The sun has not yet decided to rise. It’s pitch black out but a group of Maldharis has already assembled for the last session of this year’s milking competition. Their massive buffalos are majestically adorned with intricate garlands and colourful necklaces. The panch (group of five judges) winds its way between the jet-black hides, inspecting the milking. While the buckets of frothy white milk from each buffalo are measured and weighed under battery-operated lamps, the first hints of day lighten the sky from charcoal to violet.
At the Banni pashu mela (animal fair), for two days the livestock are the stars of the show. Amidst the arid landscape of Kutch, these animals form the backbone of culture and livelihood stretching back hundreds of years. Their breeders – the Maldharis – are traditional pastoralists who have inhabited the region for centuries. If you ask any Maldhari about their connection to this land they will tell you that Banni was granted to them by the former Maharao of Kutch under the condition that they protect the grasslands, share it communally and not use the land for agriculture. They even have the documents to prove it: a written agreement from the old ruler and tax receipts paid by previous generations for grazing rights.
Today, Banni is one of Asia’s largest and most biodiverse grasslands, home to Maldhari communities living in 48 hamlets, indigenous livestock, over 40 different species of grass, more than 200 species of birds and abundant natural wildlife. In 1955, Banni was legally designated as a protected forest under the formal jurisdiction of the forest department. In the following decades, the forest department planted Prosopis juliflora, an invasive weed meant to limit salinity in the soil. The results were disastrous. The weed grew out of control, decimating the local ecosystem, killing traditional grasses and indigenous species (Desi Babul) and endangering the cattle that could not digest the toxic pods. It is estimated that 60% of Banni remains covered by Prosopis juliflora.
Since then, a contentious relationship has emerged between Maldhari communities and the forest department, aggravated by a forest department working plan introduced in 2009. The working plan proposed fencing off open grazing areas of Banni, significantly curtailing local communities’ ability to access their traditional grazing lands. Locals claim they were never consulted in the development of these plans that threaten their way of life. In response, the Maldharis organised mass rallies and petitioned the state government, claiming the working plan violates their pastoral rights to the land. Facing growing resistance, the forest department was forced to halt their operations.
“The [forest department] working plan was blaming erosion on livestock and grazing – which was totally incorrect. The world comes here to see our culture – an entire culture that is joined with the land. We submitted our claims under [India’s Forest Rights Act of 2006] FRA in order to protect our culture and land,” explains Isabhai Meron from Gorewali village, spokesperson for the Banni Breeders’ Association.
The Maldharis’ ensuing mobilisation responding to the forest department working plans provided the context to formally pursue recognition of their collective rights over Banni through India’s landmark Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA). The FRA secures the rights of tribal and other traditional forest dwellers, including pastoralists, to protect, manage and conserve their land and forest resources. In 2013, 47 Maldhari gram sabhas filed claims for a common community title over Banni’s 2,500 square km, under the FRA.
In a corner of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, a different model for Gujarat’s development is being pursued. What makes matters even more interesting is the active rumour that the Maldharis’ claims through the FRA have actually been approved by the district level committee, the statutory authority for the recognition of rights. However, three years after claims were submitted, the actual titles to the land remain pending. A Right to Information request has been recently filed and what it will reveal may only add pressure for the government to formally recognise the rights of Maldharis over Banni, as per the law of the land.
“This is not government land. This is our land. We have been here for almost 500 years – and the law is on our side,” explains Akrambhai from Gorewali village.
As noon approaches, the fairgrounds are abuzz. Each stall reflects a different flavour of Banni: beautiful buffalos for sale, a new brand of milk, ornate handicrafts. Under the unforgiving gaze of the sun, the buffalos and cows are once again lined up and inspected by the panch. They are being examined as part of two separate competitions: which animal is the healthiest and which the most attractive.
The Banni buffalo is no ordinary cattle. The animal has a unique and perhaps peculiar – if not amazing – style of grazing. Every evening, herds of buffalo will depart, following a lead female with a bell tied around her neck. The herd will stay within earshot of the lead and, on their own, return the next morning to their respective breeders’ homes.
Of course, this is no new revelation for the Maldharis. They have been breeding the Banni buffalo for hundreds of years. Instead, what is most noteworthy for them is the buffalo’s strength manifested by their ability to survive water stress conditions, cover long distances during periods of drought and resist disease. In 2010, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research recognised the Banni buffalo as the 11th distinct buffalo breed in India – the first since Independence.
It is estimated that the livestock of Banni produces somewhere around 1,10,000 litres of milk a day. The sale of livestock, as well as the sale of milk and milk products, contribute roughly Rs 100 crore every year to the local economy. When drought hits other parts of Gujarat, Maldharis often loan their livestock to stricken farmers for years at a time, free of interest. Securing community rights to their lands would not only safeguard these contributions to the local economy, but also their way of life.
“With a title [for our land] we can raise more livestock and produce more milk. Even the government will benefit if we receive a title,” says Noor Muhammad from Bhagadio village.
However, to realise those benefits, large, wide and open grazing spaces are required. Due to the arid climate, average rainfall is very low, with recurrent drought a common phenomenon every few years. Such a landscape lends itself to rotational grazing, dependent on the availability of viable grasses. Rotational grazing also allows for the regeneration of the natural landscape. Due to this ecological requirement and the tradition of communal land use without private landholdings, the Maldharis have been adamant about receiving community forest resource rights in lieu of individual land titles through the FRA. While leaders everywhere, from New Delhi to Washington, too often prefer to envision a world that only turns towards neoliberal policies of individual property rights, the Maldharis have stood firm in their demand.
“Individual land rights would lead to internal fighting and a breaking of the land. A community title would ensure peace,” says Muhammad.
The Maldharis deep connection to their traditional way of life is striking. From village to village the consistency in the message is resounding: “Let Banni remain Banni – free and for future generations. After all, Banni is for the buffalo.”
What comes with such an intimate relationship with the natural environment is what Maldharis proudly refer to as ‘unprecedented traditional knowledge’. Maldharis have an extensive understanding of the different grasses that grow in Banni and categorise grazing patches based on soil types, salinity and the quality of water. Listening to elders describe how they can ascertain the timing of the rains from whether a certain bird builds its nest on one side of a tree versus the other was astounding. Traditional forms of medicine are also used to care for sick animals, ensure the safe delivery of calves and supplement cattle diet.
“Banni is our lifeline. It is in our interest to protect it,” says Salimbhai Node from Sarghu village. “We have always been pastoralists. We don’t want to become something else. Our dream is that while man has gone to the moon, we will remain here in Banni and people in places like Delhi and Mumbai will drink our milk.”
For the time being, the Maldharis are waiting for formal titles for their traditional lands amidst political shuffling at the ministerial and district level. However, they have made it clear that if there is no positive response from the government in the near future, they will continue to assert their rights in Banni under the banner of the FRA.
Across India, in Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Himachal Pradesh, other communities have also begun to assert their rights under the FRA when claims filed remain pending for years without a response. “Community self-assertion through self-declaration of rights under the law is gradually being used by local communities and village councils as a way to push democracy forward in response to non-implementation of the Act. This strategy is also being used as a legal tool to counter existing threats to community forest resources such as resource extraction and the imposition of programmes by the forest administration that undermine legitimate community authority,” says Tushar Dash, lead campaigner at Odisha-based NGO Vasundhara.
In Banni, villages have already begun preparing management plans as a form of self-assertion in collaboration with local NGO Sahjeevan, which has been assisting Maldharis through the FRA process. These community management plans include methods of regenerating grasses, removing Prosopis juliflora and protecting the biodiversity and wildlife of Banni. In light of an increasingly lucrative charcoal economy based on the cutting of Prosopis juliflora plants, management plans also suggest systematic removal of the invasive species to allow for the continued income generation from charcoal to reach those individuals and families that are dependent.
Recent history shows that being able to secure rights to manage and govern the grasslands is of paramount importance. In Karnataka, the Amrit Mahal Kaval grasslands have been the site of an ongoing, protracted battle between local communities of pastoralists, farmers and weavers and the government, which has diverted the grasslands for science, defence and nuclear research parks. In total, 16,000 acres of grasslands have been diverted for the construction of military testing sites, a ‘science city’ and a uranium enrichment plan. Villagers complain that no ecological or social assessment was conducted of the hazardous projects proposed. The government has maintained that they will respect the rights of the locals to earn a livelihood through their traditional practices.
By submitting their claims under the FRA, actively drafting management plans and asserting their rights over the grasslands, the Maldharis’ proactive approach seeks to prevent the losses that have befallen other pastoral communities in India.
The largest crowds of the day gather for bakhmallakhado, the traditional form of wrestling in Banni. Climbing atop trucks and tempos, thousands of men and boys send up clouds of dust before they settle into their self-fashioned stadium seats. The bright colours of their pathani suits and floral rumals (handkerchiefs) blaze in contrast to the cracked earth and hot air. All eyes are fastened forward. First smiles break out, followed by loud cheers, as the wrestlers tussle, attempting to lift one another off the ground.
The Banni pashu mela began nearly ten years ago as a way to showcase the rich local breeds and provide a platform for the sale of livestock. Since then, the festival has developed into a popular annual event drawing crowds from across the state of Gujarat. But beyond the milking competition and camel and horse races, one can briefly grasp the fabric of a traditional culture being passed on to future generations. Between the Sufi musical performances and Sindhi live dramas, the mela is also about preserving Banni for its people.
“The mela provides a forum for the larger community to discuss the future of Banni. It is a platform to politically show that the people of Banni stand together,” says Pankaj Joshi, programme director at Sahjeevan.
As the dust settles and the crowds slowly begin to disperse, one question still hangs in the air. Will the government of Gujarat fulfil its responsibility, recognise the rich history and culture of the Maldharis, and secure their future by formally providing them titles to their traditional lands? Such a step would be momentous: the Maldharis would be the first pastoral communities to have their rights recognised through the FRA.
In this corner of India where the buffalo roams, the pride, depth and organisational strength of the Maldharis should not be underestimated. And while it is important to not romanticise their reality and acknowledge that great strides need to be made, their story is a significant one. It is valuable not only politically, for all communities across India fighting to have their land and forest rights recognised, but also culturally and ecologically. The Maldharis have proven their commitment and ability to regenerate the depleted grasslands and develop comprehensive resource management plans that seek to preserve the larger landscape. Their vision involves collaboration with all who are willing to help secure the future.