Changing Mode of the Pastoralist Economy and Globalisation of Kutch

Sonal Mehta

Kutch district, the citadel of Indus valley civilisation located on the western borders of India is one of the biggest districts in the country with a population density of less than 30 people per square kilometre. The region is largely inhabited by rural population. There are very few urban centres which include Bhuj, the district headquarter; Kandla, the second biggest port of India; Mandavi, an ancient port town and some smaller towns such as Anjar, Bhachau and Rapar. A vast expanse of this region is categorised as Salt flat or the Ran of Kutch which is neither a conventional desert nor a fertile land. The hard salt crusted land of this region becomes a great wetland during the monsoon and allows a special variety of fauna to grow for a few months after the rains. This makes it the largest grassland of India known as Banni which supports cattle breeding as way of life for the people who inhabited this land for centuries. The average milk production of this little area of Banni (over 3480 square kilometres) is estimated to be around 20,000 litres per day. (‘Status of Banni Grassland and Exigency of Restoration Efforts’ by Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, 1998. Published by Gujarat Ecology Commission.)

The milk and cattle based livelihood strategies adopted by numerous local pastoralist communities of Kutch generally known as Maldharis has provided them a sustainable economy, helped evolve a rich pool of genetic breeds of various cattle capable of withstanding highly adverse natural conditions and allowed indigenous forms of knowledge based practices of ecological conservation. The cattle breeders of Kutch are famous for their wandering lifestyle, colourful costumes, cultural diversity and unique syncretic traditions of spiritual and religious belief systems. Some of the pastoral communities include Rabaris, Dhaneta Jatts, Garasiya Jatts etc.

The women of the Maldhari communities play a more significant role compared to the men in the economic and cultural lives of the region. A typical Maldhari woman is both a production in-charge and an entrepreneur. She is also a highly skilled crafts person and a robust family manager. The decision making power for most issues related to a Maldhari family household lies with the woman. These women dressed in Black and/or Red (depending upon their religion, Hindu, Muslim or both), with heavily embroidered, dazzling mirror studded woollen clothing and silver ornaments; leading a trail of camels loaded with the entire household, children and juvenile animals walking on the national highways of Kutch and Gujarat on their annual cycle of migration is  a common sight during certain months of every year. They travel to faraway places up to the Narmada valley and at times all the way to the southern states of India (walking more than 1000 kms annually) in search of green pasture during the months of September to November and on their return journey during June/July. Their more shy and humble menfolk may be seen a few kilometres away herding sheep, goats and camels. These mobile pastorals provide a very vital input to a by and large chemical free dry land farming of arid zone by fertilising agriculture fields on their way as they make a night halt on the farmland throughout their journey. The other relation they have with remaining civilisation is to exchange their milk, milk products and wool with villages and towns with their basic consumption needs from local markets en route. 

The Kutch region is also rich with its mineral resources; diverse and abundant marine life and long coast line ideal for fishing and port based development. Over the centuries Kutch has remained an important centre of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean region. In recent history, the Kandala Port along with its Free Trade Zone made it the second largest trading port of independent India after Mumbai owned by the public sector entity of the Maritime Board of India. The coastal fishing on the Kutch coast has yielded rich dividends till date and attracted international demand for its marine food industry. The mineral resources of Kutch include lignite coal, marine salt, bentonite and silica in abundance.

It is obvious that Kutch has attracted special attention from the forces advocating intensive resource exploitation and industrial development under the new economic reforms. The Gujarat state policy of providing a capital investment friendly climate through policy instruments and political patronage has made Kutch a most important destination for global capital. Since 2001 the Gujarat state adopted special economic packages/policies to attract SEZ investment and port based development projects in Kutch. The sweeping changes in the region brought about by these economic policies adopted by the state and followed upon by massive capital investment have intensified the rate of depletion of natural resources, especially the customary and common property resources.

These factors have seriously affected already a very fragile ecosystem of the region, resulting in the marginalisation of the local population, especially women and the communities of pastoralists who have depended on these resources for their livestock and their own livelihood. The population in the region has grown rapidly in recent period, resulting in growing demand for land and other resources forcing cattle breeders to adopt non sustainable practices at times.

In order to understand the historical process of development of this region and its sustainability as an eco zone it is very essential to understand the role of the pastoralist communities in developing and sustaining the local economy over a long span of time as well as to document the ongoing process of transition which can help develop an insight into the consequences, the current transformative processes in macro-economies are likely to bring. It is urgent that a scientific, critical and analytical process of documentation having archival value of this rapid transition process is undertaken for future reference.

Pastoralism and its economic functions:

The pastoralists make a significant contribution to the local economy in the developing countries by providing livelihood and employment opportunity to rural landless people and supplementary nutrition to the rural poor having little cash to purchase basic food requirements. (Pastoralism in India: Scoping Study by Vijay Paul Sharma, Ilse Köhler-Rollefson and John Morton, DFID.) In the arid zone of western India, where the annual rainfall is varying between 100-600mm, and there are frequent droughts, pastoralism traditionally represented a land use strategy for sustenance and for market. However the changing economic system, misplaced development priorities and wrong government policies are creating tremendous pressure on this way of sustenance for those people dependent on it for centuries.

A large proportion of India’s livestock breeds have been developed by pastoralists. Mobile and flexible, pastoralists have created numerous breeds of cattle, camels, buffaloes, sheep and goats. These breeds are closely associated with the pastoralist communities that developed them such as the Raika and Gujjar in Rajasthan, the Maldhari in Gujarat, the Gaddi in Himachal Pradesh, the Van Gujjar in Uttaranchal, the Dhangars of Karnataka and the Konar of Tamil Nadu. The animal breeds have evolved over centuries within specific ecological and social systems. They are subject to strong natural selection pressure. As a result they retain many of the behavioural traits of their wild ancestors, and it is these behavioural patterns that enable them to optimally use their environments. These breeds represent the collective heritage of the communities they are associated with and their conservation is inseparable from their production systems. They will survive only as long as the knowledge systems in which they are embedded also survive. Nomadic pastoralist societies have evolved the cultural ability to adapt to their physical and environmental conditions. Historically, it is observed that when an environmental niche could no longer support the population of herders and herds, subgroups splintered off and migrated to new niches.

Pastoralists of Gujarat:

There are more than 20 Maldhari communities in Gujarat. Most of these communities are considered to have arrived in this region over a millennium from the adjoining areas of Sindh, Baluchistan, Afghanistan and the central Asian regions. Originally camel-herding pastoral nomads, today they live scattered in the Kutch, Saurashtra and Northern part of the Gujarat state. The major sub groups of Maldhari Communities in Gujarat are namely: – Rabaris, Bharwads, Charan, Jat, Mutva, Sandhi, Node, Holepotra, Rayasipotra etc. Presently about 25 lakh (10 lakhmigrating) population of Gujarat is Maldhari. Some of the groups follow Hinduism (Rabaris, Bharwads, Charans) while the other follow Islam (Jat, Sandhi, Mutva, Node, Holepotra, Rayasipotra etc).

Maldharis are generally landless and depend upon village commons commonly known as Gauchars for their livestock rearing needs. Other traditional grazing lands are Bets / Islands in the desert tracts of Kutch (Pung, Aaliya, Nada, and Great Rann border), Grasslands (Banni, Khadeer, Lakhpat, and Vadhiyar), Forests (Gir, Barda, Aalech), Vidis & Rakhals (Saurashtra and Kutch), Wastelands, Ravines, Mangroves (Gulf of Kutch and Khambhat).

Many of them possess large herds of camels, goats, sheep, buffalos or cows while some have very little livestock and are extremely poor and marginalised among the rural communities. As experienced all over the world, these migrant, nomadic communities remain widely excluded from all the social development and welfare benefits including basic education thus increasing their marginalisation and vulnerability.

Status of Pastorals in Gujarat over a passage of time:

According to various sources of available literature, the approach towards pastoralists has changed with time in India. During the Mughal period, they had better access to common resources as they were not taxed. However, during the colonial period, the commons and forests were enclosed and were taken over by the state. Village nomads were dubbed as ‘criminal tribes’. Post 1857 – large scale conversion of ‘waste’ to agriculture took place. Heavy grazing taxes and animal produce taxes were introduced in 1870 – 1920. The sheep, goat and camels were classified as ‘useless’. Wandering without licence was declared a crime. Animal registration and branding was made compulsory.

It was only after the formation of Saurashtra State (1947- 56) that land to the tiller and gauchhar to Maldhari was declared. Saurashtra state made progressive development a priority in the first five year plan and these were:

1. Agriculture & Infrastructure
2. Resettling Maldharis
3. Animal husbandry, industry, trade.

The State gave 54,889 acres of land to 5,493 Maldharis. It was mandatory to maintain gauchhar (40 acres/100 animals’ ratio) record for village Panchayat. All taxes on livestock were abolished.

After the formation of the Gujarat State (1960 onwards), the gauchhar standards were no longer practiced. Major land use changes took place. The green revolution resulted in conflicts between farmers and Maldharis. Many forests have been declared either sanctuaries or national parks, entry on bets have been prohibited for security reasons, Vidis’ productivity has decreased and access denied, wastelands transferred to industries, mining, infrastructure projects, corporate farming, village gauchars have been encroached and degraded or transferred to industries, the construction of buildings and highways are forcing pastoralists to sell off their herds and seek new livelihoods such as industrial service providers in nearby towns and agriculture labour – often with little success and at a much lower level of income and well-being (Keepers of Genes: The interdependence between pastoralists, breeds, access to the commons, and livelihoods by Ilse Köhler-Rollefson and the LIFE Network).

The recent government resolution like gauchars to Industries (1999) and Wastelands for Corporate farming (2005) under pressure from forces advocating economic globalisation have a lasting impact on the economic survival of traditional pastoralists.

This strongly unfavourable situation for free and fair access to common property resources has put most of pastoralist production systems under extreme pressure. Their collapse has serious social, economic and ecological implications. The increasing conflicts among pastoralist communities and other economic actors indicate growing frustration of these communities due to loss of their traditional livelihood and autonomous ways of living. The absence of viable and dignified economic alternatives for both livelihoods of the people dependent on these resources as well as for the conservation of biodiversity is resulting in ecological imbalance in the region.

The Situation Analysis of Kutch:

From the year 2001 onwards the Gujarat state government implemented a special road map of local area development for the Kutch district by integrating it into the global economy with the policy of encouraging the establishment of Private Port based Special Economic Zones (SEZ). Since then, vast tracks of wasteland, coast line and grassland areas in Kutch have been allotted to various Indian and foreign corporations for establishing SEZs, private ports, mega power projects, refineries, various industries and Wind and Solar Energy companies. The most famous maong them being Adani Port and Adani SEZ at Mundra; TATA and Adani Power plants also in the nearby region; and companies such as Suzlon, Vestas, and NEPC etc who have established hundreds of Wind Power production units across the Little Rann of Kutch. The Little Rann of Kutch is also declared as a Wild Life Sanctuary for the Wild Ass and the authorities have been trying to ban the entry of other migrating cattle herds and salt panning activities for several years triggering a strong social resistance by the local marginalised salt farmers, cattle breeders and fishermen.

The only Schedule Tribe community of Kutch, namely the Kolis owned considerable land prior to the year 2001. The state government used its political clout with the central government during the NDA rule in 2003-04 and under the pretext of earthquake rehabilitation as social and economic development plank, de-scheduled the Kolis of Kutch in a most clandestine manner. This triggered massive land grabbing and land transfer scams all over the district. The land market gobbled up most of the farming land for industrial purpose in Kutch during last one decade from 2002-2012.

The barricading of land by massive industrial units and development of infrastructure projects for building roads has blocked the traditional passages which the pastorals and their herds used as migration routes. Mangroves, the traditional fodder resource has been cut by the SEZ and private port construction activities for developing coastal corridors. The most natural path ways for small and big rivers flowing to the Gulf of Kutch along with monsoon runoff have been blocked mindlessly for developing coastal corridor, private airstrips and port jetties. The famous Banni grass land is invaded by the wild growth of Prosopis Juliflora. Rampant mining is allowed in and around the major grassland areas of Banni and the Great Rann of Kutch to meet the growing demand of the mineral resources. The implementation of the policy of private/corporate farming with chemical intensive cash cropping has further decimated the fragile ecological balance of region. The village Gauchar is privatised through market invasion and the lure of easy cash in connivance with the local power brokers. 

This has resulted in increasing marginalisation of all the traditional communities having natural resource base economies. It has created unprecedented intensity of social violence and crime rates in the region. In the once safe haven of Kutch, loot, murder, rape, fraudulent ways of grabbing land, inhuman exploitation of labour, violation of all the laws of land, corruption and bureaucratic apathy are now common characteristics of the district. Many Maldharis have been reduced to the margins and resorted to very cheap and undignified means of survival. Many work as mine workers, road construction workers, truck drivers, cleaners, security workers etc. A feudal form of sexual exploitation of women is replaced with a commercial form of sex trade. This is evident from the increasing rate of HIV incidents in certain communities of the region where there is a large population intake of immigrant industrial workforce from other states of India to sustain the industrial development.     

These most resilient and robust communities – the last wanderers on the face of the earth, keepers of rich gene banks, creators of exquisite art forms by stitching, their culture and tradition over generations are rapidly being pushed to the margins of society. They had survived through five thousand years of cultural globalisation with dignity and defiance. The 500 years of imperialist globalisation has reduced them to be marginalised and alienated. The severity of the onslaught of the last 50 years of capital led globalisation is likely to wipe them off from the history of civilisation. Hence the process of such historical importance in the history of development of human productive forces and their transformation deserves archival documentation for future reference.

Very little focus has so far been given to the transitional processes which are occurring in this region and having profound and irreversible civilisational as well as ecological impact on the region and its people. Hardly any literature is available regarding the anthropogenic changes that have taken place due to recent historical events including the partition of the region in 1947. The region a whole was included in the larger political map of Gujarat only in 1960. Till then it was regarded as independent state, much outside the mainstream Gujarati identity and its political geography. Even after the region became an administrative unit of Gujarat state, it has maintained its isolation from the rest of the state due to its unique geographical and cultural character as well as due to the dismal neglect from the Gujarati ruling elite. Being the border region and having very porous land as well as marine borders with Pakistan, the state has kept constant vigilance on its population which shares their cultural and communal affinity to the Sindh region of Pakistan rather than with rest of Gujarat.

A lot needs to be done to study and document various socio-economic, eco-cultural and politico-historical processes which are unfolding in the region and having a direct impact on its nomadic pastoralist communities. Some of them may include:

Hopefully this little note coming from my personal observations and while working as a development activist in the region with help generating academic interest among the researchers who are more equipped to address the knowledge gap that exists in this regard.

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