A political storm is brewing in Gujarat led by a community of pastoralists, the Maldharis. Why is a rural community of cattle herders making news in one of India’s most urbanised states? The question flags a fascinating puzzle underlying Gujarat’s urbanisation. Maldhari — keepers (dhari) of livestock (mal) — have been increasingly squeezed out of their traditional occupations in the face of pastoral lands being depleted as a result of rapid urban expansion. The community has been at loggerheads with the state government over a new piece of legislation to control stray cattle on the streets in Gujarat’s cities. In April, the Gujarat assembly passed the Cattle Control (Keeping and Movement) in Urban Areas Bill, which requires cattle owners to obtain licenses for their animals and restricts their movement on urban roads. After stiff opposition, the Bill was withdrawn earlier this week.
The Maldharis, who own most of the cattle in urban Gujarat, had reacted sharply to the proposed law, calling the law a “Black Act” (kaalo kaaydo) and staging public agitations. They had demanded that the law be rolled back till viable alternatives for grazing cattle are found. The mobilisation of the community across Gujarat put the government on the back foot, at a time when assembly elections are around the corner.
What can we learn about Gujarat’s urbanisation by critically examining the proposed cattle control law and the Maldhari agitation against it?
For the urban middle class, stray cattle symbolise a longstanding nuisance that obstructs the smooth flow of traffic, undermines road safety and tarnishes their desired image of a global city. The image of cows waddling through cities in the backdrop of flyovers has cemented a dominant narrative of rustic Maldharis clashing with the modernist zeal of urbanising Gujarat. This simplistic narrative obscures an untold story of urbanisation in post-liberalisation Gujarat — one that is relevant for India at large.
Influenced by western notions of urbanisation, Indian policymakers have tended to assume two things. First, urbanisation involves a physical break between the city and the village. In this view, the urban and the rural are mutually exclusive domains consisting of opposite physical forms in which the former is associated with industrialisation and the latter is related to agrarian underdevelopment. Second, urbanisation entails the dilution of community identity and the weakening of caste and community networks. Seen from this perspective, cattle on city streets obstruct urbanisation and can only be addressed through stringent laws.
The story of Maldhari migration to urban spaces challenges these commonly-held assumptions about urbanisation at multiple levels and reveals the limitations of such tough legislation. First, the Maldhari presence in urban Gujarat is itself a product of urbanisation, rather than an impediment to it. Many cities such as Ahmedabad expanded by incorporating existing villages. Some of them had a substantial Maldhari population that owned cattle and survived by supplying milk to the expanding city. The urban expansion also meant that gauchar and other lands officially designated for cattle grazing were encroached upon to build urban infrastructure. Over time, many Maldharis migrated from rural north Gujarat to Ahmedabad and turned to new occupations that they could easily pursue with limited education and economic capital. Far from being helpless victims of urbanisation, they have honed their skills to pursue new occupations in the city, displaying a sharp grasp of the inner workings of the neoliberal state.
Second, Maldharis have shown that urbanisation in Gujarat — indeed in the non-western world — is not about the absence of the rural. It is, rather, best understood as a complex process of a socio-spatial continuum. The city Maldhari’s capacity to successfully navigate the urban economy, whether in cattle rearing or newer occupations in the informal economy, depends on maintaining strong rural networks. When state authorities decided to crack down on cattle owners, arresting and fining Maldharis whose cattle were found roaming on city streets, newspapers carried stories about the puzzling inability of the authorities to “capture” stray cattle. Maldharis used digital networks to warn fellow community members to clear their cattle off the roads when a collection van was on the way. So efficient are these community networks that thousands of cattle were shifted out of Ahmedabad overnight and sent off to rural safe-havens.
Third, the Maldhari political mobilisation has rallied around a strong community identity that cuts across sub-caste groups and rural-urban frontiers. Even Maldharis who no longer have connections to cattle rearing are pledging support to the agitation. This reveals that the urban is invariably built on what we assume to be rural social relations and the city is constituted by deep linkages between caste, community and urban space. The Maldhari identity in the city, then, is not an anachronism but the very basis to survive and thrive in the urban neoliberal economy.
The Maldharis are not arguing that stray cattle are desirable on city roads. What they are bargaining for is a viable and empathetic solution to their cattle predicament. Coercive legislation based on stereotypical assumptions about urban problems will not work. Much can be gained by appreciating our collective stake in coming up with humane solutions to the challenges of urbanisation.
The writer is an associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Ahmedabad University