Anisha Rachel Oommen visits the grasslands of Kutch to sample Banni mawa and camel milk, and finds an unlikely lesson in sustainable living.
It is 9 am in the flat grasslands of Kutch. The road shimmers in the desert heat, and only the promise of Banni mawa, the region's unique delicacy, has lured us out into the unforgiving sun. An hour’s drive into the savannah, we stop at a tiny shop in the town of Bhirandiyara. The Sikandar Mawa Centre is selling tea and mawa, and there's a truck parked under every spot of shade in the white heat. The tea is creamy and thick, but the mawa has my undivided attention. Still cooling in the iron wok, it is bubbling from from the heat of the wood fire. Lalbhai in his breezy blue Pathan suit has been stirring 25 kilos of milk on the fire for over two hours. He squints against the sun, and says he doesn't recognise us; he knows everyone at the factory. My host informs me that Kutch is a small town; here everyone is connected by two degrees of separation, not six.
She hands over twenty rupees in exchange for a generous portion of mawa packaged neatly in newspaper. I unwrap the warm parcel; the mawa inside is a rich dense mass of caramelised milk and sugar. Nutty and heavy, it is a rich, delicious treat. "This is pastoral food," she tells me, "made from the milk of the buffalos here, that have an exceptionally high fat content. The Banni buffalo is a breed cared for by the Kutchi pastoralists."
India is home to 34 million pastoralists, across three major regions in India — the Deccan Plateau in north Karnataka, Telangana and parts of Maharashtra; the grasslands of Rajasthan, Kutch, and parts of Saurashtra; and the Himalayan terrain. Wherever the eco-system proved hostile to agriculture, pastoralism survived.
Pastoralism is older than agriculture. Historically, human populations have lived off their immediate ecosystems, eating and sustaining themselves on what nature and the land provided. Culture followed nature — people in forests foraged from the woods, populations along the coast lived off the sea, and pastoralists lived off the grasslands. This holds true even today, with the notable exception of one unusual species — the modern contemporary globalised urban citizen, who will eat anything, anywhere. And that probably includes you and me, dear reader.
Pastoralists were originally nomadic communities, although with lifestyle changes, what that means has changed. Some pastoralists move seasonally, as within the Himalayan terrain. Some, like the buffalo herders of Kutch, live in their villages as the buffalos move out to graze at night and return at daybreak, entirely on their own, without a herder. And others, like the Rabaris of Kutch who keep to a more ancient tradition, travel with their livestock up to 3200 km a year. In a lifespan of 40 years, that is the equivalent of circling the globe three times!
Unlike farmers tethered to their lands, pastoralists graze their livestock on the commons, following the rain. In Kutch this refers to 4800 sq km of grassland commons. The commons are lands not demarcated to individuals; instead they belong to all 19 panchayats and 54 villages in the region. The largest grasslands in Asia, these ecosystems were misunderstood as degraded forests; unsuitable to agriculture, they could not be taxed under colonial rule. And therefore labelled wastelands, less than 7% of India’s savannah grasslands are protected. In truth, these unique ecosystems support diverse life forms with their rich vegetation, home to over 60 varieties of hardy grasses that survive through consecutive years of drought.
These grasslands are singular in that here, the desert stretches out to meet the ocean, giving rise to the mangroves of Kutch, the only one of its kind in the world. Mangroves are considered the most productive ecosystems in the world, second only to rainforests. And here in Kutch, the Maldhari pastoralists follow sustainable practices in cattle rearing, with a finely honed understanding of breeding. Pastoralists are among the finest breeders in the world. The resilient Banni buffalo survives in arid lands through drastic changes in climate. Unlike stall fed animals, they walk huge terrains and feed on a wide diversity of vegetation. As a result their milk production is significantly higher than industrial production. It is interesting to note that while the bulk of India’s milk is produced in industrial dairies, our milk production per animal is significantly lower than the global average — 3.2 kilos per animal to a global average of 6.8 kilos. But producing the highest volumes of milk and raising India’s average milk yield are 5 indigenous cattle breeds. These breeds have been developed in the context of practices followed by pastoralists.
Kutch is also home to the Kharai camels, unique as the only swimming camels in the world. Hardier and more resilient than other breeds, the Kharai live longer because of their ability to live off the land and sea, off fresh water and the mangroves. While other camel herders move their animals out of the Kutch during drought, these camels swim out with their herders, the Fakirani Jats, to graze on the mangroves. The herders who travel for days with their cattle, don’t return home for dinner; instead they subsist on a diet of camel milk that is now recognised as a complete and wholesome food in itself — a truth the pastoralists have long known.
Camel milk is full of nutrients — a source of Vitamin A, C, E, Magnesium and Zinc. Its therapeutic qualities are employed as an antioxidant, and also helps in the treatment of diabetes and autism. The micronutrients in camel milk, not least the result of its grazing on diverse landscapes, makes the milk a nourishing and wholesome food. The absence of the milk allergen beta-lactoglobulin and higher concentration of immunoglobulins make it more suited to people with lactose intolerance. Full bodied, low in fat content and high in protein, camel herders have harvested its nectar-like qualities for centuries.
But in a country where pastoralism is seen as a less civilised way of life than settled agriculture, these communities are socially, politically and economically marginalised. The pastoralists are often seen as insignificant, but in truth contribute significantly in preserving the ecology, following sustainable practices that are centuries old. Increasingly, their way of life has come under threat. The mangroves and the commons have been given to industries for “development”. Mundra and Mandvi have sprouted power plants, and the land is now off limits to pastoralists and their animals.
There remains a lack of acknowledgement that the mobile migratory ways of pastoralists allow for foraging in areas otherwise un- or under-utilised, and this significantly increases economic output. Pastoralism has helped shape these as biodiverse rich areas. It also contributes to the milk and meat economy in a big way — shepherds looking after goat and sheep produce a large percentage of this type of meat in the country — a growing sector of the agrarian economy.
Their centuries-old way of life holds important truths and lessons on climate change: their migrations are finely tuned responses to climatic events, and evidence of adaptability to these changes. Whether we like it or not, our futures are closely linked to theirs, to the future of the shrinking grasslands.
In an effort to create an economy that preserves this way of life, through building awareness and an appreciation for pastoralism, a travelling exhibition called Living Lightly was put together by organisations including Sahjeevan and FES. It is presently in its second edition in Ahmedabad. Sushma Iyengar, Lead Curator, has been studying pastoralist communities for over three years in the lead up to this exhibition. “Pastoralists leave perhaps the smallest footprint by any human population in the world. Without the urban urge of ‘excessive acquisition’ that that lives in all of us, the Maldharis live and thrive on the bare minimum, packing their entire lives onto the back of a camel and moving with the herd, contribution to preserving biodiversity and truly living lightly. Through the exhibition we hope to show how their lives are connected to ours, why preserving their way of life is essential. They are the ones with knowledge on protecting our savannahs. Their understanding of climactic variability has been gleaned over centuries, through lives linked to an uncertain environment.”
At the inauguration of the first Living Lightly exhibition in December 2016, camel milk was certified as an edible food source by the FSSAI, creating an economy to supplement and preserve the pastoralist way of life. Amul dairies are now procuring camel milk to make it accessible to a larger market. Camel milk chocolate is available on Amazon, and camel cheese is piquing interest.
“Destroying is quick,” Sushma observes. “Rebuilding takes longer. When a policy is made, when the economy shifts, when people take a personal interest, things will change. If now, you know the value of camel milk, or eat mawa from the Banni bhains, you are directly invested in this economy and their survival.”