The political ecology of pastoral development and landscape conservation in Banni grasslands of Gujarat

The political ecology of pastoral development and landscape conservation in Banni grasslands of Gujarat

03.08.2020, Monday
The defense will be conducted remotely. Please join the presentation through the link

Open defense of PhD thesis by Ovee Thorat at 02:30 pm on August 3, 2020 (Monday), (The defense will be conducted remotely. Please join the presentation through the link

Abstract: Drylands, such as the arid grasslands used by pastoralists, have a long history of being perceived as degraded systems in need of improvement. Interventions by the state in such landscapes predominantly focused on enclosures for fodder management and sedentarisation of nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists. The fencing of grasslands to prevent overgrazing, privatization of community grazing lands, and market intensification were encouraged by the state for economic and social betterment of pastoralists. Sedentarisation led to a range of negative impacts such as breakdown of local institutions, loss of customary rights, rise in inequality, and malnourishment. Recently there have been proposals by non-state actors, such as NGOs, activists, and academic scholars for a shift in the rangeland management paradigm, towards a reintroduction of pastoral mobility. Provision of collective rights over grazing lands, which are essential for pastoral mobility, is considered a win-win solution for grassland conservation without compromising pastoralist livelihoods. Given this background, I ask what are the implications of such win-win interventions, who benefits and who gets excluded.

I begin with an historical account of development interventions in the Banni grasslands of Kachchh district of Gujarat, India, to identify which actors have held decision-making powers and what development narratives backed these decisions. Secondly, I describe the variability in the ecology of the landscape and in the associated pastoral mobility. Contradictory to the fluidity of land use there has been the simultaneous creation of enclosures by both state and local community that does not only depend on pastoralism but multitude of income sources which increasingly depend on land as an asset. In consequent chapters I describe the process of ‘commoning’ in Banni that was initiated by NGOs and activists as a response to state and pastoralist enclosure-making and ask who gets left out of the narrative of Banni as a grazing commons.    

Using existing framings of ‘communal fix’ and ‘arborealisation’ by Tania Li and Andrew Walker respectively, I explore the consequences of the fixing of a communal pastoral identity on an heterogenous community that comprises 20 ethnic pastoral and non-pastoral groups. I followed a mixed-methods approach with in-depth semi-structured interviews forming the crux of my data. I supplemented it with focus-group discussions, structured questionnaires, and socioeconomic surveys. In addition, I used content analysis of government and NGO reports, remote sensing to map the different kinds of enclosures, resource mapping to describe the migration within and outside Banni, and ecological surveys to understand vegetation patterns across parts of Banni under different land uses.

My study shows that there is a push for two contrasting proposals of grassland governance - as a protected forest with clearly demarcated zones of production and conservation which is promoted by the state and another for a grazing commons as envisioned by a network consisting of non-state actors. With the increasing commodification of livestock, milk, charcoal, handicrafts, and tourism, maldhari households have become more sedentarised and have enclosed small patches of land. Contrary to homogeneous landscape categories proposed by the state (as clearly demarcated zones) and non-state actors (as grazing commons), there are a range of mixed institutions and property regimes. This makes restoration of past practices, such as a pastoral commons, challenging.

Led by NGOs, the commoning of the Banni relies on the identity of the Maldhari as a pastoralist first and foremost. The commoning relies on the creation of identities that align with how outsiders portray people’s interaction with the market and the land.  As a result, those who are left out of management and policy decisions are marginalized groups who are lower in the local caste and class hierarchies. These include the Pathans who have moved from being labourers to farmers and shop-owners, Wadha-Kolis - a hunter-gatherer group, and nomadic pastoralist groups such as the Jatts who need exclusive access to pastures and land within as well as outside Banni.

I propose the term “pastoralisation” to describe this process of fixing people’s identity and their interactions with the landscape to enable the commoning. Civil society and maldhari institutions have organised around the slogan ‘Let it be Banni’ to seek collective rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, thus envisioning a pastoral landscape to achieve such outcomes as conservation, tourism, and dairy.

Even as it is intended to arrest dispossession, the commoning of the grassland aimed at improving environmental and social outcomes systems might deepen existing inequalities. My study adds to the existing literature by demonstrating that even as they oppose privatization, commons are embedded in the capitalist economy, could enable new forms of commodification, and create a pastoral identity that is at odds with the current political economic context.