A host of organizations have come together in helping the pastoralist community groups conserve the local buffalo breed and the ecosystem. The partnerships helped communities in gaining access to dairy markets that are remunerative. Now, they are also with the communities in ensuring them gain governance rights. The government, the major stakeholder, is yet to listen to them.
Banni has been home to Maldharis (as the community of pastoralists is known in Kutch) for almost more than 5 centuries now. Banni, once Asia’s second largest grassland, was considered to be the finest of all grasslands in India. It expands across 2500 sq km and is home to a variety of flora and fauna. More than 7000 families live in Banni today, and most of them are maldharis. Maldharis used to have grazing rights on Banni during the rule of the king; the rights were conferred in lieu of payment of a grazing tax. Decisions on the utilization and management of the grassland used to be taken by leaders of the maldhari communities, and the community as a whole ensured that the norms were followed by all. These maldharis still hold documents dated back to 1856 that codified their rights on Banni during princely rule.
Banni was classified as a protected forest in the year 1955. No survey or settlement processes were carried out at that time. Since then, governance rights on the grassland have been ambiguous, while the Revenue department had transferred the administrative control to Forest department in 1998, Forest department refused to administer the land till survey of the villages located within Banni was completed. Since, neither the Forest department nor the Revenue department stepped in to take administrative control, the Maldharis, in-spite of having no formal control, have continued to manage and govern the grassland in using their traditional systems. Banni maldharis have since become famous for their vigorous animals breeds, especially the Banni Buffalo, a syncretic relationship with the ecosystem, and an elegant culture of maldhariyat.
Call for action
Things however were soon to change. And in 2008, the Banni Pashu Mela, an annual animal fair, which celebrates the breeds, culture, and human ecology of Banni became a platform to usher this change. The elders among the maldharis realized they needed to make concentrated efforts to augment the livelihoods of their community, work for recognition of the Banni buffalo breed, address the issue of the community’s rights on the grassland, and develop plans to conserve the Banni grasslands (which was fast degrading due to the spread of an alien invasive species called Prosopis Juliflora). About 1200 maldharis came together to form Banni Breeders Association which was registered under Gujarat trust and society act as Banni Pashu Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan (BPUMS) in 2009 and started working to pursue the community objectives. BPUMS formalized its governance structure, and was to be managed by a 21 member Executive body elected for a term of three years. The executive body comprised of one representative from each of the 19 panchayats and two SC members. BPUMS joined hands with Sahjeevan, a local NGO, to register Banni Buffalo and with NDDB to revive the milk economy. They also started addressing the issue of conserving Banni through traditional governance models and restoring their formal rights on the land by starting negotiations with the government.
Banni Buffalo – Gaining recognition
BPUMS, since then, has met with unqualified success in addressing the issue of livelihoods. Banni Buffalo has been bred and developed by pastoralists in Banni over generations. This breed has unique characteristics of such as drought resistance, disease resistance, high yields even under distressed conditions, calm demeanor, and ability to graze in the night by itself which makes it perfectly suited for an arid or semi-arid climate. BPUMS, with support from Shajeevan, Sardar Krishinagar Agricultural University (SDAU) and State department on Animal Husbandry got the breed registered in 2010. Registration has led to recognition for both the breed and the breeders. National Biodiversity Authority and Life Network awarded Breed Savior award to Haji Musa, a maldhari, and BPUMS jointly. Salemamad Halepotra, president of BPUMS, was appointed (and still continues to be) member of the management committee of NBAGR. Demand for Banni buffaloes increased and the average price of Banni buffaloes has more than doubled since its registration.
Banni Buffalo was the first buffalo breed to be recognized in India after independence and since then 29 new breeds of livestock has been registered by NBAGR.
Milk economy gets a boost
The pastoralists of Banni had been producing milk that far outstripped the local demand, and hence the prices remained depressed till 2008. Setting up a milk dairy to market milk outside of Kutch was the need of the hour, and BPUMS started discussions with NDDB. NDDB agreed and in close collaboration with BPUMS set up bulk milk cooling centers in villages of Banni. As a result, the price of milk has tripled in the last decade. This has also led to an increased production of milk. Now Banni produces more than 100,000 liters of milk daily, up from 60,000 liters in 2008. Today the size of the livestock economy stands at an estimated INR 110 crores per year.
Reviving traditional governance systems
Forested landscapes in India have been contested for long and this contest has intensified in the recent decades. Forested lands that have been indispensable to survival of indigenous people and local communities have been taken over unilaterally by the state on the pretext of conservation. This has seen enclosure of commons and rights of the local communities on these resources have been often been curtailed or negated. Indigenous peoples and local communities, often with the support of civil society organisations, withstood appropriation of community resources and have tried to regain rights and ownership over commons and community resources. These efforts led to enactment of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006 (FRA). FRA recognized the rights of local communities on their ancestral lands, community forest resources, and customary territories. Unfortunately, the implementation of the FRA has met with roadblocks placed by groups and individuals with vested interests. As a result FRA has had limited success in achieving its objectives of securing livelihoods, enhancing forest conservation, strengthening local self-governance, and opening political space since its enforcement.
The situation in Gujarat (and in Kutch) has been no different. BPUMS’s consultation with the government for formalization of their rights has proved to be a much more arduous climb; and one that is still to reach its destination. BPUMS started off by first documenting its community rights and ways in a BCP developed under article 8j of Nagoya Protocol. In the year 2009, the Forest department came up with a working plan to fence large areas of Banni. This working plan, developed without consulting the community, proposed not only to cut pastoralists’ access to a number of wetlands within Banni, but also turned a blind eye to the pastoralist’s need to move across ecosystems in a single calendar year. Banni Breeders’ association decided to ask for their community rights instead, since it was evident that the implementation of the working plan would have been a threat to the ecosystem that sustained them. This in turn would have impacted their own livelihood, breeds, and culture.
The breeders’ association also realized that FRA could be instrumental in formalizing their rights on grassland of Banni, and it was an opportunity to start reviving traditional governance systems while a struggle for their rights ensued. BPUMS anchored a signature campaign across all the 54 villages across Banni. This campaign, now famous as “Banni Ko Banni Rahene Do” meant ‘let Banni remain as commons’ and worked to reestablish the way the grassland had been utilized traditionally, conserved, and managed by pastoralists. BPUMS organized numerous meetings in villages and Panchayats and decided to collectively show their disapproval, spread awareness about their rights, and started urging the state government to implement the FRA in the Banni at the earliest. Elders of the Maldhari communities and BPUMS representatives engaged in a series of consultations with the Minister of Tribal Affairs and Ministry of Environment and Forests. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs informed the representatives that while implementation of FRA has been started in the state, it was yet to be done in Kutch, since the nodal agency for implementation of FRA in non-scheduled areas (such as Kutch with it low tribal population) was yet to be finalized. In 2012, implementation of Working Plan was initiated by the forest department. Maldharis responded by organizing a rally in Bhuj and submitted a memorandum to the Collector of Kutch, informing him and the State Level Monitoring Committee that as long as their rights remain unrecognized under FRA, they would continue to resist peacefully. On 5th June 2012, BPUMS invited the media to demonstrate their way of managing grassland and solicited media’s support for the struggle.
Negotiating with the State
At BPUMS’s behest, the gram sabhas in Banni started forming Forest rights committees (FRC) in each village and started claiming their rights on Banni. These efforts led to a notification by Government of Gujarat and letters were sent to Collectors of all non-scheduled districts of the state directing them to implement FRA. The district administration then formally summoned Gram Sabhas to form Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) in each village. Resource mapping plan was developed using participatory exercises that studied the traditional grazing practices, bio-physical conditions, dependency of livestock, and existing faunal and floral biodiversity. These community claims were approved by SDLCs while the DLC agreed to them in principle. Out of the 54 FRCs that were formed, 48 of them decided to file for common rights to Banni. This was a remarkable achievement for BPUMS, since this reflected a pastoralist’s need for access to regions across Banni. This was also the first time that such a large community had come together to submit common claims over a whole forest.
BPUMS, since then, has also started working with renowned research institutions such as ATREE, NCBS, and Ambedkar University to set up RAMBLE (Research and Monitoring in Banni Landscape) an institution committed to study the grassland and provide research-backed inputs on its conservation and management.
The efforts of Banni Maldharis had not only opened the gates for their claims to be formalized, but also of the other communities that lived off commons in non-scheduled areas districts of Gujarat and needed the support of FRA to establish their rights. Efforts to formalize community rights on Banni are still ongoing, and BPUMS is negotiating with the District Collector of Bhuj and the Chief Minister of Gujarat now. This journey has been marked by trials and tribulations, and the collective strength of the maldharis dealt with all of them till now. Banni Maldharis are the only pastoralist group in India that has been able to mount a stake for their common rights. Notably, Banni is also the largest grassland area on which land rights are being negotiated between the community and the government. Commons in India have long witnessed degradation due to an absence of governance or misgovernance. Maldharis, through BPUMS, have proposed a system to resolve this, a system that can be replicated across the country. Recognition of their rights will be a landmark achievement not just for pastoralists of India, but also for the democracy of India. We can only hope that recognition of rights on Banni will inspire other pastoral communities in India to follow suit and start registering their claims in their communal lands.
Ramesh Bhatti and Shouryamoy Das
Programme Driector, Sahjeevan
Bhuj, Kutch – 370001