Why has drought hit the Maldharis of Kutch so hard this year? -Ramya Ravi & Abi T Vanak
The Maldharis of Kutch are well adapted to a culture of scarcity. But older coping mechanisms have died away
Do you remember how the monsoon began last year, ben?” asked Haji bhai of Hodka village in the heart of the Banni grasslands in the Rann of Kutch. “The thunder, the way the ground swelled from hours of rain and tiny grasses appeared the very next day. Do you remember, we all took selfies in the rain? Now, look. There’s fodder scarcity, our maal has no water, our jheels and virdas (a rainwater harvesting system) are dry, there are no weddings, home construction has stopped, and more than half of us have migrated to waadi-vistar (farmland in other parts of Gujarat). Banni is almost empty.”
This was in February 2018. In December, the government declared drought in Kutch, which has still not passed. Banni, an arid grassland system, too saline for agriculture, but fertile for certain grasses, is home to a centuries-old pastoral community — the Maldharis. Much has changed in Banni: tourists throng the area during the Rann festival, there are better roads, mobile networks and accessible markets. But for the Maldharis, life has never been more precarious.
Prolonged dry spells, even drought, are part of the Banni’s meteorological life-cycle; then the rains come and the grassland, which supports nilgai, chinkara, foxes, spiny tailed lizard, the desert cat and the Maldhari’s livestock, resurges. The herders have long adapted to this perpetual state of flux — theirs is a culture built around scarcity. They have developed uniquely tolerant breeds of livestock such as the kankrej, the Banni buffalo, and the kharai camel.
For instance, in the nearly 100 years between 1901 and 1996, there were 57 droughts, instances of moderate to severe. Over the last decade, the monsoon brought above-average rain, but 2018 broke this trend. After the first heavy shower in June, there was a prolonged lull. Nearly a year later, there is still an acute shortage of fodder. Despite government subsidies, and some 356 cattle relief camps (the highest number in recent history) the Maldharis have not been able to recover from the economic shock. Some have begun selling their prized livestock. “I cannot tolerate the sight of my weakened cattle,” says Hussain Mutva of Mithadi village. “If someone else can take better care of them, then so be it, when it rains they will come back to me.”
Why has drought hit the community so hard this time, when historically their culture is one of managing scarcity? The answer is multifold.
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