- The pastoral communities of Gujarat have been contributing more than 86% to the milk economy of the state. However, their participation in the governance and management of the resources and commons they rely upon, remains negligible.
- In December 2006, when the Centre passed the historic Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act there was hope that the nomadic pastoralists will also claim their rights and participate in governance. But its implementation in Gujarat’s non-scheduled areas, where the pastoral population is higher, is not satisfactory.
- The initiation of the implementation process as per the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, involves multiple consultations among all the stakeholders. The legislation advocates for a strong democratic approach that considers people’s participation.
- The views expressed in this commentary are that of the author.
Gujarat’s diverse geographical landscapes are home to several indigenous communities pursuing traditional occupations.
The hilly terrain in the state’s eastern, northern and southern belts comprise significant tribal populations. The western peninsular belt comprises Saurashtra and Kachchh regions where the landscape is a peculiar example of a mixed thorn and scrub forest, an expanse of rangelands and mangrove belts that have thriving biodiversity. The ecosystem of this belt has sustained the lives and livelihood of nomadic pastoralists like Bharwads, Rabaris, Fakirani Jats, Sama and Charans among other groups.
These pastoralists who have been customarily using the forest and rangelands for grazing of their livestock and collecting non-timber forest produce like gum and honey, have been contributing more than 86% to the milk economy of the state. However, their participation in the governance and management of the resources they rely upon, remains negligible.
Nomadic pastoralists and their rights
The state government of Gujarat, under the provisions of The Gujarat Panchayats Act (1993) has devolved statutory powers to the gram sabha to act upon in the matters relating to the grazing areas. In the context of nomadic pastoralists, the participation in panchayat’s gram sabha to address their issues such as access to grazing in forests, encroachment removals from gochar land, creation of indents for livestock vaccination and other issues, are hardly even put forward. An argument that is placed regarding this issue is that most nomadic pastoralists stay far from the village for about eight months of the year, and once they return to the village during the monsoons, they remain confined to their own spaces.
However, in December 2006, when the Centre passed the historic Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFD) (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, there was a hope that not only the tribal people, but the nomadic pastoralists will also claim their rights and participate in governance.
In 2008, the Government of Gujarat decided to implement the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in the state’s tribal belt, although the implementation of the FRA for the pastoral communities of Saurashtra and Kachchh wasn’t initiated till 2013. The issues that concern the pastoralists do have a scope of redressal through the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. But the implementation of the Forest Rights Act in Gujarat’s non-scheduled areas, where the pastoral population is higher, remains unsatisfactory. The FRA in its letter and spirit not only deals with achieving the tenure and security of tribals and pastoralists, but it also encompasses conservation and strengthening of local governance in the process, as a pivotal element.
In 2014-2015, for the first time in Gujarat, Maldharis of Banni protected the areas claimed for their community forest rights under Section 3(1)(d)- Seeking grazing rights for all pastoralists community dwelling in the 47 villages in 16 gram panchayats. These communities also attested their rights under Section 3(1)(i) Right to protect and conserve community forest resources and governance and management rights (section 5/Rule 4 (1) e); they also filed for converting the forest villages into revenue villages. However, the claim file that was passed through gram sabha resolution and subdivisional level is still pending after seven years of submission.
Apart from Banni, several villages consisting of Rabari Maldharis of Kachchh claimed conservation and seasonal grazing rights in mangroves in the coastal talukas of Bachau, Abadasa, and Lakhpat in the year 2016-2017, which shares a similar fate, as the claims that were approved through gram sabha resolution were dissuaded and ignored by the state officials. The pastoral population’s assertation and participation through the democratic unit i.e., gram sabha remained confined to the legislation and the acceptance of them in governance remains a far-fetched dream.
Challenges in the implementation
There are several challenges in the initiation process of implementing the FRA in non-scheduled areas, where the communities are not accepted or are given consent by other villagers. The pastoralists feel a constant threat to participate as they belong to a ‘certain’ group.
The tribe of Bhopa Rabaris from the Dwarika district of Saurashtra, that is dependent on the commons, accesses the forest areas of Rajkot, Jamnagar district from October/November to June and returns to the villages in Dwarika during monsoons (July to October). The dependency on their native land either for amenities or for access to grazing areas, remains less for most months of the year, due to which they are either barred from participating in the gram sabha of their village or they abstain themselves due to pressure of being despised by the villagers.
These Maldharis do not qualify to participate in gram sabha-related meetings during the eight months of migration to other villages in neighbouring districts. Bhara Bhai Bhoondiya, a Halari donkey rearer claims, “Although we have Aadhar card, the election card pertaining to Dwarika District, since my family migrates with the animals near Upleta Taluka in the Rajkot district from October to June, we are not considered as part of the village by the panchayat and officials.”
The story, however, changes for the Fakirani Jats of Jamnagar’s Marine National Park and of Bachau Taluka, Kachchh, who are traditionally camel breeders. They breed and rear Gujarat’s infamous swimming camels called kharai. This unique breed feeds on the mangroves and related species. Therefore, the people who rear them dwell in the villages around the Gulf of Kachchh. These pastoralists fear the Forest Department, which often penalises them for grazing in the mangrove areas. While several industries that are being set up on the coast are hardly ever accounted for the destruction of the forest cover, camel grazing is always looked down upon as a cause of destruction, the pastoralists ponder why.
Adam Bhai, a Fakirani Jat pastoralist from Balambha, a village in Jodiya shares, “We had settled near this land around 400 years ago and used to rear the camels in the mangroves since then, but the forest cover never got degraded. The camel only eats some from one area and leaves the rest for others The number of salt pans has increased in this area, and they cut the mangroves for the pans. However, they do not get penalised like us,” he adds.
The controlled grazing and maintenance of the ecosystem, has always been one of the aspects that is intrinsic to the pastoral lifestyle, although the concerned stakeholders in villages, talukas, and forest officials take no cognizance of the traditional know-how from these pastoralists. They are not allowed to participate in meetings when large-scale plantations or conservation-related schemes are rolled in.
The initiation of the implementation process as per the provisions of the FRA, involves multiple consultations among all the stakeholders that involve the communities, and concerned departments. It also ensures that the gram sabha meets, deliberates and takes necessary decisions. In a true sense, the legislation advocates for a strong democratic approach that considers people’s participation, assertion and decisions. These components together profess towards deepening the democracy at the local level. Similarly, Section 5 of the Forest Rights Act advocates that gram sabha is considered a statutory body that can constitute committees and discharge the duties and has the authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity, and maintenance of ecological balance.
The FRA has the potential to mobilise the communities to protect forests, wildlife, and biodiversity, make their conservation and management plan, and also regulate or prohibit activities that affect the wildlife, forests, and biodiversity in their CFR areas. However, in reality, the act has been ignored or dismissed by the concerned officials especially when it comes to the pastoralists’ access to grazing and their role in governance and conservation.
Read more: On the path to reclaiming their land: the story of Banni and its Maldharis
The pastoral population of Gujarat is a major contributor to the economy of the state through livestock-based production. “Milk contributes to 22% to the Agricultural GDP of Gujarat and is one of the biggest sectors for supporting livelihood in the state,” according to the Gujarat Livelihood Promotion Company (GLPC). Yet, there is hardly any policy adopted by the state to ensure the pastoralists that they have enough resources to secure their livelihood or possess decision-making powers for governance of their resources. If legislations like the Forest Rights Act are looked forward in the state and the stakeholders put thrust towards the convergence of conservation vis-a-vis strengthening local democratic units for the pastoral communities, things might fall in place for the environment and its dependents.
The author is a development professional working with Sahjeevan as the state coordinator – Gujarat, for Forest Rights Act implementation for pastoral communities.
Banner image: Pastoralists in the Community Forest Resource area. Photo by special arrangement.