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HomeGrassrootsWhile Banni (Kutch) readies for cheetah, native pastoralists demand land rights

While Banni (Kutch) readies for cheetah, native pastoralists demand land rights

The Central Government approves a cheetah breeding and conservation centre in Gujarat’s sprawling Banni grasslands. Banni has historically remained a free-grazing land, now supporting the livelihood of around 45,000 people, most of them belonging to the Maldhari Pastoralist Community, and their native buffaloes. The pastoralists fear loss of ancestral land and grazing ground and demand land rights to secure their future. Dhairya Gajara has the story

Over a year after the initiation of India’s ambitious cheetah reintroduction project, the Central Government is now in the planning stages for establishing a cheetah breeding and conservation centre in the Banni grasslands of the Great Rann of Kutch, located in the Kachchh (official spelling) District of Gujarat. Initially considered for the reintroduction of wild cats in India, the Banni grasslands were identified as capable of supporting over 50 cheetahs by the Wildlife Institute of India and Wildlife Trust of India. Banni has a historical connection with Asiatic cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), having been sighted in the grasslands in 1839 and 1872, as indicated by a study, suggesting its potential to be an ideal cheetah habitat.

However, following the assessment of three sites recommended for reintroduction of the cheetah, the Banni grasslands were not selected due to low prey density. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) recommended a re-evaluation of the decision, emphasising that the Gujarat Government must undertake measures to restore the landscape. The government’s efforts to rejuvenate the grasslands went only as far as removing invasive plants and replacing them with native grass and no significant steps were taken to boost prey density, as per the experts Mongabay India spoke to. Despite these challenges, the Gujarat Government persisted in its commitment to bringing cheetahs to Banni.

As a press release by the Gujarat Government notes, the state’s proposal of a breeding centre in Banni to the MoEFCC was accepted by the National Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) on December 8, 2023. Around eight to 10 cheetahs will be brought to Banni’s breeding centre, according to Sandeep Kumar, the chief conservator of forest, Kachchh. While Kumar did not disclose the exact location, he confirms that the centre will occupy an area of 500 hectares and the animals, brought only for breeding will be in a fully protected and confined area mimicking a natural environment with facilities such as veterinary care, maternity home, monitoring centre and others provided to them.

Impact on a pastoralist community
Spread across 2,618 sq km of dry and semi-arid land, Banni is the largest grassland in Asia and is home to around 40 different species of grass. Adverse climatological conditions and high salinity in the soil, however, limit agricultural viability, making animal husbandry the main source of livelihood here. Banni has historically remained a free-grazing land, now supporting the livelihood of around 45,000 people, most of them belonging to the Maldhari Pastoral Community who has made Banni’s 48 villages their home for centuries, and over 1.5 lakh cattle (as per the records with the Banni Breeders’ Association). The daily yield of the Banni breed of buffaloes is estimated to be over 1.5 lakh litres of milk.

Three days after the government press release announcing the breeding centre, the Banni Breeders Association (BAA), a union comprising breeders from all Banni Villages, met the district collector to mark their opposition as the community was not consulted in the decision-making process. Although the breeding centre itself is not a primary concern for the Maldharis, they are apprehensive about potential threats to their traditional livelihoods and the future well-being of the local Banni buffalo.

The president of the association, Salemamad Halepotra, reveals that though the community benefits from government infrastructure, such as well-constructed roads, reliable electricity supply and telephone connections, their villages and homes are still not officially included in the revenue records. This exclusion renders them ineligible for property rights, despite having resided on the land for generations. A prevailing sense of fear grips the community, fuelled by concerns about the potential loss of their land to government initiatives, particularly amid ongoing discussions regarding infrastructure development and industrialisation of the Banni region.

Lush green grassland of Banni after a few spells of good rainfall. Banni has historically remained a free-grazing land, now supporting the livelihood of around 45,000
people, most of them belonging to Maldhari, a pastoral community. Photo: Gujarat Forest Department.

Pastoralists’ claim for Banni 
During the princely rule, the erstwhile Maharao (king) of Kutch state declared the grassland as a reserved grazing land for livestock and prohibited agriculture. In 1955, it was declared a ‘protected forest’ under the Indian Forest Act, 1927 and in 1998, a state government resolution handed over the management of the grassland to the forest department. The grassland, however, remained mismanaged, leaving the fate of the people of Banni hung between the district administration and the forest department.

The two administrations came up with the Banni Protected Forest Working Plan, once in 2009 and again in 2019, failing both times to consult the local community who later opposed the plans. Moreover, the Forest Rights Act (FRA) division of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs wrote twice to the state tribal development department, in 2017 and 2019, requesting that community forest rights be granted to the breeders but the state government failed to respond adequately. This forced the local breeders to return to their ancestral lands and resume farming illegally. Eventually, the National Green Tribunal, in 2021, ordered the forest department to vacate the breeders and remove the crops to which the forest department responded by planting native grasses on agricultural lands under the Mukhyamantri Ghaas Sudharana Yojana.

The grass restoration project of the state government in 2019 had the forest department restore 800 to 3900 hectares of land every year. The restored lands produce over 20 lakh kilograms of grass annually, most of which is supplied to the breeders, according to B.M. Patel, deputy conservator of forest, Banni Grassland Division, Kutch. According to data received from the forest department, 12,589 hectares were cleared of non-native plants and restored with native grasses.

Ishabhai Mutva, one of the founding members of the BAA, says that despite the NGT order to vacate the encroachments, the forest department started transforming them into fenced grasslands with deep trenches which led to injuries and deaths of many Banni buffaloes which were used to roaming freely at night to graze. “Following the grassland restoration project, the government approved the installation of seven overhead electricity lines from Banni to supply electricity generated at the under-construction renewable energy park,” Mutva says. The breeders believe that the establishment of the cheetah breeding centre is another governmental scheme aimed at denying them their land rights.

Banni buffaloes rest under the shade of trees in the scorching heat. Many experts believe that the responsibility of managing and using Banni grasslands should be
with the Maldharis. Photo: Dhairya Gajara/Mongabay.

The way ahead for Banni and its buffaloes
While the last settlement procedure was initiated in 2019, the settlement officer was only appointed in 2022 following the state government’s directive stating that the sub-district magistrate must serve as the settlement officer. The officer has not been able to achieve much because, unlike in the case of a ‘reserved forest’, there is no code of conduct to resolve land disputes in a ‘protected forest’ constituted under Section 29 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, as mentioned by a forest officer on condition of anonymity. Consequently, any settlement plan devised by the officer has a high likelihood of being contested in court.

Researchers studying Banni grassland emphasise the need to return the responsibility of managing and using the grasslands to the Maldharis. The breeders have launched a campaign called Banni Ne Banni Rehva Do (Let Banni Remain Banni). Ramesh Bhatti, programme coordinator at Sahjeevan, who has been working with Banni breeders believes that once they are given their revenue rights and on completion of their survey settlement, the government will be able to gain the trust and cooperation of the Maldharis to move ahead with the development projects in the area without setbacks. “The breeders just want their rights and the safety of Banni’s ecosystem,” Bhatti says.

 (Courtesy: Mongabay-India/ india.mongabay.com)

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