Lost and forgotten: grasslands and pastoralists of Gujarat


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BE it the national highway or inner roads, forests or fields, villages or cities, the sight of a well-built, tall man holding a long wooden stick, a water pot hanging from his shoulders and a small cotton bag tucked in his dhoti moving with a herd of sheep, goat, camels or cattle is not unusual in Gujarat. He is one of the few million pastoralists of Gujarat known as ‘maldhari’,1 moving with his livestock for grasses and water. Their presence in any Saurashtra or Kutch town cannot be missed: Sipping tea and chatting away in a group, purchasing fodder, trying to sell milk or mava to the sweet makers, passing on a cycle or a motorbike with several milk cans hanging from all sides. Varying estimates put their population anywhere between 25 to 40 lakh.

There are several traditional pastoral castes like Rabari, Bharwad, Charan, Jat, Mutva and others. Historically, they have been skilled livestock breeders or herders who have evolved ingenious ways of using the scarce resources of largely uncultivable arid and semi-arid lands of Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat.

Traditionally, various common lands and harvested agricultural fields were major sources of grasses and water. Mobility has been an important strategy to access seasonal resources in different regions. It also helped maintain the productivity and regeneration capacities of these lands. A diversity of regional resources gave rise to unique pastoral specializations and breeds in different parts of Gujarat. For example, regions of good grassland like Banni and Vadhiyar are traditionally known for their excellent milch and draught cattle; coastal mangrove regions for sturdy camels and undulating grasslands of Jamnagar and Kutch for good wool producing sheep. The Gir region gave rise to the world famous Gir cow known for its adaptability and milch qualities. The wool, ghee and quality draught animals of these regions were widely known and enjoyed a good market across the country.


Major land use changes introduced in the colonial and post-colonial periods, led to a gross reduction in traditional grazing resources. Most livestock development programmes in the post-independence era promoted the Amul pattern of dairy development, strongly linked to sedentary livestock keeping and assured milk supplies, feasible largely in more humid and irrigated areas. It is no surprise that Amul has flourished in historically non-pastoral, non-arid, well-irrigated regions of Gujarat. For the state, this success story serves to demonstrate the progress of Gujarati livestock-keepers, comfortably forgetting the mobile pastoralists and their resource base whose search for fodder and water has today become unending. Even while some of them managed to move to urban centres or explore alternative livelihood options, many more have been forced to undertake long migrations or become casual labour.

Of all the resources used by the pastoralists, we discuss here the case of natural grasslands, ecologically one of the most common, socio-economically significant and administratively neglected pastoral resources of the semi-arid regions.


The 1965 report of the Gopalak Samiti provides the first and only state-wide formal recognition of these diverse and rich grasslands and pastoralists. It gives an account of more than ten major grasslands of Gujarat spread over seven lakh hectares. This committee gave several suggestions for the improvement of grasslands and pastoral livelihoods, including the reservation of grasslands for the pastoralists. But like most committee reports, this one too was shelved and forgotten. The report also cautioned about the likely dangers of afforestation programmes for pastoral livelihoods. But the warning went unnoticed and the plantation of a woody exotic plant, Prosopis juliflora, continued in many of the natural grasslands under the pretext of its capacity for salinity control. The potential of indigenous plants like Piludi remained unexplored.

Today, the invasion of prosopis juliflora has ruined the grasslands of Gujarat. A recent grassland map by the Indian Space and Research Organization shows that prosopis has spread in 25% of non-agricultural lands in Saurashtra and 10% in Kutch, covering more than 9.4 lakh hectares of natural grasslands. As per the recent tree census of non-forest lands by the state forest department, of the 251 million trees, 43 million are prosopis (17%). Besides this invasion, encroachments and transfers to corporate interests are other serious threats to these grasslands. The case of denotification of Narayan Sarovar Sanctuary in order to grant a mining lease to a cement company (reducing its area to 444 sq km from 765 sq km), is well known.

To understand the current condition of these grasslands and the lives of pastoralists living there, we take the case of Banni, one of Asia’s best grasslands, and often cited as an example of lost glory.


A drive from Bhuj to the Rann of Kutch is an unusual experience. The vast expanse of flat lands makes it a unique sight. These are the famous Banni grasslands. Spread over an area of more than 3,000 sq km, these inherently saline lands are naturally suited for nutritious grasses. More than 20 grass species and 20 other herb and shrub species grow in Banni. ‘Banni’ comes from word ‘banai’, meaning made. This land was formed from the sediment deposited by the Indus and other rivers over thousands of years. Owing to good grasslands, several maldhari communities came here from Sindh, Marwar and Baluchistan. Raysipotra, Holepotra, Pirpotra, Hingorja, Sumra, Mutva and Node are some of the major pastoral groups in Banni, all known for their excellent cattle breeding skills.

Due to inherent soil salinity, potable water for humans and livestock was always scarce. Pastoralists of the region had evolved a corresponding lifestyle around its fragile ecology. In the monsoon, they would move to relatively higher lands within Banni or to the bets in the northern parts of Great Rann of Kutch. Though these became inaccessible to pastoralists after the 1965 Indo-Pak war, their names and stories of the quality of grazing are still fresh in the memory of older people, pointing to their significance for Banni maldharis. After the rains they would come back to low lying areas (zill), which provided accumulated rainwater. A normal rainfall year provided adequate grasses for a couple of years. In good rainfall years, livestock from Saurashtra, Gujarat and even Rajasthan would migrate here for grazing – only milch animals were allowed to graze. Though in dry years Banni maldharis would migrate to the green plains of Sindh, commonly they moved only within Banni and to the bets in the Rann.


Cattle formed the predominant livestock earlier. Besides its grasses, Banni was better known for its sturdy bullocks and ghee. Due to their drought resistance quality, Banni’s bullocks enjoyed a good market not only among Kutchi farmers but also in Sindh, North Gujarat and Saurashtra. Breeding quality livestock was both a passion and occupation. Since milk was not for sale, the surplus after feeding the calves and self-consumption, went into making ghee. Early 19th century writings report a daily export of 120 to 160 pounds of butter from Banni. The absence of a market for dung in those days resulted in maintaining the productivity of land in Banni.

The condition of Banni and its pastoralists have undergone a sea change over the past half century. Northward rivers that brought fresh water and silt to Banni were dammed. The construction of roads for facilitating army movement during the 1965 war obstructed the eastward flow of sea water, which found its way to the settlements, further increasing the salinity in the settlements on the Rann edge. As a result, 12 of the 52 settlements have been severely affected by salinity ingress, three of which had to be abandoned.


In the 1960s, the forest department introduced non-indigenous prosopis juliflora, locally known as gando baaval, to prevent salinity ingress from the Rann. The plant proved disastrous, as it gradually began replacing indigenous grasses and vegetation. From 1980 to 1988, salinity increased at an annual rate of 1,432 hectares and prosopis expanded at the rate of 2,376 hectares. Due to its high moisture absorbing capacity, prosopis has also negatively affected the scarce water sources of Banni. Although experts disagree, Banni pastoralists claim that consuming its pods often proves fatal for livestock. Many animals develop lockjaw, which gradually results in death from starvation. Thus, for pastoralists, the propagation of prosopis was a major reason for the reduction in cow population. Finally, with the erosion of traditional grazing regulations, livestock from other areas, including sheep and goat, arrived in large numbers during the monsoon, creating severe pressure on the already degraded grasslands.

Continuous dry spells, the prosopis invasion, increasing salinity and reduced grasses have made life more difficult, forcing many Banni pastoralists to move out. Some have settled on the outskirts of urban centres and now survive on purchased fodder. Others have struck a deal with the local wadi owners for mutual exchange of manure and water. Some have taken to long migrations outside Kutch. In the past two decades, outside migrations have also become difficult as their religious identity puts them in a difficult situation in the communally charged atmosphere of the state (see box below). With increasing unviability of the traditional occupation, many of them have moved into non-pastoral occupations. Casual labour forms the largest alternative, followed by charcoal-making (though officially banned).


Administratively, there is lot of confusion. People have no individual or collective property rights. Banni as a protected forest should technically be under the forest department, but in reality has been under the preview of the revenue department. The process of handing it over to the forest department has been going on for years. Being a border region makes every initiative by the people a ‘sensitive’ issue. All interventions here are controlled by ‘outsiders.’ Local people have no powers to improve or regulate the use of their grasslands. A feeling of helplessness is strong among them as expressed by Aadambhai: ‘We have helplessly watched our pastures turning into a prosopis forest, grasses disappearing and our lands becoming saline. We have also seen our cattle starving. Nothing is in our hands here, except praying to Allah to take care.’


Another interesting ecological variation of grasslands are the ‘bets’. Small natural grass islands in the Rann or near the sea, bets have been another source of fodder and water for the maldharis of Gujarat. Geologically, these bets are small silt depositions brought by a nearby river either in the Rann or the sea. Unlike Banni, these smaller bets are truly forgotten resources. Maldharis and other coastal communities have traditionally used them for livelihood. Whether it is the local short stories on pastoral lives, the official report of 1965, or our discussions in 2003 with the older pastoralists of Saurashtra or Kutch – a reference to Aaliya bet is common. They say ‘it is like the mother’ who never refuses shelter to the tired pastoralists. Even when everything dries up, Aaliya bet does not.

Spread over an area of about 200 sq km, Aaliya bet is located about 25 km west of Bharuch. Any reasonable size map of Gujarat will show a pear shaped independent land mass in the sea near Bharuch. This is Aaliya bet, formed over thousands of years by the silt of the Narmada and other rivers, along with the salinity of the Gulf of Khambhat in the Arabian Sea. It is naturally suited for a variety of grasses. Aaliya comes from ‘aal’, the main grass found on this island.

Living on Aaliya bet is not easy. Till recent times it was not connected to land. Livestock had to be carried to the bet in boats. A few years back, the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation of India raised an embankment for oil exploration. Though the project was abandoned due to unviability, it left behind a kutcha road, which became the first connection from Aaliya bet to the mainland. Other than pitching a tent, it is not possible to build any structure here, not even a hut. The land is frequently inundated with water during the monsoon and often the maldharis do not even get an opportunity to dry themselves for days. On every full moon the island gets inundated with water.

Though fodder was available throughout the year, potable water remained a problem. The sweet water flow of rivers during the monsoon served to keep the saline sea water out. This natural balance made sub-surface potable water available at shallow depths for a longer duration. After the monsoon, saline seawater ingress made water in the island non-potable. The government attempted to drill borewells and grow trees but met with little success. Over the years, grasses have reduced. The sweet water flow from the Narmada has declined due to the dam such that even during the monsoon there is no potable water. The Maldharis now abandon Aaliya bet before Diwali, sometime in October. There is a visible deterioration in fodder quality and productivity. Land and water have become more saline due to sea ingression. Fakirani Jat pastoralists living on this bet for more than a century are constantly threatened and harassed by the local authorities in an effort to move them out.


Whether it is the mainland or bet grasslands, the stories of deterioration, woody invasion and neglect are similar and so is the hardship of those dependent on these grasslands. Even though grassland based pastoral livelihood systems are ecologically more sustainable in semi-arid regions due to their low water requirement, high adaptability and mobility, they have never received proper attention. Three levels of non-recognition – socioeconomic, ecological and administrative – affect this ecosystem and the livelihoods based on it.

The people’s symbiotic relationship with the grasslands is neither understood nor acknowledged. Grasslands are not viewed as an important economic resource. Pastoralists convert natural resources of fragile ecologies into socially useful products like milk, ghee, wool, meat, manure, leather etc. without much support and investment. Despite this economic contribution, pastoralists are largely viewed as a nuisance to farmers and threat to the grasslands.


The grassland is an important ecosystem that not only provides livelihoods to the many communities of semi-arid tracts but also prevents soil and water erosion and supports wildlife. Yet, grasslands are not considered important ecosystems. Hence, their status, degradation or protection has never been a matter of serious concern for the state.

This non-significance is also reflected in the official records. Though land-use classifications do show permanent pastures at the village level, but vast grasslands are not considered a separate ecological resource and hence there are no records of their area, productivity, diversity etc. Administratively too, there is an ambiguity. Classified in some places as revenue land under the village panchayats (as with village grazing lands), in others under the forest department (as in the case of vidis2), most often they get clubbed as ‘uncultivable waste lands’. In effect, it is no one’s responsibility to conserve, maintain or improve the grasslands. Ideally, the land-use classification should reflect the use of lands in a society. In the case of Saurashtra and Kutch, where 21% of non-agricultural lands still have palatable grasses and 23% have mixed grasses, there is a need to recognize the grasslands as a significant resource and capture it in the land-use classification.


As for the pastoralists themselves, the story of their invisibility remains perennial. In pre-independence times, they were granted grazing rights for which they paid fees per animal. Earlier, though the princely states taxed the pastoralists heavily they provided corresponding access to resources. Various taxes taken from the pastoralists were wool tax, ghee tax, grazing tax, professional tax, hearth tax etc. To protect the rights of the local pastoralists, prevent degradation of local grazing resources and discourage outside migrations, higher taxes were levied on the outside pastoralists. After independence, all taxes were abolished and free mobility was allowed to resource-rich areas; this also freed them from their rights over traditional resources. Adequacy and availability of pastoral resources ceased to be a serious concern for the state. In many places, we were requested by the pastoralists to ‘please tell the sahibs in Gandhinagar that we are ready to pay pancharai or maswadi3 but allow us access to grazing like before.’

For the pastoralists of semi-arid regions, mobility has been a way of life and an important strategy that allows for the natural regeneration process. It is unfortunate that this mobility has never been seen as a way to survive and optimize the use of water and land resources in fragile ecologies. The range of their migrations, choice of the route and location is a result of complex factors like livestock type, rainfall, water and forage availability, market links, outbreak of a major disease in a particular region, their social relations in an area, previous experiences and lately even the religious identity of migrating group. Detailed studies by Kavoori (1999), Saberwal (1999), Agrawal (1999) and others well illustrate the complexity of the decisions made during pastoral migrations. But for most sedentary planners and policy-makers, nomadism and mobility remain signs of backwardness.


It is this inherently negative bias towards mobility that has resulted in pastoral policies which instead of recognizing the ecological relevance of this livelihood system in a fragile ecology and focusing on the improvement of their natural resource base, suggest sedentarisation, making all policies ill-balanced towards pastoralists. Whether it is the forest department or the education officer, pastoralists are most often seen as ‘backward’ subjects to be brought into the mainstream, sedentarized and disciplined. After gross mismanagement and destruction by its own departments, industry and several other vested interests, the state initiates programmes to educate the maldharis in understanding the importance of mangrove or grasslands, often in collaboration with the same industrial interests responsible for their large-scale, irreversible destruction.

All those aspects that characterize most semi-arid regions like low human density, mobile livestock keeping, open grazing over a large area and seasonal adaptability, continue to be seen as signs of ‘backwardness’ of people and their regions. Models of development for such regions invariably aim to turn them into water-intensive industrial or agricultural zones, even if it means severe damage to the ecosystems and traditional livelihoods of the local people. Though colourful pictures of the maldharis continue to remain the first choice of all ‘official’ advertisements and tourism literature in Gujarat, these have rarely been translated into serious concern for maldharis, eventually pushing them into an undignified and hard existence.



1. ‘Maldhari’ is a generic term and represents all the pastoral castes of Gujarat irrespective of their location and religion. It is not a caste. It comes from ‘mal’ meaning livestock as asset or wealth and ‘dhari’ the one who owns the livestock.

2. Vidis are protected grasslands of erstwhile princely states. In 1960, all the vidis were brought under the forest department.

3. Pancharai and Maswadi were grazing taxes levied by the princely states.



Arun Agrawal. 1999. Greener Pastures: Politics, Market and Continuity Among a Migrant Pastoral People. Durham: Duke University Press.

C.P. Geevan. 2003. ‘Ecological-Economic Analysis of Grassland Systems: Resource Dynamics and Management Challenges – Kachchh District (Gujarat)’, Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology.

Purnendu Kavoori. 1996. Pastoralism in Expansion: The Transhuming Sheep Herders of Western Rajasthan. Oxford University Press.

V.R. Mehta. 1995. Shining Shadow. Gujarat Vidyapith, Ahmedabad.

Vasant Saberwal. 1999. Pastoral Politics: Shepherds, Bureaucrats and Conservation in the Western Himalaya. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Y.D. Singh and V. Vijay Kumar 1998. ‘Status of Banni Grasslands and Exigency of Restoration.’ Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, Kutch, Gujarat.

R.K. Trivedi. 1961. Village Survey Monographs: Bhirandiyara and Bamnabore. Census of India, Gujarat.

Rushbrook Williams. 1958. The Black Hills: Kutch in History and Legend. Reprinted October 1993 (third edition) Sahitya Mudranalaya, Ahmedabad.