Alexander Frater in his book titled ‘Chasing the Monsoon’ had stated, “If sky fails, the earth will surly fail too.” The Banni region in the Kutch district of Gujarat is validating his statement as it shivering through the worst drought of past 3 decades. In year 2018, the Kutch district had only received a rainfall of 11 cm. which is just 26% of last 30 years’ average and further Banni region had hardly received two short rainfall spells in the last monsoon, as locals stated. The drought had left with hard marks on the life and livelihood of people in the Banni Grassland.
The Banni Grassland
The Banni Grassland is an area of approx. 2500 km2 in the Kutch district of Gujarat and is among the largest tropical grasslands in Asia (Read More). Banni is situated in Arid climate, with high temperature in most of time which reached maximum up to 48°C -50°C during May and June and winter temperature goes down to 5°C – 8°C during December and January. Average Annual rainfall, occurring through Southwest monsoon between June to September, is as low as of 317 mm with 65% coefficient of variation. Though there is inherent salinity in the soil, pastoral communities dug up Virdas, shallow well of 9-12 ft deep that collects rain water in its soil particle, for livestock and themselves (Read More). The Banni is home to great biological diversity, having 37 grass species, 275 bird species, and domesticated animals, like Banni Buffalo, Kankrej Cattle, Sheep & Goat, Horses and Camel, as well as wildlife. The Banni is also home to 22 pastoralist communities, Maldharis, spread across 48 settlements in 19 Pachayat, and with a population close to 40,000 people. Today around 80,000 animals, mostly Banni buffalo and Kankrej cattle, graze in the Banni and close to 100,000 litres of milk is produced in the Banni every day. The region also serves as a breeding ground for the Banni buffalo and the Kankrej cow, for sale in many others parts of the country. At present the larger economy of this area is ruled by dairy, charcoal and tourism.
The Footprints of Yesterday
Imran Khan Mutva of Banni Pashu Uchherak Maldhari Sangathan aka Banni Breeders Association, pointing towards an alien woody species – ‘prosposis juliflora’ locally called ‘gando bawar’ says, “This is swallowing the grasses and the grassland of Banni. The acts of forest department had brought us face to face with a great challenge of survival”. According to RAMBLE website, in the early 1960s, the Gujarat Forest Department planted Prosopis juliflora in approx. 315 km2 of the Banni with a stated objective of minimizing the perceived threats of salinity ingress and desertification. Over the past 50 years Prosopis has spread from 315 km2 to close to 1500 km2 of the Banni. This expansion is thought to have taken place at the expense of palatable and perennial grass species. Kabir Aggrawal of The Wire, citing to a study had reported (Read More), “The unintended consequence of the intervention has been the degradation of the Banni grassland. In 1989, the area under grasslands was estimated to be 1,42,000 hectares, which reduced to 63,000 hectares in 2009. The grasslands’ productivity has dropped by 84.5%, from 4,000 kg per hectare in the 1960s to 620 kilograms per hectare in the 1990s.”
Dr Pankaj Joshi, Executive Director of Sahjeevan, a Bhuj based NGO had stated that over the years the Damming of rivulets in the region had led to drastic consequences over the biodiversity of Banni Grassland. As dams were built across the rivers flowing into the Banni, resulting in dramatically reduced “flushing” of the Banni, and a consequent increase in saline ingress from the neighbouring Arabian Sea. The high increase in the salinity in the region had impacted the growth as well as the survival of some grass varieties that use to be of high value for animals heath.
Towards the last decade of 20th century, Dairy market in the region had seen a drastic uplift and had given plentiful opportunity of milk market incursion in the region.
Ramesh Bhatti of Centre for Pastoralism (CFP) had stated that the assures market as well as high values to milk, on one hand give the high monetary earnings to the Maldharis in the Banni as well as avenues of diversification of livelihood. But on the other hand, market had also pushed the people in turing them into milk producers leaving behind the cattle breeding, other agronomic change in the same time spell had also acted as catalyst to this transformation and the long stand implication of this is in increased number of cattle per household.
The blend of changes in biodiversity in the region, reduced pasture area, increased cattle density and changed form of consumption, on one hand led to financial prosperity but left with high vulnerability.
The Challenges of Today
The Banni Grassland is passing through the worst drought of this century that occurred to this landscape. Seeing an approx. 75% deficit in the average rainfall, Gujurat state government had declared drought in Kutch along with several other districts of the state (Read More). Two of the major challenges possessed by drought are fodder and water shortage. Midst of scare rainfall essential grasses hadn’t regenerated to the extent needed, leaving the community with no choice rather than to outsource the same.
Kutch District Panchayat had started 356 cattle camps in the Banni landscape to mitigate the impacts of long standing drought, a total of 8 kg including dry as well as green fodder is provided per cattle. Ramjan Kaka, a Maldhari of the Banni region had told that the cattle camps were started in the December month, whereas scarcity was well visible in October month itself. Also many other Maldharis stated that even as cattle camps are serving us as per the said amount of fodder, still we are needing more fodder to cater the needs of our cattle. Maldharis of Banni are importing dry as well green fodder from nearby districts and on an average spending of 800 INR to 1000 INR per cattle per month. Through the various FGDs with locals, it was observed that the saving made from the selling of milk is playing a vital role in managing the additional spending on fodder purchase.
Over the years, dependence for all water needs had shifted to pipeline water instead of the jheels and virdas, the traditional rainwater harvesting structures in the region. But, as now the entire catchment as well as command area of Sarder Sarover Dam, the main source of pipeline water, is facing drought, the extent of the issue hadn’t left much water for the Banni region in particular and Kutch district as a whole. Midst of this, people are returning to the traditional sources but they are also not serving the needs to the needed extent, as they hadn’t get fully recharged in the last monsoon.
The scarcity of water as well as fodder is triggering the migration in the region. Though there isn’t a clear picture on the number of families as well as cattle migrated this summer but all concerned stakeholders are agreeing that this year there is a much higher migration in comparison to any normal rainfall year. Along with the other geo-political challenges of migration, it also comes with a financial cost and it was observed that only the larger herders were in position to bear the same, leaving the small herders with no choice other than looking at sky in hope of rain.
The Summons of Tomorrow
Isha Bhai, a local of Hodko village in Banni told that the Maldharis in Banni are stole feeding the cattle from last 15 months by purchasing fodder. As this drought had occurred nearly after two decades and in the main time on an average the financial condition of all families in the region increased in multiples due to milk selling as well as looming tourism in the region. But he further added that now after managing the distress of drought for such a long period, most of the families aren’t in position to bear the cost for much longer extent.
If this year’s monsoon also remains similar to the last year, the consequences might get worse in economic as well as ecological context. One of the major challenge will be water scarcity, as pipeline are falling much shorter to the need and traditional water source are left with little stock. Adding to this, Maldharis will not be in situation to bear any further cost of fodder purchasing. This double fold scarcity will leave them with merely any options than to migrate.
Migration in today’s time is the biggest fear of the communities in the Banni landscape, there are adequate reason for the same. Migration these days comes with Multifood challenges i.e. changed land use pattern in the potential areas to migrate, resistance from native communities of the areas to migrate, changing political – religious conviction contours and geo-political hindrances based on rights and identity other than the huge financial expenses.
Midst of changing biodiversity as well as livelihood, this drought had come as a lesson as well as warning for the Banni landscape. It’s high time that communities as well as administration should take call a on the carrying capacity of the grassland, restoration of the landscape and bring the traditional water sources to the life.
Comments, Critiques and Suggestions of readers are always welcomed.