“Our dhors (cattle) will die, we will die, Sahib,” says 62-year-old Jat Mustaq Sadarkhan, who is a Maldhari (semi-nomadic cattle herder).
“Already 300 buffaloes have died due to shortage of fodder since we have come here… How many more?”
In the autumn of 2018 — as arid Kutch region received 34% deficit rainfall and was declared drought-affected — Jat Mustaq migrated from Kutch to Sanand, 300 km away, along with over 150 community members and 1,000 Banni buffaloes.
“One buffalo costs nearly Rs 1 lakh… you can imagine the pain inflicted upon us…” he adds.
Maldharis have thatched their temporary shelters in Virochannagar village of Sanand tehsil of Ahmedabad district. Bamboos and dry wood are closely hinged in an area of 5ft x 7ft, stitched bran jute sacks are spread across the structure to counteract the scorching heat and to ensure some privacy. Each shelter accommodates a maximum of three people. Huts are dispersed across the grasslands of local villagers.
Pankajbhai Makwana is hosting Maldharis on a broad stretch of his agricultural land. “These poor nomads are going through a very difficult time,” says Makwana. “Everything they have is at stake. Whatever we Virochannagar residents could do, we did. My family has 26 bighas of land, 20 bighas of which we have made available for Maldharis. We are just producing in 6 bighas, which is nothing more than subsistence for our joint family.”
“The canal has dried up. There is no other source of water for the cattle and bhaibandhu (brothers) except for my borewell… I have been receiving huge borewell bills for the past five months which I am paying from my own pocket,” says Makwana, who already has debt of Rs 50,000.
While Mohammed Soda reminisces about the verdant grassland of Kutch, his eyes brim with tears while recalling the dry ponds and the faces of dead cattle. “The office of the Mamlatdar told us that our problems would be resolved, but no help has arrived from the government yet. Are they waiting for us to die?”
He says the leaders of the community went to meet some hakim (officer) in Gandhinagar.
Mohammed Soda says, “When the Chief Minister and the MLA visited Kutch, they assured us that we will get Rs 70 per buffalo. But not even a paisa was released.”
While this correspondent talks to Jat Balochi Maldharis, some Rabari Maldharis join us.
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Jats and Rabaris are the cattle-breeding semi-nomadic communities of Kutch region of Gujarat. Jats who descended from ancient Muslim pastoral tribes of Balochistan and Sindh to the Banni region of Kutch are referred as Balochi Jats. With the partition of Pakistan, Balochi Jats lost contact with their relatives in Balochistan and Sindh. Whereas Rabaris are the Hindu Ahir tribe people who call themselves the descendants of lord Krishna.
Bharatbhai Bijalbhai Rabari, 30, shows me a letter of acknowledgment provided by the local Panchayat. It reads, “It has come to the knowledge of gram panchayat that Bharat Rabari, a resident of Karmata village of Abdasa tehsil of Kutch, has come to Virochannagar village of Sanand tehsil of Ahmedabad with his buffaloes. This is hereby confirmed by Panchs.”
Bharatbhai approached the Mamlatdar and other district level officers thinking that this letter would help. But each time his request for supply of fodder was refused.
Looking at the cattle base, he says, “I have no money left to even go back to my village. I spent my all money. I also took a loan of Rs 50,000 from a relative to transport my 45 buffaloes from Kutch to this place.”
“How will I pay back?”
A young Maldhari walks towards us. His name is Soma Ladha Rabari, aged 21. Asked if he went to cast his first Lok Sabha vote, he answers, “No, I could not.”
“We don’t even have sufficient food to eat, how can we go to Kutch just to vote? What does the government do for us?”
Soma studied till Class 7, but could not study further as there was no high school in his village.
“This is our ancestral business and rozi-roti. I am the only son of my parents. They are old and can’t keep the pace with the livestock. There was no one to take care of them. That is why, everything converges on me. Kamayenge nahi to khayenge kya (If we don’t earn, what will we eat)?”
Soma had 80 buffaloes in Kutch — 15 died due to drought in Kutch, 15 more died in Sanand because of insufficient fodder. He is unsure if more than two dozen buffaloes would survive this summer. Soma says, “We hired four trucks to transport cattle from Kutch. It did cost us Rs 1,00,000. Tracing the route back will cost the same… from where will we get that kind of money? No one will buy these weak dhors now.”
Soma plans to go back as monsoon hits Kutch.
This correspondent also met Soma’s mother Vacchiben near her shelter. Vacchiben is 75 years old.
“I got married when I was 20. I never saw this kind of drought in my whole life. This has shattered us,” she says.
“Will it not be better to die than to face this hot weather… why is there no relief for the poor even in old age?”
Ashvinkumar Jimabhai Rabari, 28, joins us. Sharing his ordeal, he says, “My mother Sonbai has a respiratory problem. Since we came here, her situation has worsened. We do not have money for medication.”
“Holi passed without colours. Can you imagine, we slept without food here? But we can still manage, the buffaloes will not. They are animals, they need food,” adds Ashvinkumar.
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I ask the Maldharis if government is sending potable water tankers.
“Potable?” laughs Ramalakhmir. “They failed to supply any kind of water. We are nomads. Who cares if we drink machine-wala pani or nallah-wala pani (dirty water)? We are facing huge scarcity of water. From where can we arrange 50 litres of water for each buffalo?”
“There is no any movable toilet near the nomadic base. All Maldharis are forced to defecate in public.”
Surprisingly, Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation in January this year received the top-notch ODF++ status under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
When asked about open defecation, 50-year-old Shyamben Rabari says, “It is nothing new to us. We also used to defecate in the open in Kutch. Back in Kutch we have kutcha houses only. Leave everything aside, we even have sold our pushtaini (patrimonial) jewelries.”
“Please help us save our cattle, we just cannot see our cattle dying like this. The government which can not give us ghaas (grass) will make toilet for us?”
None of the Maldharis has ever heard about the Swachh Bharat Mission.
While we talk, a mini-truck loaded with fodder arrives.
Hiteshbhai Barad, a local resident who is part of this initiative by the Virochannagar villagers, says they are doing the needful for the herders. “We can’t let our own brothers struggle like this… We just got some fodder which will now last for a few days.”
Utkarsh Dave, who is accompanying Hiteshbhai, is a lawyer in the Gujarat High Court.
“While the political parties in Gujarat are spending millions on hoardings and building statues, the drought-affected Maldharis of Kutch are squealing for their most basic fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution of India. The state has failed to comply with the doctrine of ‘parens patriae’ (parent of the nation),” says Dave.
“This mortifying attitude of the administration shows how the state has chosen to neglect its domicile to die an early death.”
Anand Yagnik, a human rights lawyer who recently represented potato farmers in the PepsiCo case, says, “The migration of Maldharis has always been in our civilization. These Maldharis used to cover the route originating from Balochistan to Banni to Surajbari to Dangendra to Sanand to Sindh in a cyclical manner. Sanand was known for its grasslands. Narendra Modi even promised an agro-university in Sanand to study various varieties of grass. Then suddenly the government’s stand shifted and TATA was allotted the land for Nano car’s industrial project.”
Advocate Yagnik adds, “The government has released funds for cattle in other zones, like in Surendranagar. The reason why it is not being channelised in Sanand is quite clear… the government wants to wipe out these nomads from the grasslands. After all, they don’t have Tata’s Nano bhains (buffalo).”
“Hindustan ki tasheer do bhains tai karengi — ek Banni ki bhains aur dusri Nano ki. (The fate of India will be determined by two buffaloes — one is the Banni buffalo, the other is Nano’s.)”
Author is an independent journalist and serves as an editor at Academia.edu. He writes on social inequality and rights in India.