450 years ago, Maldharis (pastoralists) became the official custodian of the second largest semi-arid grassland in Asia, the Banni Grasslands of Kachchh district in Gujarat. The grassland was bequeathed as commons to the nomadic pastoralists by the then king Maharao under the condition that no agriculture will be practiced in the region and the grassland will be governed as commons and not as private property. Since then the 2500 sq km grassland has been home to over 48 hamlets with a population of about 17000 people with 90% Muslims and 10% Hindu living together in solidarity and on the principle of mutual sharing of resources.
The Maldhari way of life has co-evolved with the Banni ecosystem supporting indigenous livestock which produce high yields of milk with very low external inputs , sturdy, drought resilient, and disease resistant animals such as the Banni Buffalo, Kankrej cattle, Kachcch camel and Sindhi Horse. 40 diverse types of indigenous grasses have ensured nutritious and bounty fodder for the cattle throughout the year. Decisions on grazing areas and routes are based on conditions of the grazing area, grass cover, availability of water at the same time prevention of overgrazing in a particular patches, thus, ensuring sustenance of different types of grasses. Because of high spatial variability in rainfall and types of grasses, villages that receive rain in a particular year do not restrict entry of pastoralists from other villages into their grazing areas since sharing of resources is a principle of the common grasslands. Currently, 7500 Maldhari families support themselves by selling cattle and milk (including camel milk) to the agrarian markets. Handicrafts work including embroidery, leather work and metal work are other major secondary occupations contributing to annual income of the pastoralist families. Certain occupations are found to be gender specific such as embroidery by women and leather work for men. Along with cattle, Banni is also rich for its indigenous species of 200 resident and migratory birds, blue bull, chinkara, grey wolf, jungle cat, spiny tailed lizard, vipers and other snakes. The Maldharis have evolved a traditional way of water harvesting by building temporary wells called virdas through communal activity which become a source of clean water for grasslands, animals and even people during summer season. After Independence, Banni continued to be used as grassland under the control of the Revenue Department without any allocation of private land holding. This was a mutual settlement as the Maldharis believed that to keep the livelihood, bio-diversity and the interdependent relationship intact, Banni grassland needs to be common. Threats to settlement rights and Banni as commons: As the grassland was governed as commons there were no land settlement rights between the Maldharis and the Revenue Department, thus, making Maldharis illegal residents of the grassland under the current Land Right rules. The recent division of the 48 hamlets into 19 Panchayats was undertaken without the demarcation of village boundaries. The need for guarantee for loans and bails might force some community members for Banni to be divided in private land holdings thus, destroying the ecologically sustainable way of life and ecosystem. Threat from invasive alien species: Invasive alien species such as Prosopis juliflora introduced by the Forest Department as a part of greening campaign without consulting the Maldharis is rapidly taking over the grassland and destroying the indigenous grass types, ‘desi babul’, other indigenous shrubs and plants, and has killed indigenous Kankrej cattle which feed on the toxic pods of this invasive plant. Forest department had given permission to cut down this plant, make and sell charcoal as a part of strategy to limit its growth. However, now the permission is being denied, rather as part of their strategy Forest Department is now fencing the grasslands, most of the times without consulting the Maldharis. These fences have blocked the traditional grazing routes, strayed the cattle and caught the cattle in trenches dug around the fences. Threat from damming of rivers and chemical industries bordering the Banni: Many rivers such as Nara, Bhurud, Nirona and others have flowed into Banni reducing the salinity and watering the rich grasslands. However, these rivers are now dammed leading to water shortages and increasing salinity in this region. In addition, chemical effluents’ being released into ponds and rivers from the nearby industries is increasing the toxicity of the water leading to poisoning of cattle and damaging the flora and fauna. Threat from communal tensions: Maldharis are also facing the problem of confiscation of their cattle. Sale of cattle for beef is prohibited in Gujarat; Maldharis are accused of selling their cattle to such slaughterhouses because of their Muslim religion. However, traditionally Maldharis have prohibited slaughter of cattle and consumption of beef in solidarity with their Hindu neighbors. These principles of mutual solidarity and harmony between the Hindus and Muslims are threatened and questioned by the present Government.
In 2011-12, the Government of Gujarat came up with a Working Plan for Banni grassland. Decisions in this Working Plan were taken based on satellite surveillance of the grassland without any field validation. Construction of fences, gates and ditches were recommended based on this satellite date without any consideration for the traditional village boundaries, grazing routes and grassland patches. The other major threat to this ecosystem is that it is often erroneously considered to be a saline wasteland, as it is not ‘forested’ or fit for agriculture. This perception makes developmental changes like industrialization and damming of rivers flowing towards the grassland acceptable and easier to get permissions for. Such changes are altering the hydrological cycle and causing shifts in livelihood strategies. The recent trend of privatization has also give rise to fragmentation of land in the form of enclosures created for agriculture, harvest of and for individual land holdings. In resistance to this Working Plan the Maldharis organized themselves and have filed Forest Rights Act claims for the entire Banni grassland as community property. The movement Banni ko Banni rehne do – Let Banni Be formed in 2011 by the Banni Breeders Association initiated demand to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for recognition of the community rights of the pastoralists of the Banni Grassland. Maldharis and women were engaged at Panchayat level to develop natural resources maps through participatory mapping process. These maps determined the grazing routes, different grazing patches which Maldharis use for breeding their cattle. Under the process of preparation of the Forest Rights Act claim file, the Forest Rights Committee of Banni collectively decided to prepare and submit common claim for the entire Banni grassland. They developed a memorandum (written document) for common understanding, separate meetings were held with women groups and leaders who led this process in their respective villages. In April 2012, Maldharis, organized a mass gathering in Bhuj (District head quarter) to push the government to implement Forest Rights Act and to collectively reject the Working Plan. More than 5000 pastoralists attended from across the district. In a positive response to this gathering, Government of Gujarat has passed a special notification for implementation of Forest Rights Act in Non Scheduled areas of Gujarat. The district Administration gave special emphasis on Banni grassland to recognize their rights. 54 Forest Rights Committees (FRC) were formed in Banni, where the pastoralists collectively decided to make a common claim over the entire grassland which covers 2500 Sq.K.M. area. Till date 48 FRCs have submitted their claim files to Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) since 2012. SDLC held several meetings with the FRCs and in conclusion SDLC forwarded these 48 files to District Level Committee (DLC) for further process. Accordingly SDLC held several meetings on this. Till date, all 48 files are in final level process on DLCs table.