In Kutch’s Banni, trench-fencing to protect grass plots worries cattle herders: ‘Our bovines getting trapped’

Spread over 2,500 sq km, Banni is dotted by 52 villages, with a population of around 40,000, most of them maldharis. The grassland, which was declared a forest in 1995, is today home to around 1.5 lakh livestock heads, as per the BBA, which has around 1,000 Banni maldharis as its members.

First showers of monsoon anywhere in semi-arid Kutch district are an occasion for celebration. The day after Hamirsar, the historic lake in Bhuj town, overflows is a public holiday in the district.

But this monsoon, many maldharis (cattle herders) of Banni, the expansive grassland in Kutch’s Bhuj block, are not sure what to expect. Their concern stems from metre-wide and 1.5 metre-deep trenches marking boundaries of plots that the Gujarat Forest Department has been creating since summer last year to restore the ecosystem of one of Asia’s largest grasslands.

They fear that their buffaloes, of the coveted Banni breed, which are habituated to graze in the flat terrain of the grassland on their own, will fall in these trenches and die. Forest department has created around two dozen such plots with their trench-fence running into few hundred kilometres and at least four incidents of the bovines getting trapped in them have been reported this summer.

On Monday one of Sadham Bhsriya’s buffaloes from Sharada village, went missing. The 35-year-old maldhari searched for the pregnant heifer, for three days. His search ended in the trench of one such grass plot in Talab Ved Vandh area, around three km north of Sharada. “I felt foul smell emanating from the trench when I was passing by it. When checked the trench, I discovered bloated carcass of the heifer,” Bhsriya, says, adding the buffalo’s market value was around Rs1.10 lakh.

Isha Mutwa, programme coordinator of Banni Breaders’ Association (BBA), a Hodka-based organisation of maldharis, says, “The forest department has created plots in villages like Sharada, Dumado, Mithdi, Bhitara, Misariyado etc but most of incidents have been reported from around Sharada,” says Mutwa .

Alimuhammd Manthar, another maldhari from the same village, has other concerns. “As our village is prone to flooding, we relocate to Talab Ved Vandh, an elevated ground, with our buffalo herds in the rains. But that is exactly the area the Forest Department has demarcated for grass development. I am afraid it will hinder the flow of floodwaters, while we will have nowhere to escape the flooding,” Manthar says.

Sharada has a population of around 1,100 maldharis and around 15,000 livestock heads.

Spread over 2,500 sq km, Banni is dotted by 52 villages, with a population of around 40,000, most of them maldharis. The grassland, which was declared a forest in 1995, is today home to around 1.5 lakh livestock heads, as per the BBA, which has around 1,000 Banni maldharis as its members. Most of the livestock heads are Banni buffaloes, known for their low requirement for fodder and high productivity of milk. But Kutch witnesses drought or highly-deficient monsoon once every four years, forcing maldharis and their livestock to migrate. After the 2018 drought in Kutch, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani had directed restoration of wastelands so that grass can grow on them, leading eventually to increased fodder availability.

Accordingly, the Gujarat Forest Department started trench-fencing plots in Banni last year. As per the office of the Banni Deputy Conservator of Forests (DCF), 850 hectares were converted into protected grass plots in 2020 and 3,900 hectares more are to be added this year. Size of plots range from 50 hectare to 200 hectare.

Last month, addressing a UN meeting on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had alluded to Banni while talking about “novel approaches” being adopted by India for restoring degraded lands.

Anita Karna, the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) of Kutch territorial forest circle, says the Forest Department that concerns regarding the trenches are misplaced.

“Trenches are to protect whatever is inside an area… You can’t allow all the cattle to go inside and graze… These grass plots will provide grass to cattle only… Banni has degraded beyond words and grass plots are a step in the direction of reversing that.”

However, Mutwa of BBA says maldharis are not against plots per say but the protection methods. “The objective of the CM’s announcement was to restore barren land and grow grass. But the Forest Department is doing exactly the opposite by damaging Banni, which is already a grassland, by digging trenches. The department is acting arbitrarily in selecting sites for these plots…Instead of trenches, they could have opted hedge of gando baval (prosopis juliflora),” he says.

The maldharis are used to releasing their herds late evening, with the buffaloes and cows returning on their own early next morning after grazing. The plots have three-layer protection—a bund, a trench and a hedge on the inner edge of the trench.

Former sarpanch of Sharada group village Fakirmamd Punra says he had flagged the villagers’ concern at a joint meeting of Revenue and Forest Departments before the plot near the village was marked. “I drew Bhuj mamlatdar’s attention to the fact that our village is prone to flooding and that trenches can exacerbate the problem… After much pleading, they agreed to reduce the size of the plot,” Punra.

Mahipatsinh Jadeja, the DCF in-charge of Banni, says, “The programme is already yielding results. Earlier, we used to harvest an average 2 lakh kg of grass from Banni but it went up to seven lakh in 2020-21.”

The DCF adds that the Forest Department has tried other fencing options. “A few years ago, we had attempted creating grass plots by fencing small areas with barbed-wires. But over a period of time, maldharis removed the fencing and those plots are gone,” says Jadeja.

V Vijay Kumar, the director of the autonomous Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology that has done extensive research on the ecology of Banni and is working with the restoration project, also backs trench-fencing as a viable option to protect grass plots.

“The major factor in restoring this grassland is to remove the prosopis to avoid competition and allow grass to grow. If we allow animals to enter plots, prosopis will spread again. That’s why we had recommended trench-fencing as it an economical option,” says Kumar.

According to the 20th Livestock Census, Kutch has around 21 lakh animals, among the largest in the state, including 10.41 lakh bovines. Kumar says Banni has the potential to support the livestock population of the entire district if the grassland is restored and managed

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