Common lands and public lands have played a significant and key role in the life and economy of rural communities, particularly the poor and the women amongst the poor, as sources of food, fuel wood, energy, fodder and grazing for livestock, medicinal plants, irrigation and drinking water. Unlike rich farmers who have considerable private property, poor farmers are particularly dependent on these common property resources (CPRs). Their access to CPRs, to some extent, ameliorates the inequalities of their small holdings. Since women are primarily responsible for collecting fuel, fodder, and water, and play critical roles in the livelihood production activities of their households, their dependence on CPRs exceeds that of men. Between the 1950s and 1980s, the area under CPRs declined drastically by 26-63 per cent. Large-scale privatisation of CPRs took place during this 30-year period (Jodha, 1986) - the key reason for the decline in common lands.

Laws enacted in the 1950s to redistribute land to the landless invariably got operationalised as distributing common lands. Afraid to touch the big landlords, the State took the soft option of distributing common grazing lands as private land pattas/landholdings to the landless. In this manner, millions of hectares of lands classified as common lands, which were largely sub-marginal lands unsuitable for cultivation, were distributed and became privatised. However, in the process of privatisation of common lands, 49-86 per cent of the privatised CPR ended up in the hands of the non-poor.

The decline of the commons has burdened the poor in dramatic ways. While farmers with larger land holdings are able to meet their grazing, fuel wood and water needs from their own private resources, the poor do not have this option, and this becomes a question of survival. Their animals can no longer graze on common lands, their own fields are too small to be able to allocate grazing areas, and the loss of common watering sources becomes a critical factor for both them and their livestock. Besides this, there is the issue of shifting status of a resource between being “private” at certain points in time and common at others. Typically, in dry and semi-arid regions of India, private agriculture holdings that are private property at the time of cultivation, shift to becoming common grazing lands available to all livestock in the village, post-harvest. They shift back to becoming private property at the onset of the next sowing season.

Contradictions within approaches

A fundamental flaw in the development and management of wastelands, whether in forest or non-forest areas, has been the lack of recognition of the criticality of these “wastelands” for the livestock of millions of farmers. These livestock are indispensable to the livelihoods of the landless, small and marginal farmers. Typically, these animals’ fodder requirements are met through a combination of crop-residues, and grazing on common lands, private grazing lands, forests, near tanks, fallow agricultural lands and on harvested agricultural lands. Green fodder composed of naturally available grasses, herbs and creepers, are also cut and fed to the animals.

However, in planning and implementing programmes aimed at developing these degraded lands, whether under joint forest management or watershed development, livestock are perceived as a hindrance to development, and the primary cause of wastelands. Plans are conceived and implemented with total disregard to the presence of these animals. Official policies, whether forest agriculture or livestock, perceive local breeds to be unproductive and an environmental burden. Policies and plans thus attempt to reduce these local animals and advocate their replacement with crossbred varieties for higher productivity and environmental rejuvenation. Despite massive state and financial backing, this “replacement” technology has failed over the past 40 years. The focus, unfortunately, is on breed-replacement and there are minimal comprehensive attempts to address the real issue of fodder and water crisis.

Livestock population in India increased from 280 million in 1947 to an estimated 467 million in 1997; permanent pasture and grazing land has decreased from 70 million hectares in 1947 to 38 million hectares. Simultaneously, the loss of forests has resulted in the loss of innumerable valuable species of both fodder and medicinal plants that form an important part of the diet of animals. On the other hand there has been a dramatic shift in cropping patterns from diverse food crops (millets, pulses, oilseeds, legumes), which were rich in crop-residue fodder value, to cash crops (cotton, tobacco) and hybrid crops with decreased or no fodder value. It has also resulted in tremendous pressure on resources, overgrazing of more palatable grass species such as Sehima and Dicanthium, and proliferation of hardier inedible species like Heteropogon contortus.

Afforestation and biomass-enhancing interventions on degraded lands, by and large, have focussed on growing plantation crops such as Eucalyptus, glyricidia, Australian acacia and teak which seldom meet the diverse requirements of farming communities. Besides, the idea behind growing these trees is that animals do not graze them, so the trees do not need much protection. Occasionally, when a few fruit and medicinal trees like tamarind, neem and awla have been grown, they have been insufficient to meet the multiple requirements of food, fodder, fuel wood, building materials and medicines.

In programmes to regenerate lands, the policy of ‘zero-grazing’ or a complete ban on grazing coupled with a complete ban on goats has regrettably become the pre-dominant formula of “success”. All over the country today there is growing resistance by poor livestock rearers to “regeneration programmes” that are forcing them off the land and forcing them out of their livelihood. In addition, there are negative environmental consequences of “zero-grazing” - the absence of livestock manure to re-inoculate the bacteria in the soil at the onset of the rains, excessive growth of grass that often catches fire in summer, etc.

An alternate approach

For some years now, the non-governmental organization Anthra has been working closely with farmers in different parts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra on the above concerns. Anthra is an organisation started by women veterinarians, working predominantly in the field of livestock development. Keeping these factors in mind it have been working with different communities, farmers organisations and NGOs to evolve a more holistic approach that places people’s livelihoods, bio-diversity and equity at the centre of any natural resource management and regeneration effort.

Anthra’s work includes using a range of participatory approaches to work with farmers to collectively analyse and understand their resources and problems before planning any intervention. Anthra has encouraged communities to document their indigenous knowledge related to livestock production, feeding, fodder, watering resources, agriculture, health-care practices, grazing systems, etc. The result is a wealth of information that is critically integrated into subsequent “development strategies”. Documenting traditional species, for example, resulted in area-specific inventories of important local species of fodders, medicinal and fuel varieties that have disappeared, but can be re-introduced through interventions. Many communities have been encouraged to propagate these varieties through community nurseries.

Another key area of work has been the mobilisation and organisation of traditionally unorganised marginalised groups such as goat- and sheep-rearers to enable them to voice their concerns and negotiate usufruct rights, such as grazing and lopping rights, within mainstream watershed and joint forest programmes. Their concerns have to be built into the evolvement of any development plan. Documenting traditional practices has evolved into participatory farmer experiments or farmer-led research, on evaluating “best fodders”, grazing management systems and lopping systems, which has helped the organisation and concerned stakeholders to integrate sustainable practices. Best practices on lopping and grazing management are, for instance, being widely disseminated to other rearers. This is necessary to sensitise other organisations, scientists and government functionaries as well.

At the micro-level, Anthra’s work has been to respond and lobby on critical policy issues. Since the past year it has been actively campaigning against repressive and unfavourable grazing policies which the State wanted to impose in Andhra Pradesh. It was successful as part of a wider coalition of farmers’ organisations and other non-government organisations to halt the introduction of the proposals.