Shaping landscapes through development interventions


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GRASSLANDS used by pastoral communities for open range grazing contain extremely dynamic ecology and land use patterns. These landscapes are complex, messy and difficult to understand, but interventions that take place for the betterment of these landscapes often focus on a very simplified view of the larger complex system. The normative values behind the interventions, and their goals, depend on the actors that are making those decisions, the biophysical nature of the landscape, the management history of that landscape, and most importantly, the larger political economy.1

Although the trend has been to utilize methods such as sedentarization (of nomadic pastoral communities by blaming them for degradation), market intensification and fencing of grasslands for conservation, academics and policy makers are increasingly incorporating the idea of using grass-lands as commons.2 The ‘new pastoral development paradigm’ that has emerged, however, has been very difficult to implement on the ground.3 When development interventions change things, they often lead to a reshaping of the landscape in which the most powerful actors retain control over the access to resources and determine the kind of management to be followed. The Banni grasslands are one such place that has seen the people-livestock-landscape transformed by interventions whose objectives are often in contradiction to the system they were meant to support.


The Banni is situated in the Kachchh district of Gujarat, one of the most industrialized states in India, and cover an area of approximately 3847 km2. Descriptions of the Banni grasslands in published literature and government reports often start with the statement that these were once known as the best grasslands in Asia.4 This is then contrasted with a description of the current state, which is seen as significantly degraded due to grazing, droughts, invasion of introduced shrub species and increasing salinity.5

The Banni landscape is prone to drought and highly variable rainfall, making efforts at increasing its productivity very difficult. It is very flat, with most of its borders part of the expansive salt marsh of the Rann of Kachchh. The elevation ranges from 2 to 10 msl, retention of water in the soils is poor, and the total annual rainfall is around 300 mm. If it rains well, the Banni grasslands take the shape of large wetlands during the monsoon season. The ecology of arid rangelands such as the Banni is known as ‘non-equilibrial’, whereby multiple carrying capacities and abiotic factors, such as climate, play an important role in deciding the vegetation patterns.6


The Banni grasslands contain annual, perennial and palatable grasses and sedges, which grow in low to moderate saline areas. Some of the species are Ochthochloacompressa, Sporobolus helvolus, Dichanthium annulatum, Cenchrus ciliaris, Cyperus esculentus, and Cyperus arenarius. The highly saline areas are covered by perennial grasses with low palatability, such as Aeluropus lagopoides and Eurochondra setulosa. Once numerous, trees such as Acacia nilotica, Acacia senegal, Salvadora persica, Capparis decidua, and Tamarix are now reduced due to the large-scale invasion of Prosopis juliflora.

Boards denoting different activities and actors in the landscape of Banni.

The productivity of the grasslands is tied to the pastoralism of the Banni, which mainly consists of large livestock such as buffalo and cattle. The people living in the Banni grasslands belong to more than 18 different ethnic groups, the majority of which follow the religion of Islam. The pastoralists from Banni are called Maldharis (Mal meaning livestock in the form of wealth and Dhari meaning the one who keeps it). Apart from pastoralism, the people living in Banni are also involved in activities such as charcoal making, farm labour, wood and leather work, tourism etc.


There are 48 hamlets spread across 19 panchayats.7 Some of the pastoralists in Banni still travel large distances with their livestock and only return when the conditions are good, but some have opted for permanent housing in one place. The livestock itself is most often free ranging, following different grazing routes depending upon season and territories defined by the community in each settlement. The migration routes are also influenced by local politics, the availability of markets and trade relations of the people of Banni with communities living outside this landscape. Just after the rains, when the vegetation is at its most lush, other pastoral communities from outside of Banni visit it for a few months, such as the Rabaris who keep small sheep and goats. The people of Banni do not have formal rights over the land although there are currently more than 25,000 of them living there with more than 75,000 livestock.

A fenced enclosure.

A major part of the Banni grass-lands was declared as Protected Forest in 1955 and is considered to be under the Forest Department since then, although there has been confusion related to transfer from the Revenue Department to the Forest Department. Some of the other governmental bodies that have introduced management interventions in the area are the Animal Husbandry Department, the Gujarat Ecology Commission (GEC),8 the Water and Sanitation Management Organization (WASMO) and the Border Area Development Programme (BADP). The history of the major development interventions that were introduced in Banni, including more recently by NGOs (and NGO-state collaborations) explains some of the drivers of the current landscape changes, the varying management strategies and how multiple actors have played a role in determining the way people and nature interact with each other.

Dairy unit.

The Banni grasslands are near the border of India and Pakistan, and were used for grazing livestock long before the formation of the border separated the grazing routes across both countries. The current community of pastoralists claim they have been using Banni pastures for more than 300 years. Some of these nomadic people decided to settle down in Banni while other families remained across the borders in Pakistan. The pastoralists are now more transhumant than nomadic, living in settlements within Banni and travelling to other areas seasonally with their livestock.


Apart from the dam building activities that were taken up across India post independence, one of the first interventions carried out in Banni was the large-scale plantation of Prosopis juliflora, a small thorny tree species from South America. The intention was to arrest desertification and salinity ingress.9 Similar to the desertification discourse from the Sahel in Africa, here too the landscape was considered as a ‘wasteland’ that needed to be put to more productive use.10 The Prosopis julilfora flourished in Banni and soon gave rise to a new product, charcoal, a commodity that is in high demand from the increasing industrial area in Gujarat and neighbouring states. However, being in a protected forest, harvesting it for charcoal became an illegal activity and the pastoralists became criminals. However, due to their networks with industries and politicians, the people of Banni have continued harvesting charcoal with the assistance of labourers and contractors.

Kankrej cattle, Banni.


The drought of 1968-1970 was followed by interventions such as creation of fenced and moated enclosures. The grass within these enclosures was cut and stored in warehouses built in different villages in Banni. The idea behind building fences was, as stated in a report, that the development of grassland (by enclosing it and sowing plant seeds) ‘ensures a continuous fodder supply to livestock, which will totally curtail or reduce the livestock migration’.11 Migration was considered as imprudent and grazing was seen as resulting in the degradation of grasslands. The local communities, however, opposed this mode of management and opened up the fences that could not be maintained by the state anymore. These huge enclosures measuring up to 800-1000 metres on one side are still visible in the satellite imagery of the Banni grasslands. Creating (and dismantling) fences continues in the landscape as grassland restoration activities – such as fodder development programmes under the BADP and GEC.


In the mid-1990s, the Banni grass-lands also became a site of interest for private organizations. The salt waste that the Rann provided became valued as a rare source of bromine compounds. Banni, due to its extremely low elevation and proximity to the sea, acts as a huge salt pan. Currently three chemical companies are situated around Banni, all connected by roads cutting across the Rann. A small but politically significant portion of the pastoral community has changed its livelihood practices as a result of the industrialization, becoming labourers and drivers. As pastoralists living in proximity to businesses started getting a daily income, their livestock herds and pastoral mobility decreased. The companies brought with them a range of other interventions such as alliances with NGOs to promote marketing of handicraft and textiles made using the traditional embroidery that the region is famous for.

The massive earthquake that Gujarat faced in 2001 led to the loss of thousands of lives in the Kachchh district, mainly from urban areas such the city of Bhuj. In the sea of NGOs and relief programmes that followed, places in the Banni that were located near the big towns also became the sites of development activities. In 2004, Rannotsav, a tourism festival that has now become the face of Gujarat tourism, began to gain popularity. The white salty Rann was no longer just valued by the chemical companies but by hordes of tourists from India and abroad. The land in Banni was further integrated into the tourist market as the number of restaurants, shops and resorts increased.


A new form of enclosure cropped up in the landscape during this period, created by the local communities. The upper class pastoralists as well as lower class labourers saw benefits in enclosing pieces of common land for conducting rainfed agriculture or to grab pastures. The crops, including sorghum, cluster beans and castor, were harvested so as to provide good crop residues for livestock. Invasion by the shrub Prosopis juliflora and increasing livestock herds had reduced the availability of open pastures and dependence on market-bought fodder/residues had increased. However, since most of western Banni gets waterlogged during the monsoon and the eastern region soils are highly saline, only the people from central Banni were able to carry out this new activity successfully.


By 2008 the Banni livestock breeders had become dairymen, charcoal producers and farmers. The pastoralists of Banni, with help of NGOs, formed an organization called the Banni Breeders’ Association, also known as BPUMS (Banni Pashu Uccherak Maldhari Sanghtan), which became the channel for support from the animal husbandry department and other state and non-governmental actors, including scientists. The potential of a cooperative dairy industry was evident in the Banni as the main livestock species here were large hardy animals such as the buffalo and cattle. Efforts were made to recognize the breeds as distinct and specific to Banni as a result of the maintenance of their bloodlines over centuries. This resulted in the recognition of the Banni buffalo as the 11th buffalo breed unique to India in the year 2010. The price of buffalo and its milk both increased, and Banni has gradually received the facilities required for a burgeoning cooperative dairy industry. With the diversification of livelihoods, the landscape had also undergone market intensification, and the milk that was previously never sold became the most important commodity.


According to the pastoralists of Banni, the Banni buffalo is a sturdy animal that can digest the pods of Prosopis juliflora, which is one of the reasons why it is superior to the Kankrej cattle. It also gives more milk when compared to cattle and hence the good demand in the dairy industry. The demand for bullocks for supporting agriculture, however, is hampered by the increasing availability of tractors and other mechanized options.

People of Banni loading fodder.

The young Maldharis of Banni.


For better milk production, the livestock in Banni are also given supplementary fodder, consisting of oil-seed cakes and wheat at an average of five kilograms every day. Apart from milk kept for household purpose, most of it now gets sold to the dairies, bought from the Maldharis as per the fat content. The breeders of livestock have now become ardent dairymen. Selling milk was a risky business until cooling facilities became available, but now it is the most important commodity in the Banni landscape that soon might be sold under the tag of being an organic dairy product.


The period focused on the development of the dairy industry in the Banni landscape was also the time when the Forest Department’s interest in the ‘protection’ of the grasslands came alive. A working plan was produced in 2009 that aimed at compartmentalization of the landscape into zones based on specific uses: viz. grassland conservation working circle, Prosopis control and harvest working circle, and the biggest protection-cum-improvement circle.12 Under this plan, the movement of people and their livestock was to be restricted by fenced enclosures, but it has still not been implemented as it was strongly opposed by the local communities and NGOs.

The opposition further led to an extensive process of claiming of rights by the people of Banni under the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The claiming of common rights over Banni under the FRA, however, was in contrast with the recent trend of privatization in Banni, which the NGOs tried to tackle to some extent. As a respondent describes, ‘I don’t think they (NGOs) will allow wada (enclosure). Wada shouldn’t have been there actually. They are created only because there are land disputes and politics; otherwise all of Banni would have been open. But, if we don’t maintain the wadas now, the land will be encroached upon by other people or the state.’ It is ironical that some of the old enclosures that were created by the state are now being appropriated by the local communities for land grabs and conversion to agriculture.


This brief history of development interventions in Banni shows that the majority of interventions focused on two things. The first is the building of fences and compartmentalization for the protection and restoration of the landscape. That compartmentalization enables greater control over an area is reflected in James Scott’s characterization of the process of landscape change when controlled by authorities for administrative legibility and simplification.13 This mode of management is in complete contrast to the way arid rangelands are used by pastoral communities and hence the on-the-ground realities. Pastoral mobility is a response to the fluctuation of resources and enables livestock to survive in harsh conditions and distribute grazing pressure.

The second intervention is the promotion of the market, be it for selling milk, charcoal or handicraft. The dairy industry changed the way people valued their livestock and their products. As a respondent from Banni says, ‘Things have changed a lot. Now everybody sells the last drop of milk into the market. But earlier, before the dairy industry expanded, selling milk was like selling your own son. We used to make ghee (clarified butter) and mawa (condensed milk), but milk was not sold. If somebody in the village didn’t have enough milk, others used to give without any cost. Now it doesn’t happen…we don’t even know if the guest will get enough tea!’ Similarly, it wouldn’t be a surprise if more of traditional embroidery is seen on handicraft made for the tourists than on the clothes of the Maldharis.


As a result of these interventions, the people-grasslands relationship in Banni has been transformed. First the Prosopis juliflora forests, that were introduced to fight the encroaching desert, brought into the landscape a protected tree. Locals named this new tree ganda baval (the crazy tree) as its spread became unstoppable. This tree was then converted into a commodity that was linked with industries all over Gujarat, Rajasthan and beyond and has now become an important part of the economy of Banni. Most recently, under the eyes of conservationists, NGOs and the Forest Department it has now become an alien invasive to be uprooted. Second, the huge salt waste, the Rann, that local people were once scared of has become a treasure for the bromine and salt industries and further, has come to be seen as a place of striking beauty for outsiders who visit the region as tourists. Banni has now become the land to invest in and a marker of Kachchh identity itself!

Although the Banni is a landscape that will be revered by many for its success in keeping pastoralism alive and strong, the interventions have resulted in a reshaping of the landscape to such an extent that the current Banni is very different from what it was a hundred years ago. The NGOs have risen to become the most important actors in this landscape, and their vision of the Banni holds an interesting mixture of modernity and tradition. An example of this is the remoulding of the Maldhari identity.

A statement often used by scientists, NGOs, and the Forest Department defines the ‘residents of Banni’ as Maldharis who are totally dependent on the livestock based economy, with all their activities related to livestock production. Some qualities have become strongly associated with Maldharis and are promoted through various ways: for example, a Maldhari in Banni is nomadic, a Maldhari doesn’t eat the meat of the animal breeds they raise, and that a Maldhari is the best manager of the grasslands. Yet, most of the interventions are focused on market intensification, which has resulted in Maldharis reducing their migration and depending less on natural resources such as wild fodder varieties.


The complex reality is that now with more money in the landscape, the fodder can be bought. Also, not everyone in Banni is a Maldhari, and even within the Maldharis there are more than twenty different ethnic groups such as the Jatt, Mutwa, Halepotra, Balochi, and the Juneja, to name a few. Although the majority of the people are dependent on livestock production, they are also involved with activities such as making charcoal from the invasive bushes, leather work, running resorts for tourists, working in chemical industries and conducting rainfed agriculture.

Once known as ‘the people of Sindh’ and expert livestock breeders, they had come to be seen as devoid of development, then as handicraft makers and dairymen, and now are viewed as the ‘traditional’ people who have always been the custodians of biodiversity. The reshaping of the Maldhari identity, and the changing perceptions of the landscape, has made invisible the complex realities that are critical for the management of Banni. There is immense diversity in Banni in terms of ecology, culture and livelihood strategies. The landscape is dynamic and the resources are unevenly distributed. The homogenization of the landscape’s identity has resulted in the exclusion of certain groups and issues. Under the development interventions, there is an increased commodification and dependency on external inputs such as water and fodder. The conflicts between different actors regarding the management of this landscape have increased along with the privatization and fragmentation of the landscape.

Therefore, even if the main motto of the rights movement in Banni, ‘Banniko Banni Rehva Do’ (Let it be Banni),14 adheres to the idea of the landscape as a commons on which each person has equal rights, in reality it is very challenging to maintain it in that way. The transformations that have happened in the way this landscape is managed means that many people are seeking private ownership over the land and a sedentary lifestyle with permanent housing. The access to dairies has become such an important factor that even the most nomadic pastoral communities in Banni ask for construction of roads nearer to their houses to connect them to central Banni.

According to the NGOs and local organizations, Banni was a pastoral landscape and should remain so, including following the way it has been traditionally managed. This argument is very similar to the new pastoral development paradigm.15 However, as Turner points out, this overt emphasis on common property regimes and abstract understanding of mobility is no longer in sync with the current complex reality in which ‘outsiders’ such as the state and NGOs are now important players.



1. A. Bebbington, ‘NGOs and Uneven Development: Geographies of Development Intervention’, Progress in Human Geography 28(6), 2004, pp. 725-745.

2. J. Swift, ‘Desertification: Narratives, Winners and Losers. The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment’, in Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns (eds.), African Issues. James Currey, Oxford, 1996, pp. 73-90; T.J. Bassett and K.B. Zueli, ‘Environmental Discourses and the Ivorian Savanna’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90(1), 2000, pp. 67-95; E. Fratkin and R. Mearns, ‘Sustainability and Pastoral Livelihoods: Lessons from East African Maasai and Mongolia’, Human Organization 62(2), 2003.

3. M.D. Turner, ‘The New Pastoral Development Paradigm: Engaging the Realities of Property Institutions and Livestock Mobility in Dryland Africa’, Society and Natural Resources 24(5), 2011, pp. 469-484.

4. R.L. Meena and S.C. Srivastav, Working Plan of Banni Protected Forests. Gujarat State (Volume I). Forest Department, Vadodara, 2009; P. Joshi, V. Kumar, M. Koladiya, Y.S. Patel and T. Karthik, ‘Local Perceptions of Grassland Change and Priorities for Conservation of Natural Resources of Banni, Gujarat, India’, Frontiers of Biology in China 4(4), 2009, pp. 549-556; C. Bharwada and V. Mahajan, Let it be Banni: Understanding and Sustaining Pastoral Livelihoods of Banni. Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, 2012.

5. GUIDE, Ecorestoration of Banni Grassland. First Annual Technical Report. Gujarat Ecology Commission, 1998; Meena and Srivastav, 2009, ibid.

6. J.E. Ellis and D.M. Swift, ‘Stability of African Pastoral Systems: Alternate Paradigms and Implications for Development’, Journal of Range Management 41(6), 1988, pp. 450-458; S. McLeod, ‘Is the Concept of Carrying Capacity Useful in Variable Environments?’ Oikos 79, 1997, pp. 529-542.

7. P. Joshi et. al., 2009, op. cit., fn. 4.

8. Established by the Forest and Environment Department, Government of Gujarat.

9. GUIDE, 1998, op. cit., fn. 5.

10. In the Wasteland Atlas of India, produced by the Department of Land Resources, Banni still remains a wasteland.

11. R.L. Meena and S.C. Srivastav, 2009, op. cit., fn. 4.

12. Ibid.

13. J. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.

14. C. Bharwada and V. Mahajan, 2012, op. cit.. fn. 4.

15. M.D. Turner, 2011, op. cit., fn. 3.