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Gujarat: Quiet Transfer of Commons

A recent Gujarat government resolution that offers wasteland on lease to corporate houses and rich farmers for large-scale horticulture cultivation, threatens the future of several pastoral and nomadic communities. In very many instances, "common lands" and land left aside as uncultivable are being redesignated as "wasteland", when these could very well be developed as "grasslands" to ensure livelihood security to very many hitherto marginalised communities.

areas and 20 acres in forest areas for every


100 livestock heads. Over the years, numbers of livestock have increased across the state but gauchars

Quiet Transfer of Commons

have not. A closer look at the “on paper” pastures and livestock population figures

A recent Gujarat government resolution that offers wasteland on lease to corporate houses and rich farmers for large-scale horticulture cultivation, threatens the future of several pastoral and nomadic communities. In very many instances, “common lands” and land left aside as uncultivable are being redesignated as “wasteland”, when these could very well be developed as “grasslands” to ensure livelihood security to very many hitherto

marginalised communities.


n May 17, 2005, Gujarat issued a government resolution (GR) to bring wastelands under cultivation inviting big corporate houses and rich farmers for the same, thus marking the beginning of corporate farming in a big way in the state. The GR has the provision of giving wastelands up to 2,000 acres for a lease period of 20 years. To encourage larger participation, the first five years are rent-free after which a varying rent from Rs 40 to 100 per acre shall be levied.1 While some people see it as an opportunity to make meaningful use of the wastelands, a fair amount of criticism has been mounting.

There have been protests by many civilians, NGOs and tribal sangathans. There have been demands for distribution of such lands among landless and other marginalised groups for cultivation. There have also been dharnas and rallies demanding an immediate withdrawal of the GR.

While most demands seek distribution of such lands among the marginalised communities for cultivation, none of the alternative demands question the very premise of bringing more and more wastelands under cultivation. The issue of people’s dependence on the wastelands appears to have taken a back seat. We would like to discuss here one of the most important uses of wastelands – as pastures, the current status of designated pasture lands and the relationship of pastoralist and other livestock keepers to the land.

We argue that though the concern for developing wastelands is well placed and a much needed welcome move by the state, however, there is an urgent need to look into the alternative potential offered by wastelands as they especially serve as grasslands or silvi-pasture systems for a largely nomadic population.

Pastoralism in Gujarat

Historically, pastoralism has been an important occupation in the semi-arid regions of Gujarat – especially Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat. An undulating terrain, vast open lands and relative unsuitability of agriculture in large parts gave rise to a very well developed pastoral occupation in these regions. Pastoralists form a sizeable population in Gujarat. In absence of any official census or even an estimate, it is difficult to know their total population. However, estimates vary from a conservative 25 lakh to about 40 lakh, which is 5 to 8 per cent of Gujarat’s population! Yet, their existence and resource base remain largely unacknowledged and unnoticed by state, policymakers, academicians and NGOs alike.

Traditionally various common lands and harvested agricultural fields were major sources for grazing livestock.2 Of all land designated as commons, ‘gauchars’ are officially acknowledged as permanent pastures and can be defined as the designated pasturelands in the village for village livestock.3 As per the official standard, every village shall designate 40 acres (16 hectares) of gauchar land in non-forest reveals that from 1960 to 2003 there has been an almost 60 per cent increase in livestock while the gauchars have reduced by 18 per cent at the state level which has generated severe pressure on the existing designated gauchar lands. Instead of 100 livestock for every 16 hectares of gauchar, the percentage change now varies across the state from 218 to 819, 2 to 8 times more as compared to the government standards (Table 1).

As per the current livestock population, the state level deficit of gauchar is 25.5 lakh hectares. Besides the enormous official deficit, the situation is far worse at the village level. Large-scale encroachments of gauchars all over the state is a phenomenon seldom reflected in the records. There have been no systematic studies to record encroachments. However, all the studies on the commons of Gujarat [Iyengar 2002; Mahadevia 1998; Chen 1991, etc] have brought out this issue of encroachments of gauchars.

An analysis of written requests made by the pastoralists to the State Pastoral Board from June 22, 2001 to July 15, 2002 revealed that of 34 applications received, 30 were requests to remove encroachments on their village gauchars, varying from 15 to 300 acres.4 A study of wastelands in 15 villages brought out that in most villages, gauchar area was either encroached on or allotted for various government schemes. In one village it was found that large farmers extracted soil from gauchar for improving the fertility of their privately owned land [Iyengar 2002].

Another serious issue is the quality of the existing gauchars. Officially, gauchars have always been considered only in quantitative terms. No attention has been paid to issues of productivity and diversity. The productivity of pasture lands has

Table 1: Gauchar Deficiency (1960-2003)

Details and Regions Kutch Saurashtra North Central South Gujarat Gujarat Gujarat Gujarat State

Per cent change Livestock 58.4 38.9 47.9 92.2 67.9 59.3 Gauchar 3.4 -14.6 -27.4 -12.9 -34.7 -17.6

Livestock pressure

(against the std of 100 per 16 ha) 1960 221 133 230 371 304 207 2003 338 218 469 819 784 400

Source: Compiled by authors based on detailed analysis of relevant census figures.

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006 reached an all time low in the past few decades. Describing the current state of gauchars a senior forest official writes in his note, “Places where diverse types of grass and vegetation grew all around the year, where there was enough to graze once and the livestock returned well fed from there in the evening, have degraded like never before. The number of palatable species has reduced on such lands and there is serious invasion of Prosopis Juliflora in these lands... With all these, there is a severe scarcity of good quality fodder today” [Varsani 2002].

Wastelands: A Lifeline

While those pastoralists maintaining large herds have been migrating out of Kutch every year, people like Ranabhai of village Khara Paswaria have been able to survive without migrating. He keeps sheep and goats. Though his sheep are weaker as compared to the flocks of the Dhebar Rabaris who have migrated to the forest areas of Maharashtra and who make more money per sheep than him, he is happy because he is at home. The open lands around his village are enough for his livestock. At times he has to walk longer to access the open lands of nearby villages. But lately, he has begun worrying. The pace at which big industries are taking over large areas of land in Kutch after the earthquake, he fears that his survival may be at stake.

Like Ranabhai, for many pastoralists of Gujarat these “wastelands” constitute a lifeline despite its extremely degraded state. While the quality and the effective size of the gauchars are fast declining, it is wastelands that form an important grazing source and support livelihoods of pastoralists and other livestock owners of the state.

Be it Bhal and Panchal in Saurashtra or Abdasa-Lakhpat and Banni in Kutch, one spell of rain and most parts of semi-arid Gujarat take on a beautiful green cover. Walk in any part with a pastoralist who could point out the amazing diversity of palatable grasses that grow in these wastelands, though their numbers and heights have reduced over the years. In a recent study by Geevan (2003) at the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (2003) in Naliya region, 14 species of grass and 46 herbs totalling 90 species of shrubs, trees and climbers were found in open lands. Similarly 41 species of grass, herbs, shrubs were found in the open lands around a small village in Banni [Singh 1998].

A recent survey by the authors in 60 pastoral villages along the coast of Gujarat showed that wastelands form the major source of grazing round the year. The study established that in the monsoon when all the cultivable lands are sown, in 92 per cent villages, livestock used wastelands for grazing and in the summer when these wastelands have least to offer, 52 per cent villages’ livestock used wastelands for grazing [Bharwada and Mahajan 2005]. This means that even during the lean season, dependency on the wastelands for grazing is fairly high.

Besides the pastoralists who keep large herds, most landless and landed rural communities also keep livestock ranging from cattle and buffaloes to sheep, goat and donkeys and graze them in these “wastelands”. If we include them, the actual people dependent on wastelands will form a substantial proportion of the rural Gujarat households.

In an outstanding work on coping with seasonality and drought in a Gujarati village, Martha Chen (1991) lists down multiple uses of common lands by the people. She listed some 35 physical products that were collected or harvested from commons and the largest number of products contributed to meeting daily subsistence fuel and fodder requirements of poor. Poor people of the village met 70 per cent of their fuel and 55 per cent of their fodder needs from these resources.

In case of migrating pastoralists the wastelands also provide camping sites. Camping on gauchars and private lands need permissions from panchayats and land-owners respectively. Low-lying areas and natural pits in these wastelands also form a source of water in monsoon.

Rejuvenating Wastelands

Post-independence developments saw more and more wastelands being brought under cultivation. Introduction of modern technologies in agriculture reduced the fodder production and access to the fields became limited as the number of sowing cycles increased reducing the fallow period. Chemical fertilisers and farm mechanisation reduced farmers’ demand for manure and draught. As a result, pastoral livelihoods have been severely affected. On the other hand, the commons that formed the basis of survival were fast changing with newer land use policies that considered growth of agriculture and industries synonymous to development never showing concerns for other land-based livelihood systems.

The new GR states that, “The objective of bringing wastelands under cultivation has not been met till now by the existing policies and thus it was under active government consideration to lease out these lands so as to cultivate it using modern technology for horticulture and biofuel trees to the big corporate houses and individual resourceful farmers”. Further quoting the directorate of agriculture, it states that such lands cannot be brought under cultivation without big investments. There are two assumptions being made simultaneously. First, that the wastelands cannot be developed unless brought into cultivation and second, that it is possible to do so only through big investments.

We would like to question the premise of “bringing it under cultivation”. On what basis has it been decided that such lands must be brought under cultivation? Is cultivation the only way to develop or rejuvenate degraded wastelands? Are there really no options offered by such lands? There have been several experiments by the government’s own institutions and departments, which suggest otherwise.

In a state with a sizeable population of pastoralists and other livestock keepers, when the land in many areas in Gujarat are naturally suited for grasslands, why can the state not consider developing such land as grasslands? Why can the grasslands not be recognised as a resource for pastoralists? Why can we not make efforts to reclaim, rejuvenate and rehabilitate large tracts of wastelands as grasslands?

Wastelands as Grasslands

The argument often made is that of technical infeasibility but there is enough evidence to prove otherwise. There have been several experiments by both the government and non-government institutions to show the potential of rejuvenating wastelands as grasslands. We would like to quote some of the promising works.

A long-drawn work of more than 15 years standing, towards silvi-pasture development on wastelands [Pathak undated] has shown that the productivity of forage and firewood can be increased eight to 10 times respectively from 0.5 to 5.5 and from negligible to 2.5 tonnes per hectare. The Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, (IGFRI) Jhansi document on this experiment states; “The present work has shown a new technology dimension…if

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

utilised and implemented even on half of degraded lands, it can solve the problem of land degradation and also of animal feed and firewood.” However as this work is in relatively more controlled conditions some people may find it unrealistic. Let us look at another interesting work by the Gujarat forest department near Jamnagar on open degraded wastelands. By minimal protection, some seeding and no water other than the annual rainfall, the average fodder production has increased from 300 kg per hectare to 7,000 kg per hectare in two years.5GUIDE’s grassland restoration experiments in Banni have also shown the rejuvenation potential in terms of increased production and diversity of grasses.

To further the argument of wastelands being put to effective use as grazing lands instead of cultivated lands, let us see if Gujarat can meet its pasture requirement after converting all its wastelands to grasslands. Unfortunately not. Only Saurashtra and Kutch will have some surplus lands after such conversions. All the other three regions will continue to have gauchar deficit. At the state level, there will still be a deficit of 12.27 lakh hectares to meet the grazing needs as per the government standards! This is indeed an alarming situation (Table 2).

Time for Reconsideration

Livestock forms an insurance for survival in semi-arid regions like western Gujarat where due to degraded land quality, uncertainty of rains, poor groundwater resources and lack of reliable irrigation facilities in arid parts even a single crop fails many times. Pastoralism has been a well-developed occupation in Gujarat. Besides its several other uses, wasteland is a regional grazing resource. By designating uncultivable lands as “wastelands”, the government grossly undermines its significance for those who survive on it.

Rejuvenation of such lands need not always mean cultivation.

The argument often made in favour of leasing out wastelands for other purposes is that there are designated pastures in every village and the pastoral needs should be met from these lands. The analysis shows that the designated pastures are far from sufficient to meet livestock grazing needs. Figures also show that even if all the wastelands are converted to grasslands, there still remains a gauchar deficit of

12.27 lakh ha at the state level. In such a scenario, when the government makes an announcement to offer wasteland for corporate farming, it is certainly and consciously sacrificing the present and future interests of lakhs of pastoralists as well as those of the small and marginal livestock keepers, who are dependent on the wastelands, all in the name of wasteland rejuvenation.

There is an urgent need to understand the existing uses of and dependence on wastelands before defining the possible uses and ways of rejuvenating such lands. The directive principle under Article 39b and c of the Indian Constitution states, “The state shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing, that the ownership and control of the material resources of community are so distributed as best to sub-serve the common good; that the operation of economic system does not result in the concentration of wealth and means of production to the common detriment.” Can the government, the trustee of common resources, take away the commons and quietly transfer them to “big” private interests without even consulting and informing those who have been using it for generations and without even considering the ecological aspects and the livelihood systems of people dependent on so-called “wastelands”?



Table 2: Status of Gauchar and Potential of Wastelands as Grasslands

Region Kutch Saurashtra North Gujarat Central Gujarat South Gujarat Gujarat Total
Current gauchar deficit (ha) Uncultivable wastelands (ha) Gauchar deficit or surplus after converting all uncultivable wastelands to pasture (ha) -166909 430968* 264059 -514955 541900 26945 -585044 85900 -499144 -897339 -392445 -2556692 169100 101300 1329168 -728239 -291145 -1227524

Note: * As per the District Panchayat Statistical Report, 2001-02. The state level data includes the Ranns of Kutch and other saline lands and hence misrepresents the actual wasteland figure. To avoid this, we have used the district level data for Kutch.

Sources: Compiled by the authors from Livestock Statistics, 2003 and Statistical Abstract, 2003.


[This article has drawn some of its ideas from our ongoing study on the pastoralists of Gujarat. We would like to acknowledge our discussions with Girish Patel and some of the pastoralists leaders in Gujarat.]

1 As per this GR, “the lands will be given up to a maximum of 2,000 acres (800 ha) for 20 years’lease. The project must begin in first five years and the required capital shall be arranged by the lessee. Rs 500 per acre shall be charged as interest free security deposit. If the project does not take off in five years, the deposit shall be forfeited and land shall be taken back. It is compulsory for the lessee to use the modern micro irrigation methods. There shall be no rent for the first five years. Annual rent will be charged at Rs 40 per acre from 6th to 10th year and Rs 100 per acre from 11th to 20th year. When any value adding activities are taken up, therewill be 50 per cent increase in the rent. The lessee can also mortgage this land to scheduled banks and RBI approved other banks. In case of any processing of the agricultural produce from this land no NA (non-agricultural) permission is required.” GR No JMN/3903/453/A (part – 1)

2 Commons included gauchars – permanent pastures under village panchayats; vidis – protected grasslands; padtar – open wastelands;bets – grass islands; cher – mangroves and the mainland forests.

3 Many times the word gauchar is usedinterchangeably with grazing resources of all types, however in this paper by gauchar we mean the permanent pastures designated by the state and as recorded in the official land records of the village and the revenue department.

4 Analysis by the authors from the available recordsat the office of Gopalak Nigam in August, 2002

5 Personal communication with assistant conservator of forest, Rajkot and an official presentation on the same by the ACF in September 2005


Bharwada, Charul and Vinay Mahajan (2005):‘Mangroves and Maldharis of Gujarat: Understanding Coastal Pastoralists’ Dependence on Mangrove’, a report for Gujarat Ecology Commission, Baroda.

Chen, Martha (1991): Coping with Seasonalityand Drought, Sage Publication, New Delhi.

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

Iyengar, Sudarshan (2002): ‘Common PropertyLand Resources in Gujarat: Some Findings about Their Size, Status and Use’ in Shah and Sah (eds), Land Reforms in India: Performance and Challenges in Gujarat and Maharashtra, Sage Publications, Delhi.

Mahadevia, Darshini (1998): ‘DevelopmentDichotomy in Gujarat’, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, New Delhi.

Pathak, P S (undated): ‘IGFRI Approaches: Rehabilitation of Degraded Lands’, Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute, Jhansi.

Singh, Y D et al (1998): ‘Status of Banni Grasslandand Exigency of Restoration Efforts’, Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, Gujarat.

Varsani, C M (2002): ‘Gayo ni Aaj ni Paristhiti’, unpublished note by the Assistant Conservator of Forest, Gujarat in Gujarati.

Economic and Political Weekly January 28, 2006

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