animals,” he said. During seasonal changes – and if there is a drought – Maldharis traditionally migrate within the grassland, and sometimes outside, for months altogether to graze their animals.
Banni, a common thread tying many fates
Banni is also home to the endemic Banni Buffalo species that was recognised as the eleventh buffalo breed in India by the National Bureau of Animal Genetics Resources-Indian Breed Registration Committee (NBAR-ICAR) in 2010. Well-adapted to Kutch’s climatic conditions and dependent on the grassland, Banni’s fate, said Maldhari Fakirmamad Jat, will determine their destiny as well as that of the Banni Buffalo. “We are therefore very happy with the tribunal’s decision,” he said. Banni is also home to 192 species of plants which include 60 species of grasses. It also has 262 species of birds, several species mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.
Kakan Mutwa, a Maldhari from Abhyanga village, who had encroached a portion of the grassland for agriculture said that he is now ready to give back the land. “The judgement has brought relief to our community members,” he said, “And that is the greater good.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.