The milk that ate the grass

India may be the largest producer of milk in the world, but at an incredible cost. In achieving this distinction, the country's vast cattle population has been allowed to mow down its verdant grasslands. Development projects like the colossal Indira Gandhi canal in Rajasthan have also adversely affected grasslands. Of the 400 grass varieties found in India, some very valuable native ones may soon be lost to mismanagement. With them will be lost the numerous plants and animals that are part of the grassland ecology

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The milk that ate the grass

-- (Credit: Kazimudding Ahmed /CSE)SCENE I: 5 am in the morning, a household in any part of India. The milkman rings the doorbell. The sleepy-eyed customer takes the daily quota of the white fluid and prepares for the day ahead. There are more than 900 million people in the country. The demand for milk is stupendous. And the country just became the largest producer of milk in the world.

SCENE II: 5 pm in the evening, anywhere in the open country. Cows and buffaloes are returning from the pastures. Tired hooves fall on loose earth, raising an unmistakable haze, obscuring the unsatiated, scrawny animals. By grazing whatever little is left of the degraded pastures, they have just pushed India to the summit of global milk production. But how long before there is no fodder, grass or grasslands?

It is not just a question of cattle eating out of house and home. Misguided development efforts are also destroying India's grasslands. In Rajasthan, the Indira Gandhi canal has adversely affected the sewan grasslands, which have provided highly nutritious fodder for cattle in the Thar desert over the centuries.

Agriculture is also contributing to the destruction of grasslands, with the demand for cultivable land rising all the time. The scenario leaves us with a Hobson's choice: either India can increase milk production by letting cattle graze on whatever is left of its grasslands or it can grow more food crops. As the conflicting demands of people and cattle compete for land, the grasslands will continue to be razed. Across the country, village common lands that harboured grasslands earlier are being put to other uses. If these grasslands are lost, along with them will go the immense biological diversity they sustain. Plants and animals -- wild and domestic -- that have more uses than can be calculated and are crucial to the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.

The government is totally devoid of any policy on grazing or management and protection of the invaluable grasslands, and has as much of a role to play in their destruction as the cattle, if not more. The last time India's grasslands were surveyed was more than 30 years ago. "If one were to go back [to the areas that were surveyed earlier], the chances of finding rangelands (grasslands) are extremely remote," says B K Trivedi, scientist at the Indian Grassland and Fodder Research Institute (igfri) at Jhansi in Madhya Pradesh. If something substantial is not done at the administrative level -- and fast -- there may never be the need for another survey.

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