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Why has drought hit the Maldharis of Kutch so hard this year?

Once prized as sturdy cattle, the kankrej have considerably reduced in numbers in the Banni

Once prized as sturdy cattle, the kankrej have considerably reduced in numbers in the Banni   | Photo Credit: Abi T Vanak

The Maldharis of Kutch are well adapted to a culture of scarcity. But older coping mechanisms have died away

Do you remember how the monsoon began last year, ben?” asked Haji bhai of Hodka village in the heart of the Banni grasslands in the Rann of Kutch. “The thunder, the way the ground swelled from hours of rain and tiny grasses appeared the very next day. Do you remember, we all took selfies in the rain? Now, look. There’s fodder scarcity, our maal has no water, our jheels and virdas (a rainwater harvesting system) are dry, there are no weddings, home construction has stopped, and more than half of us have migrated to waadi-vistar (farmland in other parts of Gujarat). Banni is almost empty.”

This was in February 2018. In December, the government declared drought in Kutch, which has still not passed. Banni, an arid grassland system, too saline for agriculture, but fertile for certain grasses, is home to a centuries-old pastoral community — the Maldharis. Much has changed in Banni: tourists throng the area during the Rann festival, there are better roads, mobile networks and accessible markets. But for the Maldharis, life has never been more precarious.

Prolonged dry spells, even drought, are part of the Banni’s meteorological life-cycle; then the rains come and the grassland, which supports nilgai, chinkara, foxes, spiny tailed lizard, the desert cat and the Maldhari’s livestock, resurges. The herders have long adapted to this perpetual state of flux — theirs is a culture built around scarcity. They have developed uniquely tolerant breeds of livestock such as the kankrej, the Banni buffalo, and the kharai camel.

For instance, in the nearly 100 years between 1901 and 1996, there were 57 droughts, instances of moderate to severe. Over the last decade, the monsoon brought above-average rain, but 2018 broke this trend. After the first heavy shower in June, there was a prolonged lull. Nearly a year later, there is still an acute shortage of fodder. Despite government subsidies, and some 356 cattle relief camps (the highest number in recent history) the Maldharis have not been able to recover from the economic shock. Some have begun selling their prized livestock. “I cannot tolerate the sight of my weakened cattle,” says Hussain Mutva of Mithadi village. “If someone else can take better care of them, then so be it, when it rains they will come back to me.”

Why has drought hit the community so hard this time, when historically their culture is one of managing scarcity? The answer is multifold.

To the north

During the droughts of the past, among the three key coping mechanisms for Banni’s people were: migration to greener pastures, distress sale of livestock, and tapping into groundwater through traditional jheels and virdas. But things have changed now. With the rise of a milk economy, charcoal economy, and pipeline water, older coping mechanisms have died away. What they’ve been replaced with are not mitigating the severity of this severe drought.

Long-distance nomadism used to historically take Maldharis as far north as Sindh and Saurashtra. This ceased after Partition and the Indo-Pak war of 1965; meanwhile, land use change has drastically reduced options for migration elsewhere. Today, their nomadic movement has more or less ended due to settlement drives by the government. Piped water is now brought in from Bhuj, fodder comes by train from as far as Punjab. Most Maldharis now migrate to other parts of Gujarat only during periods of severe droughts, as is the case now.

Why has drought hit the Maldharis of Kutch so hard this year?

The politics of water has also changed. Traditionally, Maldharis used rainwater harvesting systems to draw fresh water for their livestock and for their own use. Today, they are lured by poll promises of a steady supply of water and fodder. “Whoever gives us more water and more fodder has our vote,” some Maldharis tell us. In reality, water supply through pipelines has been inconsistent and riddled with the problems that remote locations often face: pipes break, water allocation is often not enough for all their needs, and the water is sometimes contaminated.

As they have begun to depend on external systems, the Maldharis have neglected their traditional groundwater harvesting systems. A jheel in Sarada village lies in utter disrepair after a pipeline and water tankers came to these parts over a decade ago. “Jheels were once an important lifeline for us. Now they are not enough. Our buffaloes have increased. Our population has increased. The pipeline is now our lifeline,” says Jumma Jat. But during drought, a jheel kept alive would have helped. As it has in some villages, like Jhimri Wand, that have preserved their jheel in the absence of a pipeline connection.

Then there is the complex impact of the invasive tree Prosopis juliflora. Introduced in the 60s, ostensibly to prevent desertification, it is locally called gando bawar or ‘mad babool’. The tree has spread so rapidly that it has eaten into almost 60% of the grassland. To the herders, this has meant a huge loss of pastures. But it has also meant unexpected income: Prosopis charcoal, which has a sizeable market demand, has helped Maldharis substitute grass with market-bought fodder during dry seasons. This has created a paradox — even though pasture has reduced, livestock holdings per individual have grown, primarily of the Banni buffalo, known for its ability to produce high-fat milk despite scarcity.

Banni faces huge uncertainties: should Prosopis be removed? Does its benefits outweigh its disadvantages? Can grassland restoration return the landscape to its past glory? Now that they are sedentary, do Maldharis need a diversification of livelihood to sustain their traditional way of life?

These questions are particularly pertinent now, as the community faces one of the worst droughts in memory.

(With inputs from Ankila Hiremath.)

The authors are with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bengaluru.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 1:25:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/drought-in-a-desert-why-has-drought-hit-the-maldharis-so-hard-this-year/article27090863.ece

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