At cattle fair, Banni maldharis shift focus to right on grasslands

An audience of several hundred pastoralists stood in the dusty grounds and atop trucks and lorries parked in a circle around a makeshift stage in the shrub land, watching and listening to the young actor telling his father that he is leaving his pastoral life to work in a factory. His mother begs him not to, saying he should remain a 'maldhari', while his father recounts how their grazing lands have become smaller, as have their earnings. "Banni me Banni yewa do (Let Banni be Banni)," he said in exasperation to no one in particular.

In the midst of this family drama, a group representing NGO workers enters and talks about the benefits of the Forest Rights Act and how the young man has a duty to conserve the grassland his community lives on. In the end, the young man changes his mind and stays.

Like the play, the sixth Banni Pashu Mela at Hodko village inside the 3000-sq km Banni grassland had an undertone that appears less combative than the previous one, which was themed "Banni me Banni yewa do".

"Presently, our focus is to form forest rights committees at villages. We have been interacting with the state and central governments, and both have said we will be given community rights over the grassland under the Forest Rights Act," said Ramjan Isha Halepotra, president of the Banni Breeder's Association, which has been at the forefront of demanding forest rights for the largely Muslim pastoral community.

Banni was once a vast grassland with more than 30 species of grasses covering an area of more than 2,500 sq kms, but has lately been ravaged by droughts and the invasive prosopis juliflora, known locally as gando baval or crazy weed.

The forest department's attempts to regenerate the lost grassland has been opposed by pastoralists who say they are fencing off large tracts and preventing their livestock from grazing there. The department, on the other hand, maintains it is a temporary measure that will eventually yield rich dividends by regenerating the grassland, which in the first place led to the region's livestock being uniquely sturdy and healthy.

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