By Toshit Godra*
In the past, every village or cluster of villages in India was given 5-50 hectares (ha) of grazing lands on the basis of the cattle population and availability of such land, popularly referred to as Gauchar (grazing) or Panchayat land for the common grazing of the livestock. Owing to increased human and livestock population, continuous uncontrolled grazing and cutting of woody vegetation, community grazing lands are deteriorating.
Besides, a number of the areas are gradually encroached and given to landless individuals by the government, leading to shrinkage of these common lands. All this results in increased grazing pressure on the adjacent forest lands, endangering the very existence of forests. At present for all practical purpose community grazing lands in India include
(1) Panchayat grazing land specifically demarcated for the purpose
(2) revenue and other waste land commonly utilised for grazing, and
(3) degraded forests land illegally or legally allowed for grazing.
In India as per 1999 the National Sample Survey Organisation estimates (NSSO), there is decline of common lands at a quinquennial rate of 1.9%. The NSSO survey also indicates that the dependence of rural households on grazing lands is
- For firewood collection: 45%
- For fodder collection: 13%
- For grazing land: 20%
- Water for livestock: 30%
- Water for irrigation: 23%.
NS Jodha’s study across seven states in the arid and semi-arid zones of India highlighted the relevance of the Commons to the rural economy at large and their importance as a ‘safety net’ for the poor in particular. He estimated around 84-100% dependence of the rural poor on the Commons for fuel, fodder and food items, in comparison to 10-19% dependence of better-off households (even for the better-off the figure increases in dry land regions like Rajasthan).
The study estimated that 14-23% of household incomes are derived from the Commons and they play an important role in reducing income inequalities, which would have been otherwise starker. The study also indicated that rearing livestock without the support from the Commons would mean a diversion of almost 48-55% of cropland from food and cash crops to fodder crops.
The alternative of reducing the number of animals in proportion to the availability of one’s own fodder resources, would entail a 68-76% loss of draught power and up to 43% loss of farmyard manure. Not only the use and need of grazing land is limited to rural households but “Gauchar” land also plays a significant role in maintain the ecological balance they are watersheds which contribute to good water quality and groundwater recharging . They do support vegetation that can be grazed by livestock to transform this renewable resource into food and fiber products.
Well managed grazing lands support desirable vegetative cover, which is highly resistant to erosive forces of water and wind; they are a renewable, natural, and sustainable form of agriculture. Grazing land plants can be harvested as sources for biomass energy or as feed stocks for industrial materials. Healthy grazing lands provide benefits other than feed for domestic animals. They are important habitats for a variety of large and small mammals, birds, and insects.
Water runoff on healthy grazing land is slow, so more water infiltrates into the soil, providing cleaner, more abundant water for wildlife, and human use. The plant cover on grazing land sequesters millions of tons of carbon, thus reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Destruction of Gauchar land creates a burden/ pressure on the small amount of land that is available for grazing. This pressure increases with time as land shrinks and cattle are increasing. The increased pressure on Gauchar land replaces the edible perennial grass cover with weeds and annuals. Loss of grass cover then leads to soil erosion and decreases the fertility of soil. Overgrazing also results into a dramatic decrease in plant diversity in this ecosystem; and additional carbon and nitrogen are discharged into the atmosphere.
These results can have serious effects on humans like displacing herders from their community; a decrease in vegetables, fruit, and meat that are often acquired from these fields; and a catalyzing effect on global warming.
During the last two decades, apart from the distribution of such wastelands to the poor and landless farmers, the government has come up with the Special Economic Zone Act, 2005. The Act envisaged the use of wastelands as the first preference for the establishment of Special Economic Zones (SEZs). But much of the land referred to as wasteland is actually Gauchar land.
After an important observation made by the Supreme Court in the case of Jagpal Singh & Others v. State of Punjab and Others that “there is not an inch of land left for the common use of the people of the village, though it may exist on paper”, the judgement gave clear instructions for removal of encroachments and protection of common land in villages. After this judgement, many states made changes in their existing laws regarding Gauchar land and some states developed new laws to remove the encroachments. In Gujarat, the development commissioner issued a circular titled, “removal of encroachments on land vested, including Gauchar” referring to Section 105 of the Gujarat Panchayat Act, 1993.
*Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad. These are excerpts from the report “Gochar Land”. Download full report HERE