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India: The Bharvad Predicament

We are like stepchildren, we are the government's stepsons.

We are cattle people, we own no land, no fields; without fields we pay no tax to the government, farmers pay, and so you know "you look after those who feed yon."

We are pressed from both sides. From one side the government has distributed the land (to the landless laborers) on the second side the government acquires waste land and fallow land from the village council and makes reforestation plots by planting the mad thorn (prosopis Juliflora-Acacia). So see, the agricultural land grows and the government forestry area grows, in the middle grazing lands have diminished…

Nesadas (large permanent and semi-permanent grazing areas) have diminished. Now we Bharvad have separated and live in different villages - 40 homes in this village, 20 homes in different villages. More where there is greater grazing and less where less grazing. But in every single village the population of farmers is greater - so the village council is the farmers. Farmers' cattle graze with our herds but should our cattle wander in their crops they bring a cane upon us. The police take us to the Dhrangadhra and in the court we are fined. Many times we purposely put our cattle into the crops, but what can we do, the grazing has all finished and we are Hindus, we can't stand scaly hungry cattle!

From conversation in the grazing land of Jesada village November 3, 1983.

The Bharvad herd cattle, goats and sheep in Gujarat, western India. Like Rabari, Charan, Ahir, Sindhi and other livestock rearing castes in the region, change and movement have been the most predictable "constants" in their lives. During the last 37 years political development and social events and policies have led to an erosion of traditional Bharvad life.

The Bharvad claim to have descended from the cowherd playmates of the god Krishna and travelled with him in a migration from Mathura and Vrindavan in the north to the region surrounding the temple site of Jhajhawada in northern Gujarat. At Jhajhawada they parted company with Krishna who travelled onward to the tip of the peninsula and there established the capital at Dwarka. To this day the Bharvad mourn the parting and since that time, Bharvadi women have always worn a black wrap-around skirt. In Gujarat, the Bharvad divided into two groups, the Motabhai and the Nanabhai. These groups do not intermarry and have separate religious leaders. Both branches further divide into clans which intermarry.

Since their arrival the Bharvad have spread throughout the peninsula. Though their numbers and occupation vary from region to region, they remain to this day principally livestock people. The predicament of different groups varies with their environment. This article is concerned with the Bharvads of Surendranager district, a "backward and desert-prone area." The villages in the north of the district lie on the edge of the Rann, a shallow sea exceeding 1,000 square miles during the months of the monsoon (July to November). During the remainder of the year the sea is a flat salt-bed without vegetation. Most Bharvads in Gujarat live on the edge of the Rann where grasslands have traditionally supported cattle rearing.

Prior to 1806 when the region came under indirect British control, population was sparse. Bharvad and their herds lived in semi-permanent stockades near water sources. Since the early nineteenth century population growth has occurred both naturally and as a result of immigration of traditional rulers of small princely states in the south. New settlers often set up villages adjacent to the nesadas. Farmers converted grassland to cultivated fields. To protect themselves, the Bharvad entered into agreements with the state to preserve pasture and in many cases, pay an annual rent. This continued until about 1947. At that time, India gained independence from the British and the various princely states were absorbed into the Republic of India. In 1960, the present state of Gujarat was created. The new government put new policies into effect. One was the distribution of land to landless laborers, and another was that a registered cultivator's son could acquire state land (e.g., forest lands, bad lands or grazing lands). With population growth, more and more state lands have been given over to cultivation, resulting in a loss of grazing lands. Grazing lands are considered "common lands:" all the cattle of a village have grazing rights.

Though the Bharvads were among the first settlers in the area, today there is not one village where they are in the majority. This minority status has further reduced their economic viability. A typical case is Jesada village. The Bharvad make up approximately an eighth of the village's population of 2,500 persons. In the last 30 years no Bharvad has been a member of the elected village council, an innovation of democracy. When the council, comprised of farmers and farm laborers, vote on how the village's uncultivated land should be developed, the needs of cattle herders are never represented.

It is useful to examine the role of law, the police, the state, and the pressures democracy exerts during vote-gathering times. The law is enacted by representatives of the majority, in the case of Gujarat by the farming community. Farmers pay an annual tax on their land. The Bharvad, who own no land, pay no tax. As they do not contribute to the coffers of the state, they are considered a burden. Laws sanctify private property; trespassing is punishable in the state courts. When cattle damage a crop, farmers complain to the police, never considering that there is no grazing land for cattle herders to use. Nor does the police constable who arrests the Bharvad consider their plight; his job is not to question the law but to uphold it. The judge in the courthouse enforces the letter of the law; it is not his job to evaluate whether the law is just or discriminating. Judges consider it the job of the legislature to change the law. And the story goes full circle. The elected politician needs the majority agrarian vote and so is reluctant to further grazers' interests. In effect, the government and its agencies belong to the cultivator; the Bharvad is forgotten.

The district's administrator has been trying to encourage a sedentary way of life for Bharvads who rear goats and sheep and who migrate annually to east and south Gujarat. This migration, which sometimes passes through five districts, is considered hazardous because of the inevitable damage to crops. The District Superintendent of Police claims that these migrants are the foremost cause of petty crime in the district. This attitude typecasts and undermines prospects for the Bharvads as a whole.

In the 1960s, the Gujarat government, recognizing how lacking the state was in tree cover, introduced reforestation projects. These enterprises subsequently received aid from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Indian government. The projects have been successful and are presently being vigorously pursued. Yet whatever good reforestation may have achieved for the region as a whole, it has been at the cost of the villages lying on the edge of the Rann, and especially their Bharvad populations. As the Rann is saline, this has made subsoil water brackish at its edge, as well as rendering the soil unsuitable for the reforestation of ordinary species. To combat the salinity the government introduced an exotic imported acacia prosopis juliflora, called the "mad thorn" (or Rakshasus or demon) by the people of the region. The mad thorn has been prolific. It propagates by sending out runners underground as well as by putting out bean pods. In addition, when it is cut it sprouts new and more shoots. It has invaded many areas right up to the edge of the villages, swallowing grazing lands and sometimes even fields. Ripe seeds have been known to lodge in the large intestine of animals and grow inside them, gradually killing them. In April and May, when much of the grazing is gone, the cattle eat the bean pods of the mad thorn. They are nutritious and do no damage if eaten green; only the ripe seed is a potential killer. Because of its prolific capacity to multiply, its ability to grow on poor lands with little water, and provide a renewable source of firewood for cooking, the government continues to promote the plant.

Even in this propagation scheme, Bharvad interests are ignored. When the village council allocates land to the state forestry department for development, grazing land is invariably affected. The council is pressured by the village to make jobs. When the forestry department takes over land it employs the closest labor available, i.e., the labor of the village. It is by no means uncommon to come upon Bharvad youth preparing the ground for a "mad thorn" planting exercise. When it is suggested that this activity propels the community toward days of greater hardship, they say "they are not fools," but if they did not take the job someone else would.

The mad thorn invasion has created a somewhat bewildering problem for the Bharvad. Cattle-grazing has been shared with the great Indian wild ass or onager antelope. While most antelopes in India were decimated between 1947 and 1984, the onager, not considered a table animal, has survived. As this is the only population of onager in the world, it has received belated national and international recognition as an endangered species and is now fully protected. There is now a movement in the villages where these last onager herds exist to seek compensation for crop damage from the government. Like the cattle, the onager has been forced, because of the diminished grazing area, to feed on the crops. To the Bharvad it seems unjust that a "donkey" receives full protection while sacred cows are penalized and in fact physically hurt by irate farmers. Furthermore, the onager is permitted to graze in newly appointed forest areas, areas in fact taken from earlier grazing regions.

Even development schemes designed to improve the lot of the Bharvad have gone altogether or at least partially wrong. Take, for instance, the sheep breeding farm in Morvi. In an attempt to improve the herds of sheep the government imported merino rams from Australia. The wool yield of the merino is five times that of the local variety. However, there are drawbacks. The merino cross required supplemental feed, it cannot travel the same distances for grazing, and it yields no milk. Furthermore, for Kathiawari sheep to acquire the attributes of the merino cross it must first be crossed with a marwari ram (from Rajasthan). Only the cross can be bred to the merino. Such breeding takes time and should a periodic drought visit the region the new herd may be unable to travel to distant pastures.

The Bharvad have traditionally exchanged stubble grazing rights in exchange for dung dropped during the night: a farmer permits a herd to graze on the stubble of his field after the crop is taken. In exchange the Bharvad sits his herd in the farmer's field and gets a payment in grain as well. The dung dropped in the night is useful fertilizer. But with the advance made in high yielding hybrid varieties, it has become a necessity for the farmer to use new chemical fertilizers and insecticides. The animals feeding on the treated stubble contract new diseases that traditional cures cannot contain and veterinarians and modern medicine are inaccessible and expensive.

A similar dilemma faces cattle owners. The desert fringe grasslands have favored the Wadhiyari breed of cattle. These are handsome white or white and black animals, a breed reared primarily for draft animals to use in the region's stone quarries as well as for plowing and pulling carts. Wadhiyari prosper in this arid region.

With the establishment of a dairy milk scheme in the area, milk vans visit villages twice daily to collect milk for distribution to urban areas. Whereas the immediate benefit of this program is obvious - surplus milk can be sold without converting it into clarified butter - the long-term effects are uncertain. The effects of the program on the health of young children are marked. Bharvad confess that children now consume less milk. There is also pressure from the dairy company and the government on the Bharvad to improve the quality of their herds by rearing buffalo and crossbreeds that, with a supplement of stall feed, produce a higher fat content. As in the case of sheep, the governmental proposition implies a rapid sedentarization of the Bharvad. The schemes are far more suited to the small affluent farmer who has surplus food but not space, time, or skills for a pastoral life. Governmental incentives of loans at reasonable rates accelerate the pace and pressure on the Bharvad to change and assimilate.

As if these strains on the Bharvadi way of life were not sufficient burdens, there is a scheme that will even more emphatically alter their lives in the 1990s. The largest river of western India, the Narbada, flows through south Gujarat into the Arabian Sea. The scheme calls for damming the river and bringing its water through the district to the arid areas of Kutch and finally into the Gulf of Kutch. Developers foresee two results: the establishment of a sea link to the heartland and the provision of irrigation to the arid region. Both these events will increase pressure to bring the remaining grazing areas under cultivation.

In addition to the political, developmental, and environmental facets of the Bharvad predicament, they have also been forced to give up many of their customs, especially marriage rites. Until the late 1950s the Bharvad performed the Samu Lagan or "mass marriage." Essentially all girls of a number of clans from various villages were married at a certain time to the boys of other villages. The number of brides in one famous marriage in 1933 was claimed to be 1,100. Far more routinely, from 30 to 80 girls of ages varying from six months to 16 years were married. Without sufficient inquiry the government condemned this as an infamous practice of child marriage and child abuse. The practice was banned and police were dispatched to break up any such gatherings. The ceremony, though called marriage, was essentially a promise between the parents to bring their offering together at a date when they were fully adult. The ceremony both distributes the high cost of ceremony as well as gathers together a people made diverse by occupation. To this day no Bharvadi bride goes to her husband's home after the marriage rite. Usually a year or more elapses before she comes to live with her husband. It is ironic that while the government has banned traditional "mass marriage" customs, many social reformers are presently advocating it among communities that have no such tradition (i.e., Kothariya ma Saheb in Rajkot organizes group marriages of 10 couples among the Garasiya Rajputs to lessen the cost of individual ceremonies).

In spite of the powerful forces arrayed against them, Bharvads, in their distinctive clothes and flashing gold and silver jewelry, stand out conspicuously in any town or village of the peninsula. They are famous dancers and in Dhrangadhra on the eve of Janamashtmi (birth night of Lord Krishna) are the only community permitted to dance in the temple courtyard.

Many of the government schemes and policies are well-intended and don't seek to be discriminating. That they do, in the long run, discriminate raises a crucial question for planners, developers, and other agents of "change." When do we know enough to intervene in societies and promote development planning? The larger question for a democracy to consider is whether in its march to satisfy the aspirations of its majority population it can simultaneously prevent the assimilation and virtual suffocation of a minority tradition.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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