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How grazing lands became 'waste' lands

Under British rule, pastoral lands and uncultivated commons were uneconomic wastelands that needed to be acquired, owned, taxed and brought under the plough, writes Nitya Ghotge. After Independence, the focus on agricultural productivity and land reform caused a further enclosure of the commons, robbing pastoral communities of fodder and sustenance. After liberalisation, industry is encroaching on the commons

According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (1), common property land resources constitute about 15% of the total geographical area of India, of which 23% is community pasture and grazing lands and 16% have been classified as village forests and woodlots. At another level, India has the largest livestock population in the world, with 485 million head of livestock, many of them raised by small and marginal farmers who depend on grazing land to meet the fodder requirements of their animals. As the population of both animals and humans rises, there will be a proportional increase in competition for food to feed humans, bringing agriculture and livestock production into direct conflict.

Traditionally, however, Indian agriculture and crop production have shared a fairly close symbiotic relationship. While crop residues from agriculture have formed an essential component of animal diets, a significant portion of livestock feed has come from the commons. These lands -- whether open pasture, grazing lands, fallow lands or village forest lands -- have sustained livestock populations when and where agricultural residue or crops were not available.

It is generally believed that prior to colonisation by the British, the common property resources under the control of villagers were greater. The policy of enclosures and fences was extended to India, and large chunks of common land became the property of the Crown. The British and the Mughals shared a preference for agricultural production systems and introduced taxes and collected revenue, staking ownership over the land and resources. Lands which were not cultivated were considered primitive. To be ‘civilised’ meant being settled, owning lands and property which were under crops. In rural Punjab they set about acquiring 20 lakh acres of common grazing lands, expropriating pastoralists, setting up agricultural colonies, constructing canals and granting blocks of land to peasants. Arid pastoral regions represented “poverty, ignorance and oppression” (2). Likewise, in Berar in central India, commercial agriculture under that notorious crop, cotton, extended into the village commons displacing cattle and the people who reared them, and leading to a vicious spell of famine and death (3) which continues to cast a dark pall over these districts even today as cotton farmers commit suicide with alarming regularity.

Under the Crown, lands were classified into revenue and forest. A Land Acquisition Act (1894) enabled the state to acquire the best lands for the Crown. Even today, the Act remains so powerful that it gives the state power to take land away from ordinary citizens (4).

Lands which could not be put under the plough and could not be called forest were classified as ‘waste’. In most states these were the village commons upon which village communities grazed their animals. These were also the lands upon which the country’s nomadic communities lived and survived. By another Act, the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, many of these tribes were deemed criminal. By 1927, the British had two parallel legal systems in India -- one for private property and one for common property (5).

In 1947, at the time of Independence, India inherited the British system of administration, a British legal system, and the British system of land tenure. The country also very soon had to face a terrible famine and an enormous shortage of firewood. Naturally, agriculture to feed our growing population and quick ways of increasing tree cover became the focus of the country’s Plan documents. Agriculture, especially in the well-endowed areas, drew considerable attention. Land reforms were intensely discussed and talked about. Large, privately owned agricultural holdings were passed on to those who traditionally did not own lands so they could own and cultivate them. The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 was amended in different ways to allow land reform. Zamindari Abolition Acts were initiated in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and followed in other states (6). However, while the Acts were easily introduced and laws amended, when it came to practice, land reforms just did not happen, as the land tenure systems in different states were vastly different. Land records and legal complexities further complicated the matter (7). After all, not all of unified India was uniformly under the British Crown.

In many states such as Maharashtra, where good agricultural land could not be acquired from the wealthy and handed over to the landless, the village commons, grazing lands and waste lands were divided, parcelled out and given to landless communities. Many small movements of marginalised communities and struggles, especially of dalits, were temporarily quelled as small portions of land unfit for agriculture were distributed amongst groups of people, many of whom had never practised agriculture before (8). The collective struggles of these groups to be able to own land turned into individual and personal struggles to keep small parcels of land alive and under a crop.

Very soon the division of land ended up dividing communities and creating further disparities and discontent, for now many villages had lost their common grazing lands to private ownership. Pushed out of their village grazing lands and commons, migratory groups began travelling to fresh villages, new districts and even other states looking for fodder and sustenance.

In the nation’s desire to grow more food, fallows which traditionally served as village commons to graze animals were put under crop. New irrigation schemes and the efforts of the Green Revolution led to an enormous increase in agriculture. It also led to a phenomenal increase in crop residue which became available as fodder. The animal best suited to feed on this kind of fodder was the dairy buffalo which matched the country’s dairy policy perfectly. Thus, the well-endowed areas, along with the Green Revolution, were also ready to usher in the White Revolution. The animals that lost out were draft cattle. While the population of dairy buffaloes steadily increased, our draft animal breeds quietly disappeared. Draft animals are used in India seasonally and for only a few days in a year. But they need to be fed, watered and grazed. As grazing lands shrank, there was no place for the draft animal -- after all a tractor could very easily replace the draft animal.

But it was not only the buffalo which adapted, other species adapted too. Pastoral shepherds from Rajasthan and Himachal began migrating to Punjab and Haryana, finding new sources of fodder, resulting in new synergies between crop farmers and livestock owners. The successes from well-endowed areas were extended to India’s drylands, and more areas which were ‘common’ became private agricultural land.

It was not easy to expand the Green Revolution model of agriculture to India’s drylands. Regular droughts plagued a large part of the country. The DPAP (Drought-Prone Area Programme) was initiated as a land and water conservation programme. It soon morphed into the famous watershed programmes.

Watershed programmes initially had little understanding of the commons and how those resources were to be used collectively. Bans were imposed on grazing, the cutting and lopping of firewood and fodder. The most famous watersheds in the country have often been the most guilty of excluding small ruminants and their owners. Thus, those communities that were landless and depended on the commons migrated out of these watershed areas (9). It was expected that fodder would be regularly lopped, cut and stall-fed to dairy animals. And in some cases this did happen: Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra stands testimony to this kind of development. Yet in many other areas where this formula of development was cut and pasted, grass grew but there was nobody to cut the fodder and no animals to graze. In the commons of these watersheds the grass remained ungrazed and unutilised, catching fire when the summer winds dried them.

Simultaneously, in an earnest desire to replace India’s rapidly depleting green cover, village forest lands went under social forestry programmes. The desire was not so much to provide the people around with an available natural resource, rather to keep people who depended on the commons out. Fast-growing species, which did not have any special value as fodder or firewood, were planted over vast tracts. Grazing was banned in these tracts. Eucalyptus was a favourite species which largely benefited the paper industry. In arid regions of the country, in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the fear of rapid desertification propelled the forest department and other agencies to plant Prosopis juliflora, a species called the “mad” babool by shepherds (10) on a considerable portion of grazing lands, destroying local varieties and species on which animals used to graze.

In village forest areas under various schemes, grazing fees were appropriated by the forest department, joint forest management committees and van suraksha samitis, with the stiffest fee for the goat, a species kept by those belonging to the poorest communities.

Availability of grazing land: 1947 to 1997

Area: million hectares


CPR land*

Protected and unclassed forest land


Livestock population in million

Area (hectares)/head of livestock

head of livestock

70 -- 100 280 0.36 .25
1950-51 66.89 38.96 105.85 292 0.36 .23
1960-61 48.82 35.27 84.09 336 0.25 .15
1970-71 43.82 32.79 76.61 353 0.22 .12
1980-81 42.23 35 77.23 416 0.18 .10
1990-91 40.10 34.87 74.97 445 0.17 .09
1997 (estimated) 38 34.8 72.8 467 0.15 .08

*Includes permanent pastures and grazing lands
Total is sum of protected and unclassed forest and CPR land
Source: Indian Agriculture in Brief and Indian Council of Forest Research and Education, 1995

Conflicts between grazing lands and forests

As the landscape of the country rapidly changed ecologically, economically and socially, other developments also took place. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 and Project Tiger placed the need for conservation of India’s wildlife far above India’s marginal communities. Forests where animals used to graze were closed to grazing, while national parks, protected areas and sanctuaries emerged. Grazing areas for domestic animals shrank further and poor people who were dependent on these lands were pushed further and further to the periphery. In certain areas, conflicts between livestock grazing and wildlife became so intense that the government resorted to firing on pastoralists such as happened in Bharatpur National Park. Many conflicts between the state and pastoralists over grazing lands remain unresolved even today.

Bright new policies

With the passing of each decade, new development plans and programmes have evolved, supposedly in answer to problems emerging from previous Plans. India’s population has grown, agriculture has expanded and encroached, common property resources have shrunk. Surprisingly, our livestock population has surged too. Pastoralists have found new pastures and new grazing areas; their animals have adapted to new feeds and crop residues. And the conflicts have grown.

The obsession with agriculture continues as India contemplates an Evergreen Revolution, and new programmes and developments have already begun to take over as the country strides ahead as an economic power to be reckoned with in the 21st century.

New technologies in agriculture, including genetically modified crops such as GM cotton which are harmful to animals which graze on them (11), corporate agriculture of high-value crops such as grapes, sugarcane, vegetables, chilly and tobacco, have further resulted in keeping grazing animals and their graziers out. None of these crops have fodder value. Many are grown in intensely chemical agricultural systems which are unsafe both for animals as well as humans who consume the animals and their products.

Since the beginning of this century, India’s new economic policy has facilitated increased demands on land from a new emerging class of private entrepreneurs. In the recent past, SEZs have laid further claim to common lands. While people who own private lands may claim compensation, what can people living on commons be expected to do besides migrate?

There are no policies or legal framework to provide security or support, or the means to adapt and adopt new livelihoods. Unfortunately for non-pastoral nomads, the situation is much worse as there are hardly any groups working for their cause, nor schemes and policies which take into account the features and traditions of nomadism and seasonal migration.

The Forest Rights Act and grazing lands

In December 2006, the Forest Rights Act was passed granting legal recognition to the rights of traditional forest-dwelling communities, partially correcting the injustices caused by previous forest laws (12). Under this Act, traditional rights to grazing are recognised. To be eligible for staking a claim under the Act, two conditions have to be satisfied. Firstly, the claimant has to prove that he or she primarily resides in a forest or on forest lands; secondly, the claimant has to establish that s/he is dependent on the forest and forest land for a livelihood and that the above conditions have been true for 75 years. Or, the claimant has to prove that s/he belongs to a ‘forest-dwelling scheduled tribe’ mentioned in the Act. Although there are provisions in the Act for claiming grazing rights, pastoral communities face various problems while staking claims since the three criteria remain difficult to prove for itinerant groups that change their migration routes and patterns regularly to adapt to changes in their immediate surroundings. Many do not have valid identity proof or papers recognised by the state. Many graze their animals in villages and spend a large part of the year in forests that are distant from their homes. Most migratory communities do not attend gram sabha meetings as they are often away.

The Act grants land rights, product rights and rights to protect and conserve. These rights are recognised by a three-step procedure wherein the village gram sabha makes a recommendation that is screened at the block and district levels. Although the Act has been in force since 2006, in Maharashtra only 3% of applications filed had been cleared by 2009 and no case has yet been granted for community use. In the country as a whole, over 500,000 individual claims have been filed, but barely 1,200 community claims were filed (13). Most migratory pastoralists do not even know that such an Act exists. For the few groups that are aware of its existence, most are yet to clearly map their grazing routes and see where the route coincides with public land, private land and common land, to be able to stake proper claims. Land records at best are fuzzy.

Climate change and grazing lands

While the commons sustain many of our poorest communities, the concept of them as ‘non-cultivated wastes’ continues to exist among a large number of planners and development professionals who would like to convert them into economically productive agriculture lands or forests or plantations. Or, if all else fails, into industrial units. In the minds of many of these groups, seasonal pastoralism or collective use of the commons has not yet hit home as a useful method of land utilisation. The general understanding among our country’s planners is that land under open grazing is uneconomic.

The Indian government’s response to climate change and the fossil fuel crisis has seen many efforts to acquire and change the ‘unproductive’ status of these lands. While the renewable energy sector -- wind and solar -- scouts around for suitable commons to install equipment, the bio-fuels mission along with the corporate lobby which zealously promotes bio-fuels has also staked a claim on all kinds of available land. Grass is considered a valuable economic commodity as it can be digested in biomethanation plants to produce ‘clean’, ‘renewable’ bio-fuel. Wastelands suddenly turn into valuable land as governments offer fallow land on lease to private entrepreneurs to undertake jatropha plantation, on rent. Rajasthan, in January 2007, the state cabinet introduced a policy for cultivation, processing and utilisation of bio-fuel plants like jatropha and pongamia on cultivable wasteland with a special emphasis on private sector participation. The programme is being packaged and presented as a district poverty project (14).

The Green India mission (15) and the REDD and REDD-plus programmes (16) threaten to repeat the folly of social forestry with greater zeal. Large-scale plantations to enhance India’s green cover threaten to replace pastures, commons and grasslands with inedible, non-usable monocrops. Corporations in fact flaunt these measures in an effort to get green concessions from the state. Thus, corporations that have grabbed land, fenced and privatised the commons and begun climate-unfriendly activities can neutralise their ‘emissions’ and gain brownie points by claiming to ‘greenwash’ the environment with these plantations, in the name of CDM.

India is proud of its status as one of the largest producers of milk, meat and eggs in the world. More Indians have animal protein on their dining tables now than they did at the time of Independence. India also exports meat and eggs to other countries. If this trend is to continue, our livestock sector needs support and our animals need fodder. Importing fodder from other countries to feed our livestock is not economically, environmentally or socially desirable. We need to seriously review our livestock policies, and the commons are central to that debate.

(Dr Nitya S Ghotge is Director of Anthra, a resource centre offering training, research and advocacy initiatives in the areas of livestock, biodiversity and people’s livelihoods)


1 National Sample Survey Organisation, Department of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, December 1999. Report No 452(54/31/4)
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12, December 2010
15 National Climate Action Plan (

Infochange News & Features, March 2011