By Rajiv Shah
The Gujarat state assembly may have cleared a law allowing an extremely harsh punishment entailing a maximum of life and a minimum of 10 years imprisonment for cow slaughter. However, in less than month after the Gujarat Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, 2017 was passed in the absence of the Opposition Congress, with the visitors’ gallery packed with saffron-clad Hindu priests, Gujarat’s Dalit organizations wonder if the law would apply to those who force cows to consume plastics along with leftover food offered to them.
Passed eight months after self-styled cow vigilantes brutally beat up four Dalit boys on suspicion of cow slaughter in Una, a small town in Saurashtra, the new law goes so far as to make offences under the amended Act non-bailable. The Bill was cleared amidst Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani declaring, “I am not against any food”, but in the same breathe adding, he wanted to make Gujarat “shakahari (vegetarian).”
One of those who has decided to challenge the law by holding a huge meeting in Surendranagar on May 10 is Natubhai Parmar, a well-known Dalit rights activist, who shot into prominence for his unusual protest of unloading truckload of cow carcasses in front the district collector’s office, telling the state government to decide what to do with the dead cattle, as his community had decided not to skin cows following the attack on the four Dalit boys.
According to Parmar, the theme of the mega meet planned in Surendranagar is — `Jiv matra karuna ne patra’ (living creatures need compassion). A mainly Dalit meet, one of its highlights would be a life-sized prototype of a cow filled with 182 kilograms of plastics, equal to the number of MLAs in Gujarat state assembly, reminding the Gujarat government and MLAs that the most important reason for the death of the cows is not by slaughter but because of the consumption of plastics.“Cows need to be given proper food. More cows die eating plastic than at slaughter houses in Gujarat. We are demanding that, like every Indian citizen, aadhaar cards be issued to cows and also that fodder depots on the lines of ration shops be opened at every village”, said Parmar.
Elaborated Dalit rights organization Navsarjan Trust’s founder, Martin Macwan, who is the main brain behind the proposed Surendranagar meet, “We want that gauchar land be given back to villages and that it be used exclusively for cows.” He added, the Surendranagar meet would demand “postmortem on each dead cow to ascertain the exact cause of the death of cows.”
Even as the Dalits are planning their unusual meet in Surendranagar, the Gujarat government has admitted, huge gauchar lands have actually been handed over to industry. Union minister under the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, Vallabh Kathiria, who currently chairs the state government’s main organization meant to promote cow protection, Gujarat Gauseva and Gauchar Vikas Board, has himself admitted that about 20% of gauchar land has been “given away for industrial purposes.”
However, facts suggest that this would be an understatement. Basing on official sources, a 2014 report said that Gujarat would be suffering from a shortage of a whopping 65 per cent of the common village land, meant for grazing of cattle. On the basis of the official data obtained from the Gujarat government, the Maldhari Rural Action Group (MARAG), an Ahmedabad-based non-profit organisation, surveyed 90 villages in three districts – Kutch, Patan and Surendranagar.
It found that a juxtaposition of “the spot analysis in each of the villages and the government data on gauchar” suggested there was not much difference between the two, adding, “In the 30 villages of Nakhatra taluka of Kutch district, there should have been 24,880.8 acres of land for 65,317 cattle, if the official norm of 40 acre for 100 cattleheads is to be maintained. However, the survey found that only 2,736.1 acres of land existed as gauchar, suggesting a shortfall of 74.08 per cent.”
The situation was found to be not very different for 30 villages taken up for survey in Shankheshwar taluka of Patan district, where, officially, there should have been 11,278 acres of gauchar land, though only 4,290.9 acres (or 37 per cent of the actual requirement) was available for 28,195 cattleheads. Similarly, in the 30 villages surveyed in the Patdi taluka of Surendrangar district, there should have been 10,180 acres of land, while only 5,083.23 acres (or 50 per cent) gauchar was available to feed 25,450 cattleheads.
An analysis of the survey said that in none of the villages did the team found the norm of 40 villages per acre has been maintained. “According to the complaints we received, most of the gauchar land has either been encroached upon by vested interests or has been illegally handed over for industrial or other commercial use”, the analysis said, adding, “We also found that that there has not been any land measurement of the area required for cattle in Gujarat villages. A spot survey needs to be carried out by the revenue department officials for this on a regular interval.”
A right to information (RTI) application revealed in 2013 that the Gujarat government acquired and handed over a whopping 81.95 crore square metres of land to top industrial houses, most of it dirt cheap, over the last one decade. It found that the price at which the land — which belonged to farmers, or was common village gochal land meant for cattle — varied between a mere Re 1 to Rs 900, depending on the area, but in every case much less than the prevailing market rate.
Two senior scholars, Shalini Bhutani and Kanchi Kohli, have noted, this has happened despite the fact that, following a Supreme Court order dated January 28, 2011, the Development Commission of Gujarat was forced to issue a circulated (dated March 4, 2011) titled “Removal of Encroachments on land vested including gauchar”, which stated, under Section 105 of Gujarat Panchayats Act, 1993, “the village panchayat has the powers to remove unauthorised encroachments, encroachments without permission and on gauchar land or any crop grown unauthorisedly on any other land”.
The scholars reveal, in 2012, the Gujarat government decided to come up with a gauchar land policy, under which it was proposed not to give any gauchar land for industrial or commercial purposes. However, a report in April 2014, suggesting that nothing happened to the policy, said, there were “11,950 registered encroachments on gauchar lands” across Gujarat, adding, the highest gauchar encroachment was registered in Gandhinagar district (1,776), followed by Patan (1,722), Amreli (1,212), Ahmedabad (1,193) and Mehsana (1,093) districts. It added, the state government has given away more than 1.16 lakh square metres of gauchar lands over the four years in five districts of the states, and no pastoral lands are left in 424 villages out of a total of 18,000.
Giving the example of how gauchal lands were disappearing, scholar Kanchi Kohli writes in another article that, 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)” in Kutch district.
This happened after “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.”
Kohli says, “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 yet another article by a senior Gujarat-based activist, Pankti Jog, “Gujarat: Land Rights of Marginalized Communities”, in a book “Land to the Tiller: Revisiting the Unfinished Land Reforms Agenda” (2016), published by Action Aid, reveals that, as a result of the disappearance of gauchar lands, the nomadic and de-notified tribes (NT-DNT) category has suffered the most. Constituting over eight per cent of the total population, or about 70 lakh, one of their main traditional occupations has been cattle breeding. As these communities do not possess any land, they settle on wastelands and/or pastureland in the village. According to Jog, things deteriorated following a government resolution (GR) of 2004 to allow allotment of pastureland for industrial purposes by charging 30 percent extra costs premium.
Jog says, “No official data is available on the use of common land (wasteland, grazing land) by pastoralist communities in Gujarat. In the absence of mapping of land use, especially for pastoral activities, the use of land for various purposes like migration, temporary settlements and use of common property resources (CPRs) for fuel and other purposes are overlooked. The overlooking of such basic necessary pastoral activities is then portrayed as violation and illegal activity by the state machinery and the people are penalized for these activities.”
The activist adds, “Privatization of CPRs is an issue of great concern. A huge amount of land is being allotted to industries under the fast track-single window clearance system. To avoid administrative hurdles, the fast track system bypasses the cross-checking mechanism that may have recognized user rights or livelihood dependency of the marginalized communities. The district administration admits huge political pressures for speeding up procedures during allotment of land to industries.”