On September 29, the Gujarat High Court issued significant directions related to the repatriation of grazing land to villages that had been acquired for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Three gram panchayats in Mundra taluka of Kutch district in Gujarat had approached the High Court in separate Public Interest Litigations (PILs) specifically highlighting the scarcity and importance of gauchar (grazing) land in their area. In their prayers before the court, representatives of Goyarsama, Navinal and Luni villages raised not just the paucity of grazing land available for them, but the fact that grazing land was critical for the sustenance of their cattle and that it was integrally linked with local livelihoods.
Anand Yagnik, an advocate, filed the writ petition on the issue of grazing land in Navinal village. During the course of the hearing this petition and other PILs underlined some critical developments that had emerged due to the directions of the District Collector of Kutch. While the specifics of this case and what transpired in court are important, it is essential to understand the context in which change in land use has been permitted. Large tracts of grazing land have been given to industrial giants and port developers like the Adani group which have huge multi-sector operations in the area related to a port, coal handling facilities, power generation, ship breaking and so on. What this meant for villagers was that access to grazing land had been deterred with the creation of gates, fences or construction of railway lines.
In recent times, access to grazing land around these villages has been barricaded. A few years ago, although a railway line went along large tracts of grazing land, access to a sacred hillock, Bharadi Mata, was still possible. There weren’t any guarded gates. Now, the heads of local self-government needed to assert their authority and their resident identity to get to the grazing commons and the sacred hill. The depletion of grazing land in Kutch and access to it were debated before a two-judge bench comprising Justice Akil Kureshi and Justice JB Pardiwala. It was pointed out, through various PILs, that the Kutch District Collector had passed orders on June 20, 2013 granting additional government land for grazing purposes to Luni and Navinal villages, subject to conditions. Two petitioners had submitted copies of these orders before the court, highlighting the specifics of the amount of land the Collector had allocated to their villages.
The High Court’s ‘oral order’ records that in both these orders it was the state’s Department of Land Resources which has been given the responsibility of carrying out measurements of the land at the government’s cost. After this, the mamlatdar of the area would demarcate the boundaries of the land and prepare a map based on which the land could be transferred to the gram panchayat. At the time the order was issued, no progress had been made on this demarcation and subsequent handing over. As a result, the panchayat was unable to utilise the land for grazing purposes.
The court received information that, for Goyarsama gram panchayat, the Department of Land Resources had undertaken a survey of what was termed as government wasteland on 9 September. The land would subsequently be measured and the proposal submitted to the Deputy Collector in Mundra who would take a final decision. With this information in hand, the High Court closed the PILs filed before them relating to similar issues around depletion of grazing land. The direction did not deal with the implications of handing over large tracts of grazing land for industrial purposes.
This might be either because the PILs did not raise these issues or the court preferred not to deal with them. In fact, the court’s order mentions that other grievances highlighted in the petitions were not examined by the bench. Therefore, neither were any observations made on these grievances nor were any orders passed.
The court finally ordered that the “Department of Land Resources shall carry out the task of measurement of the gauchar land already allotted to Navinal and Luni gram panchayats under two separate orders both dated June 20, 2013.” The September court order indicates that approximately 387 hectares were to be demarcated for Navinal and a little over 85 hectares for Luni.
The measurement process was to be completed by October 31, and the formalities of final handing over were to be completed by 31 December. With this process, the administration of these grazing lands was to be vest with the Luni and Navinal panchayats. However, discussions with the sarpanch of Navinal in early October indicate that it was not clear to them where exactly this land was going to be located.
As far as Goyarsama village is concerned, the court’s directions were more of a request to the Mundra Deputy Collector to expedite the process and take a decision on how much additional land was to be handed over to the village by November 30. The demarcation of boundaries and formal handing over was to be completed by January 31, 2015.
With the above directions, the PILs were disposed of by the court. While this is an important set of orders offering interim relief to the villages, what demands a deeper inquiry is the manner in which large tracts of grazing commons have been diverted for industrial purposes in an area like Mundra. Building evidence on impacts is another area of investigation waiting to happen. But what is visible even without studying impacts is that massive land use transformations have left villages fractured and livelihoods dismantled.
*Independent researcher and writer. This article also appeared in “Civil Society Magazine”,