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The call of the wild


By Rita Anand
Published: Sunday 15 May 1994

-- The Maldhari community of Saurashtra, reputed to be among the oldest inhabitants of this region, were traditionally livestock breeders, pastoral nomads roaming the wilds in search of the elusive green. This profile of the community exposes the havoc that environmental myths can wreak upon the lives of ordinary people.

Pastoral nomadism is as old as the hills, predating the settled Harappan and Mohenjo Daro civilisations. The success of agriculture around 1500 AD led to an increase in population and, consequently, pressure on land. Herdsmen moved with their livestock away from the villages and, in time, became permanently detached from settled lands. Eminently suited to arid and semi-arid regions where rainfall is low and chances of rainfed agriculture slim, pastoral nomadism is still practised by 6 per cent of India's people.

The Maldharis have lived off the land since time immemorial. Divided into five communities -- the Ahirs, Rabaris, Bharwads, Charans and Mers -- they sell milk and woollen clothes for a living. But today village gauchars have shrunk beyond redemption and biodiversity has taken a beating. Intensive irrigation, commercial crops and deforestation have desertified the pastures. The Maldhari finds that his herd of goats, bulls and cows has very little land to graze on. It is obvious that overgrazing is the result of environmental degradation, and not its cause.

Yet in 1972, the Indian government evicted the Maldharis from Gir forest, holding them responsible for land degradation in the area.

Making way for the lion
This was done at the behest of the World Wide Fund and the World Conservation Union, in a bid to protect the Asiatic lion. An ambitious rehabilitation scheme was launched but most Maldharis did not get their due; others sold their land to farmers at throwaway prices. Today, some of these unfortunates work as labourers or eke out a meagre living selling milk products. Eighty-year-old Nathabapa Gadhavi, recalling his years at Gir says, "We are a proud people and have known a life of dignity. But today my sons work on other people's fields just to keep our family alive."

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