Astha Chaudhary and Dipti Arora
The Banni grasslands situated in Kutch, Gujarat, are an arid grassland ecosystem that is also rich in biodiversity and wildlife. A large part of this area is covered by marshy salt flat belts, which are famous as the greater Rann of Kutch. Sindhi speaking Maldhari communities reside in the Banni grasslands. Maldharis are semi-nomadic communities who rear livestock. Their exposure to the outside world is little; they have traditional systems of managing natural resources and live in close association with nature. The Maldhari community migrate with their livestock seasonally to different places in search of fodder and water for the livestock.
The life of this community revolves around rearing cattle, caring for them, and selling milk to sustain themselves. The conventional education system is not very strong in their villages. Schools in many villages are not functional and since most children are involved in day-to-day activities with their parents, they often do not go to school. But there are some villages where people have taken up jobs in the Rann of Kutch melas and private salt mining companies. In these villages, schools are functional and the literacy rate has improved.
As part of our ethnographic research, though education was not our primary focus, we collaborated with schools and local NGOs to create awareness about the surrounding nature. Initially, we called the education program as ‘awareness program’. But when we started interacting with the teachers, students, and the community, we realized that these were kids who were living with nature and were surrounded by biodiversity; they were already quite knowledgeable. We therefore decided to take up a dialogic approach with the children to understand their knowledge and perspective about the Banni grasslands. We selected two villages for this purpose.
Sarada village, western Banni: The Jat community (Dhanecha Jat) who practice a strict semi nomadic lifestyle reside in this village. The entire village is dependent on livestock. During the monsoon, Sarada gets flooded forcing the villagers to migrate for 3-4 months and live in temporary settlements in villages close-by where they find fodder and water. The school in this village is not functional. The children mostly understand Kutchi and Gujarati.
Gorevali, central Banni: Gorevali village is quite developed. It is close to the greater Rann of Kutch. It comprises the Mutwa communities. The village has schools till the secondary level. Most of the villagers are dependent on private jobs in companies nearby.
We used three methods for classroom interaction. Nature walks, identification of flora and fauna through biodiversity charts, and drawing pictures of the local species.
We acquired identification charts showcasing the ecosystem of the Banni region. A pointer was used to ask about the identity of the animals and resources. Since we were outsiders, initially the children were not willing to talk to us about the landscape. The charts, however, excited them and we noticed that they were more comfortable discussing the diversity through the chart. Many of them identified half the animals and plants on the charts. After this, the local names of the identified animals were recorded in notebooks and on the blackboard if available. Then the students were asked to speak what they knew about the animals/plants – where they came to know about it, what time these animals are spotted, what they eat, etc. The children were also asked to share stories related to some animal or plant if they knew of any. Then interesting scientific facts about the local animals and plants and the surroundings were shared with the children in the form of stories.
In Sarada village, a drawing session was held where the children were asked to draw something from their surroundings.
Gorevali village – Children in this village were excited to share their stories. On a walk, they identified the holes made by the Spiny tailed lizard (sanda). The children explained that this lizard eats grass and sleeps all winter. On asking if they knew why it sleeps, students had not much clue. We shared that the lizards sleep to conserve their energy and that it is called hibernation. The children were curious and asked many questions. They told us tales of their forefathers’ huntings. Most of the children had ponds in their homes, where wildlife was abundant during the rains. They also had wild dogs and shared how a race between the chinkara and tazi dog was very exciting to watch.
Sarada village – Children here were shy with us, as their interaction with the outside world was limited. Girls had knowledge of most of the faunal diversity and few birds, including the crane and francolin. Francolin is mainly a house pet here. During the drawing session, many children tried to draw birds but could not specify which birds they were. One child drew a snake, which he said are common in the village during summers. Another child drew a cat and shared how jungle cats come and take away their hens at night. The children could also imitate the sounds of some birds. They are experts in managing daily chores and have immense knowledge about their livestock.
We observed that in both villages, though the children could identify all the animals, their way of responding to our exercises differed. The children from Sarada village responded more in an experiential way, narrating their encounters and interaction with the surroundings. In contrast, children from Gorevali village responded more in a storytelling way, as if the stories had been narrated to them by their elders or in school.
We also observed that their daily interaction with the surrounding environment made up the children’s knowledge, the amount of knowledge they possessed differed, even if their surroundings were the same. Ecological knowledge also varied depending on the background they belonged to. It is evident that both education systems – conventional as well as local traditional systems – are important in the development of nomadic children. And this also sheds light on how there is a need to document the experiential knowledge of nomadic communities in order to preserve local biodiversity and wildlife. This will make nature education a two-way dialogic process rather than being single sided and top-down.
Astha Chaudhary is an ecologist working on biodiversity conservation. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Dipti Arora is a sociologist, working on natural resource management. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.