A taste of dry death

As the Gujarat forest department persists in planting a weed that sucks dry all the water in its vicinity, the Little Rann of Kutch gets...

By K K Seth
Published: Wednesday 31 August 1994

-- (Credit: K K Seth) The Little Rann of Kutch is under attack from the Gujarat forest department, which is merrily planting a weed that is sucking the area of its juices. The history of the Little Rann tells us that before the '50s, sweet water could be found at a depth of 6 metres. Today, not only has the groundwater level gone down to below 32 metres, its fluoride content and salinity has also crossed safe limits. Why is this happening despite there being no industries in the Rann?

A careful study of the area reveals that the forest department has been planting thousands of saplings of an exotic weed known as the Gando Baval (Prosopis chilensis) since 1954. The weed is also called the Vilayati Kikar -- or mesquite, made famous by none other than writer Aldous Huxley. The main reason for its indiscriminate planting by the department is that its leaves are not eaten by animals, thus enabling it to grow unhampered. The weed has now invaded the area.

A symposium held at Texas in 1982 found that P chilensis has a tremendous capacity to absorb water and is capable of making rivers and lakes go dry. It has already dried up rivers like the Bambhan, which used to hold water throughout the year. This forced the state government to construct check dams to conserve the water and stopped whatever little water flowed into the area.
Once the rivers are dry Once the rivers are dry, the weed starts sucking the sub-soil water through its long tap root. This explains why the water table is going down at such an alarming rate. While sucking in the water, it leaves fluoride and salt particles in the soil.

The Little Rann used to get fully inundated during the monsoon as water from the rivers and the sea used to flow into the area. But now the check dams ensure that the Rann gets only partially inundated, drying the wells that are dug to pump out brine to manufacture salt. Salt has been manufactured in this area since ages and the brine wells were never known to go dry -- as Gandhi proved during his Dandi March in 1930. The Little Rann supplies a third of the country's salt requirements and this is going to be adversely affected as the salt workers are abandoning their fields.

The other major vocation of the people of this area is farming. The weed absorbs the water and the fertiliser through its long lateral roots, rendering agriculture uneconomical. The farmer thinks, or is made to believe, that his land has become saline. The abandoned land is then gleefully taken over by the weed. It is interesting to note that less than 2 per cent of the cultivable land is being used at places like Nimaknagar -- a village located at the fringe of the Little Rann. The farmers and the salt workers have no alternative but to migrate to greener pastures.

The local animals, including the endangered wild ass, are also moving out of the area because the weed has dried up all the sources of water. The animals are faced with a bleak alternative: eat the pods of the weed which are harmful and can kill them, or move out of the area. Incidentally, the Little Rann is the only sanctuary for the wild ass. Their numbers have gone down from 1,200 in 1990 to 500 today, according to my estimates. Rare flora like the Morad has vanished, replaced by, of course, P chilensis.

It is obvious that the weed is threatening the very ecology of the region and the recent decision of the state forest department to continue its use is not only unfortunate but also baffling. Unless this weed is replaced by some other useful local tree, the human exodus and the damage to the local flora and fauna cannot be stopped. It may also be noted that this weed is found everywhere in India and all the state forest departments are busy planting it. It is better something is done now before it is too late.

K K Seth has been involved with land reclamation efforts in Dhrangadhra taluk of Gujarat

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