- Across India, grasslands are highly degraded and mismanaged ecosystems. Often considered wastelands, they face the constant threats of being turned into tree plantations by the Forest Department, devoured by urban expansion and industrial development, or converted for cultivation of agricultural crops.
- At the root of these practices are pre-independence colonial policies. Such policies have continued in post-independence times, severely impacting the habitat and consequently populations of birds like the lesser florican and the great Indian bustard.
- Phasephardi people face a fate similar to their habitat, the grasslands, and their co-inhabitants, the grassland birds. Together with Phasepardhi youth, non-profit organization Samvedana has initiated a process towards conservation of the lesser florican, re-generation of degraded grasslands, and strengthening livelihoods and dignity for the Phasepardhis.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Himmatrao Kanjra Pawar stood in the grassland and whistled different bird calls, starting with a female rain quail. Soon, we saw a male running towards Himmatrao.
“How many bird calls can you make?”
Himmatrao’s smile was answer enough to tell us that he could convincingly imitate numerous species. Then, looking toward the horizon and the setting sun, he said: “Kaustubh, take out your binoculars.”
We looked in the direction that he was pointing and could see nothing, eyes blinded by the sun.
“Yes… Yes, I think that is it!” said Kaustubh, looking through his binoculars.
A rush of excitement went through our veins. We were visiting parts of Washim and Akola districts in Maharashtra to witness the much-celebrated mating display of the male lesser florican — a threatened grassland bird inhabiting a mosaic ecosystem of grasslands, farms, and scrub forests. We had heard of the rare sighting of the florican here in 1998 by India’s Forest Department with the help of the Phasepardhis. We had also heard about the role that the nomadic hunting community and their traditional knowledge had played in protecting and monitoring the bird together with Kaustubh Pandharepande. We were here to understand this relationship between the florican, the grasslands, and the Phasepardhis.
Kaustubh Pandharipande, a Nagpur-based birdwatcher and conservationist, came to Washim in 1997, while working on a project to determine the status of the lesser florican in Vidarbha. Kaustubh and his team had found British records mentioning the abundance of the lesser florican and the great Indian bustard in this area and acknowledging Phasepardhis’ help in spotting these birds. This led Kaustubh to Himmatrao of Masa village in Akola. Through Himmatrao, Kaustubh was introduced to other members of the community. These interactions helped the young conservationist understand the deeply interlinked relationship between the social, political, and cultural issues of the Phasepardhis, the florican, and their habitat.
Together with Phasepardhi youth, Kaustubh started a non-profit organization — Samvedana — and initiated a process towards conservation of the lesser florican, re-generation of degraded grasslands, and strengthening livelihoods and dignity for the Phasepardhis.
Grasslands, an exploited ecosystem
Across India, grasslands are highly degraded and mismanaged ecosystems. Often considered to be wastelands, they face the constant threats of being turned into tree plantations by the Forest Department, devoured by urban expansion and industrial development, or converted for cultivation of agricultural crops. A similar fate has befallen dry land agriculture because of misjudged interventions like promoting chemically intensive farming practices and mono-cropping instead of the diverse and locally suited, traditionally grown dry land crops. Lack of meaningful support for farmers has led to distress land sales or shift to commercial crops like Bt cotton and soy beans.
At the root of these practices are pre-independence colonial policies. The black soil of Western Vidharba was important for the British for growing cotton to be sent to Manchester’s cotton mills. Large swaths of pastureland were converted into cotton fields, which resulted in the destruction of livelihoods based on the interdependence of dry land agriculture, livestock, and grasslands. Such policies have continued in post-independence times, severely impacting the habitat and consequently populations of birds like the lesser florican and the great Indian bustard.
Phasephardis, a socially, economically and politically marginalized people
Phasephardi people face a fate similar to their habitat, the grasslands, and their co-inhabitants, the grassland birds. They have faced a long history of social discrimination, with the British labeling them a “criminal tribe.” Post-independence this designation was rescinded, but, as Kuldeep Rathod of Wadala village in Akola said, “That hasn’t changed the public perception.”
A number of other factors have contributed to the continued marginalization of the Phaseardhis: the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which banned hunting without a license; their nomadic lifestyles, which are not recognized as a means of livelihood in government policies and practice; their lack of accumulated wealth, owing to their traditional way of being; and their lack of access or ownership rights over their lands and surrounding forests and grasslands. Due to the discrimination and criminalization they face because of social stigmas associated with nomadism and hunting, and the fact that they continue to “illegally” pursue the only means of living that they have ever known, bird hunting, the Phasepardhis spend much of their time escaping Forest Department authorities and the police.
“Our work with Samvedana began with the need to change the narrative around us and gain social dignity,” said Kuldeep. “There have been so many misconceptions about us and our hunting practices. Being traditional hunters is not equivalent to being criminals! Unlike hunting in general, we have elaborate system of rules and taboos to be followed while hunting and Phasepardhis in our area still follow these systems and taboos.”
Co-generation of knowledge towards a holistic transformation
As Kaustubh’s friendship with the Phasepardhis deepened, they collectively undertook a number of exploratory studies towards co-generation of knowledge between 2001 and 2005. The first among these was the preparation of a People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR). This included biodiversity surveys and documentation of local knowledge systems. The project provided a minor honorarium for some youth, which made it possible for them to participate. The research methodology included regular and intense discussions within the team based on the survey results — which they call the abhyas gats (study circles).
The first of these discussions was about Phasepardhis’ relationship with the most hunted species of birds, those birds’ current population dynamics, and likely future scenarios. This was an important discussion, as it helped the youth to understand the sustainability of hunting-based livelihoods. Data and discussions revealed that bird populations were indeed dwindling, making the future of hunting for a living bleak. Reasons for this decline were largely external and beyond their control. The youth began to explore possibilities of diversifying livelihoods for themselves and future generations, while also attempting to restore the bird population. Over a period of time, these discussion also helped the youth understand and articulate their own local traditions and knowledge systems, including traditional systems of monitoring bird populations.
The next discussion was aimed at understanding reasons for social discrimination against the Phasepardhis and weaknesses within their community. Initially, the Phasepardhis involved in the discussions identified lack of political representation as a reason for their weak economic and social status. Subsequent discussions concluded that politicians don’t work for people’s benefit and that effective community leadership and the role of women and youth in decision-making are important for self-empowerment.
Phasepardhis have a traditional institution called the jati panchayat for conflict resolution. Jati panchayats rarely discuss issues of governance, natural resources, employment, or social discrimination. Constituted of a handful of village elders, there was no involvement of women and youth in their decisions. Over the years, leadership positions had become hereditary and leaders were often drunk, corrupt, and uninspiring. Women faced severe oppression and discrimination. Youth felt the need for a new social structure, keeping in mind the qualities which were traditionally considered important for community leadership: Being just and fair, being wise, being non-corruptible, being generous, and working for the benefit of others
Beginnings of transformation
These studies and discussions led to four important ongoing processes:
Community monitoring and protection of the lesser florican
In response to the severely declining populations of grassland birds and dwindling grasslands, youth from 13 Phasepardhi villages formed a network that was kept informed about all florican sightings. Floricans are difficult to sight except during male mating displays, which occur at the same site year after year. These sites are identified, mapped, protected, and monitored by the youth and Samvedana.
“Considering that 60% of the florican habitat is private farmlands owned by non-Pardhis it becomes difficult to ensure long-term security for this land, but we try,” said Kaustubh. Some Phasepardhi villages, like Wadala, have decided to stop hunting threatened birds completely.
Community grassland restoration initiatives
Kanshiwani, Parabhavani, Pimpalgaon, and Wadala villages have also started regenerating and restoring their grassland and forest land. Of the 273 hectares (about 675 acres) of forest in Wadala, 100 hectares is completely protected and the rest is used for subsistence needs. The village has a number of rules and regulations for protection of this forest, such as employing a community livestock-herder to ensure that livestock do not stray into the protected zone, fines for violations, and preventing outsiders from stealing resources. Since this land legally belongs to the Forest Department, the Phasepardhis supported the village initiative under their Joint Forest Management (JFM) scheme. “It was possibly the first time in Maharashtra that a mutually respectful collaboration between the Forest Department and Phasepardhis was initiated,” said Kaustubh.
This restoration initiative has resulted in increased grass cover, reduced soil degradation, and increased availability of firewood, wild fruits, and medicinal plants, as well as a significant increase in the availability of diverse and endemic species of fodder. “The Wadala grassland is currently protecting over 47 different varieties of grass, many of which are rare elsewhere and are important for grassland birds including the floricans,” said Kuldeep.
With help from the Pani Foundation, soil and moisture conservation activities have also been taken up. Village children have started a nursery of around 20,000 plants of different wild fruits, endemic fodder species, and local medicinal plants. “We read in the newspapers that 13 crores [about $145 million] have been spent in Akola district for plantation activities by the Forest Department. Our plantations are carried out voluntarily without any financial support, yet they are more diverse and successful,” Kuldeep said as he walked us through the regenerating grassland. “Even though we are protecting and regenerating these grasslands, we don’t have any legal rights over them, making our future insecure. We will be filing a claim under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 soon,” he added.
Towards socio-economic change
“Hunting means social stigma, fear of being caught by the Forest Department or police, we do not want our children to continue hunting,” said Smita (name changed), who we met in the grassland. As an alternative, some have taken to nomadic trade (selling cheap plastic wares during the village markets), some go to cotton fields for picking cotton, some rear livestock, and others farm their small land holdings. “Farming is the least lucrative of all of these, small farmers don’t even recover the cost of labor,” explains Kuldeep. Cotton picking and nomadic trade do earn well, but not everyone has the skills for that.
Samvedana and the youth have taken a few steps to supplement livelihoods, particularly for women and youth. Around 18 self-help groups have been formed that provide financial support for activities such as goat and chicken rearing, dairy, and fodder regeneration. Wadala village has supplemented its annual collective income by 200,000 rupees from the sale of regenerated grass and increased milk production.
Towards Socio-political change
Through the discussions within Samvedana, the youth realized that social change is not possible without changing decision-making institutions. Phasepardhis don’t have a traditional village assembly (or a gram sabha), and jati panchayats, as mentioned above, were increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional. The youth from the 13 villages decided to create a conflict resolution institution called tanda panchayat in their hamlet, the general body of which would include all adult members, including women and youth. Each tanda panchayat elects an 11-member executive committee, of which 50 percent are women. These members can be changed any time by the general body if their work is not satisfactory. The rules of the tanda panchayat are a mix of traditional and modern democratic values: “The tradition of oral rules continues, but compulsory participation of women and youth is new,” said Kuldeep.
In 2000, youth from Titwa, Masa, Wadala, and Kanadi formed youth groups in their villages. These youth groups have since played a significant role in the studies, discussions, and activities mentioned above. Along with documenting their cultural practices, songs, and stories, they have also played a critical role in empowering the tanda panchayats and youth leadership, as well as addressing domestic violence and discrimination against women. This group is now attempting to connect with the youth from all other 68 Phasepardhi villages in the Vidharba region in order to work together towards mutual learning and empowerment.
The efforts of Samvedana and Pardhi youth are slowly gaining recognition. In 2012, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Bombay Natural History Society recognized Phardi’s traditional knowledge and asked them and Samvedana to prepare a State Action Plan for Bustards’ Recovery Programme, which was submitted in 2014. At the 2012 conference of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad, Wadala village was awarded a prize by the then-environment minister.
For the Phasepardhis and the grassland birds, however, the struggle continues. “Grasslands everywhere are being built over, can these buildings feed us, sustain us? I wonder!” said Himmat when we asked him how he sees the future of grasslands and florican conservation. We do hope that the Pardhis are successful in claiming Community Forest Resource Rights under the Forest Rights Act over the forests and grasslands that they have traditionally used, some of which they now protect and restore, to ensure their long-term survival and that of the lesser florican.
Neema Pathak Broome and Shrishtee Bajpai are members of Kalpavriksh, Pune, India.
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