After three years of deficit rains, the good monsoon this season has turned the Banni grassland delightfully pristine. The green pasture is spread into miles across the horizon while flocks of migratory birds fly around the wetlands. A little away from one of the wetlands, surrounded by the knee-long grass, herds of buffaloes and cows graze lazily.
This is barely 30 km from the now-famous White Rann in Dhordo where tourists throng every winter in huge numbers. The grassland remains hidden behind the shrubs called Prosopis juliflora, locally called “gando baval” or crazy weed as it grows everywhere. A research says there are nearly 200 species of plants, 250 species of birds, mammals and reptiles found here. The Banni, spread in 2618 sqkm, is situated along the northern border of Kutch. It is home to 40,000 Maldharis (a traditional pastoral community), known for rearing high-yielding buffaloes and cows, who own over 1.5 lakh cattle. Locals say that over the past decades, the government’s negligence has led to illegal encroachment in the form of agriculture which is prohibited as the grassland falls under protected forest area.
The locals, however, are divided on the issue. Many have started a campaign called “Let it be Banni” demanding community rights over the land while another group wants individual land rights that will allow farming and land transactions. The matter is now before the National Green Tribunal, New Delhi. “We are happy rearing cattle which we have inherited from our forefathers. We don’t want to change anything here,” said Chanesar Hajisahu Raisipotra, 38, a resident of Hodka village. Raisipotra, who claims to be an active local member of BJP, owns over 100 cattle.
Isabhai Mutwa gets agitated with the government’s inaction in stopping agricultural activities which have increased sharply in the past decade. “Those who are illegally farming want individual rights that enable them not only to farm but also sell or purchase land. This will lead to fragmentation and eventually, we will lose our occupation and tradition.” Mutva is associated with Banni Breeders’ Association which is fighting in court for community rights.
On the other hand, Miya Hussain, village sarpanch of Dhordo and a popular leader, advocates for individual rights.
His village panchayat has moved the tribunal against the association, claiming that agricultural activities and other related occupations have been undertaken by the Maldharis ever since they settled in the Banni Grassland, before the area was notified as protected in 1955.
The district administration and forest officers recently demarcated the revenue and forest boundaries of Banni for the first time, following the order passed by the NGT.
The association has claimed that rampant encroachments have destroyed approximately 100 sqkm of the best grasslands.