MARAG - an ILC member and one of the members of India's National Engagement Strategy - has supported the creation of a Pastoral Parliament, every year bringing together communities from five states across the country. Dinesh, Marag's Programme Director and ILC council member, tells us about this initiative.
“Pastoralism is migration and mobility with the livestock. Commons lay at the heart of our identity because land is not for any individual, but for all people.”
-Dinesh Rabari, pastoralist from Western India, describes his mission.
Born in Gujarat, a region with one of the highest pastoralist populations in the country, Dinesh belongs to a marginalised pastoral community, the Maldharis. In 2001 a devastating earthquake forced him and his family to relocate to the city of Ahmedabad, where he completed his undergraduate studies. Throughout this time, pastoralism has remained part of his being, “still we have some buffalo and cows with us”, says Dinesh. That is why he decided to work for his people and join MARAG, an organisation that supports Maldharis rights.
About 34 million people in India belong to pastoralist communities, forming an integral part of the country`s economy and culture. Their contributions span from dairy production to the provision of meat, wool and leather. Traditionally herding goats, camels or buffaloes, pastoralists follow pasture and water over hundreds of kilometers, year after year, taking advantage of seasonal variability.
These nomadic communities play a key role in the rehabilitation and sustainable management of fragile ecosystems, but have long been marginalised. “Before 1980, it was great for us, we could use any land for grazing, but now we can’t”, explains Dinesh.
The adoption of The Forest Conservation Act in 1980 increased the number of protected areas across India, and made it mandatory for states to seek federal approval before making use of any forestland for non-forestry purposes. This act, while seemingly well-intentioned, failed to recognise the traditional rights of pastoralists communities to forest land.
At present, common goods in India are regulated under state level provisions, but there is no dedicated Law, neither at state nor at national level. That is why the National Engagement Strategy, Land Forum of India (LFI), includes as a key objective the development of a Law on commons. LFI aims to advance this objective through increased dialogue with policy and opinion makers and engaging key stakeholders.
According to a recent study conducted by MARAG, land available for grazing has been reduced considerably. "Just 33% of the land is potentially available for herding", says Dinesh.
While a 2014 publication by the scientific journal, Global Planetary Change, “cultivated land area (in India) increased by 50 million hectares, or 56%, in the period from 1880 to 2010”.
In response to the many challenges of Maldharis and in order to counteract the systematic marginalisation of pastoralists, MARAG supported the establishment of a Pastoralist Parliament in 2008, This, coupled with the organisation of the first Global Gathering of the Women Pastoralists (GGWP) in 2010, has been a significant milestone for the empowerment of pastoralists, especially women, who, in many pastoralist communities, are traditionally relegated to a subordinate role and their decision-making power is limited.
A parliament by and for the pastoralists
There is no podium in the pastoralist parliament. Everybody - women, young people, religious representatives and political leaders - speak in a round seating arrangement, with equal status irrespective of their religious, political, economic and educational identities. In this annual gathering there is “no chair, no boss, and the leader will speak last, after we read the charter of demands prepared by the entire community”, says Dinesh.
At each gathering, the parliament sets a political agenda and an action plan that reflects pastoralist issues from all over India. Communities also come to celebrate their lifestyle, to exchange learnings, challenges and solutions. This forum has helped to strengthen pastoralists’ collective voice and give them visibility at different levels of government, from local to state. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the forum continues to strengthen their communities and increase pastoralists` awareness as political actors.
MARAG significantly contributes to advancing this dialogue, and through the pastoralist parliament is helping to democratise the policy development process. Inputs for policy development are continuously gathered through the Pastoralist Parliament and help Land Forum India's advocacy work towards the development of a Law on Commons.
In 2021, after a period of pause due to the Covid-19 restrictions, the pastoralist parliament is trying to organise the next gathering. “We are trying to gather in smaller numbers – not 3,000 or 5,000 people like earlier, but we hope to bring together just 100-200 participants”, Dinesh says. With a yearly rotating host, Dinesh will now be stepping into the position.
This year the parliament faces a hostile environment in which Indian farmers and producers complete 9 months of protests against new agriculture laws that, according to them, threaten their livelihoods.
“There is also no development space for pastoralism in the government”, Dinesh confesses. "So, in this challenging context, the Pastoralist Parliament continues to play a crucial role in ensuring that the voices of these communities are heard."