Thousands of maldharis (pastoralists) from the Banni grasslands rallied in Bhuj on Thursday and submitted a memorandum to the district collector,demanding a conservation plan for the grasslands be scrapped and they be granted forest rights.
Kutch collector M Thennarasan said several people from the rally submitted a memorandum,adding that powers to grant forest rights lie with the Tribal Development Department (TDD).
Senior TDD officials,who wished anonymity because of a pending petition in the Gujarat High Court,said Banni lies outside the departments jurisdiction since tribals do not live there. They added the Banni panchayats have no legal rights over the land because the grasslands remain unsurveyed although it was declared a protected forest in 1955.
But the maldharis say Maharaja Radheshua of Kutch bequeathed the grasslands to their ancestors as a common grazing ground as reward for their support in a war against an invading army from Sindh in 1736. They still possess the title deed and receipts of panchari (grazing taxes) paid then.
Thursdays rally follows a joint resolution and notice issued by 15 panchayats in Banni last year,followed by a group of sarpanchs meeting Environment and Forests (E&F) Minister Mangubhai Patel last month.
While Banni grassland is estimated to be spread over 2.49 lakh hectares,the E&F departments plan covers 1.88 lakh hectares (roughly 10 times the size of Ahmedabad city). Of this,about 40,000 hectares have been overtaken by the invasive prosopis juliflora (gando baval,or crazy weed).
Grazing would be regulated or banned in 1.47 lakh hectares of Banni so indigenous grasses can be planted and new water sources developed. Maldharis contend this would devastate their livelihood since livestock would starve.