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Since India's independence, government policies in at least four crucial areas have had damaging effects:

- common grazing lands

- water management

- agriculture, and

- animal breeding.

Common grazing lands: the disappearing act
"Politics is short-term religion. Religion is long-term politics,' said the socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia. This best explains the special status of cattle in Hindu thought. In Hindu belief, gaudaan (giving a cow to a poor person) is considered as important an act as kanyadaan (giving a daughter to the future husband in a marriage ceremony). Critics might say this slights the position of women. However, it does explain the reason for the special status of cattle, particularly cows. Giving a poor person a cow ensured that he/she would survive with dignity. How? Because there were pastures aplenty with a wide variety of grasses. The common grazing areas, called gauchar, had as special a status in land management, as important as the status of cattle.

Atulbhai Shah of Surendranagar has done a lot of research on gauchar. "Traditionally, gauchar has been on degraded land that is not fit for agriculture. The Vadvan Mahajan Panjrapol has 1,300 acres (526 hectares) of gauchar land. Our calculations show that if agriculture is carried out on this land, the annual income will be Rs 91 lakh, and this does not include the costs of inputs. If the same land is left as gauchar, the total annual income would be more than Rs 4 crore only from milk, gobar and wool from the animals who can graze here. It makes good economic and environmental sense to have gauchar,' he says.

"We would never go to the vathaan (gauchar) with our shoes on. It was sacred land, more sacred than the fields,' says Ibrahimbhai Halepotra, a Muslim Maldhari. Encroaching on gauchar land was a sin. "In fact, people would leave portions in their fields for cattle to graze in. Everything to do with cattle was sacrosanct as the entire economy was built around them,' says Bagabhai Patel of Kaanth village. Not any more, and the sword wounds on Patel's head explain it. "I received these when some of us went to protect the gauchar from being usurped by neighbouring farmers. They have political support and the village cannot stand up against them as that would fragment the vote base of the local politicians,' he explains.

Destruction of gauchar land has been sponsored by the government. Areas under the revenue department are being diverted to other uses, such as redistribution to the landless. "Land reforms have divided common areas among farmers... Even forestry projects have usurped former grazing lands,' observes Holly Brough, research associate with the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, dc, usa, who specialises in poverty, land use and environmental education (see