Treasures in grass

India has a huge variety of grasses. But the wealth is being destroyed

Published: Thursday 15 April 1999

Treasures in grass

Tractors remove sewan grass in (Credit: KAZIMUDDIN AHMED / CSE)Simply put, grasslands are for grazing. With India's economy dependent heavily on agriculture, and farmers, in turn, relying significantly on cattle rearing, grasslands are very crucial to the health of India's rural economy. About 90 per cent of the cattle population in the country subsists on natural grasslands or pastures.

Some of the grasses available in India have high nutritional value and are very hardy in the face of very testing ecological conditions. One such grass is sewan, found in western Rajasthan. It has adapted remarkably to the desert, has a very high protein content and the butter and milk from cattle fed on sewan is a distinctly darker shade of yellow and highly enriched (see box: The wonder grass).

But grasses also have biological and economic value, providing food and habitat to a great variety of organisms: insects, reptiles and amphibians. The bird lesser florican is purely a grassland species. The survival of animals such as the wild buffalo, hardground barasingha, blackbuck, wild ass and chinkara are also linked to the health of grasslands. Any threat to the grassland is a direct threat not only to the cattle but the dependent biodiversity.

In Rajasthan, sewan and other tall grass-like plants such as kheenp, which also has fodder value, are used to make roofs of huts. Similarly in the Banni grassland of Gujarat, some grasses are used for roofs of the huts called bungas. Grasslands are also a source of fuel and fodder for people living nearby, which puts an added pressure on them.

Leaner pastures
Over 80 per cent of India's rangelands that cater to the livestock are described as 'poor'. The health of any grazed rangeland depends on its carrying capacity, which is the amount of fodder that can be made available to animals after accounting for the amount needed by the rangeland to recover. The state of Kerala has the highest carrying capacity in the country. It is more than seven times that of Haryana, which has the lowest carrying capacity in India.

Most rangelands of India have a low carrying capacity, according to Panjab Singh of the Indira Gandhi Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya (igkvv), Jabalpur. "The natural balance in rangelands of India has been upset and 12 million hectares of permanent pastures have been converted into virtual wastelands with pathetic production," says Singh. The fact that little is being done to improve the availability of resources for cattle undermines the impressive milk production figures of India.

There are over 72,000 dairy cooperative societies in India with a membership of 9 million farmers in 170 milksheds (areas with intensive dairy operations). Though the country ranks first in milk production, supply of green fodder is short of the demand by 23 per cent, supply of dry fodder is short by 35 per cent, and the supply of feed concentrate additives, given to cattle to boost milk production, by 44 per cent.

No part of the country seems to have been spared from a shortfall of fodder. In the entire eastern Himalayan region of India, fodder availability is half the requirement. In the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of central Himalaya, only 37 per cent of the demand for fodder can be met.

This tremendous gap has led to a serious decline in livestock productivity, and serious questions need to be asked about the sustainability in local animal husbandry and pastoral practices,says Bhag Mal, coordinator, South Asia, International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (ipgri), New Delhi.

A country-wide decline
Degradation of grasslands is a country-wide phenomenon. All states possessing rangelands are witnessing the results of a total absence of management efforts, alienation of the people who had stakes in the conservation of the grasslands, and, of course, overgrazing. An assessment of some important states follows:

ANDHRA PRADESH: Vast grasslands have been converted into agricultural fields in the semi-arid districts of Kurnool, Cuddapah, Anantpur and Rangareddy. It is difficult to find an undisturbed patch of about 10 sq km, says Asad Rahmani, director, Bombay Natural History Society (bnhs), Mumbai.

ASSAM: According to Rahmani, the Kaziranga National Park has some of the best of the remaining grasslands in India. But opinions differ. Assam has no significant rangeland left,says Anwaruddin Choudhury, executive director of the Rhino Foundation, Guwahati. As the principal investigator of a biodiversity conservation study of the World Wide Fund for Nature (wwf), he surveyed the north Cachar hills, Hamren and Barak valleys in the state. He found that rangelands covered less than 2 per cent of the total geographic area covered in the study. Rich elephant grass once existed in the flood plains of the main rivers in the Barak valley, southern Nagaon and Hamren. At least 50 species of animals and 150 species of birds can be found in the main rangelands. These include the Indian rhino, Asian elephant, wild water buffalo, swamp deer, Bengal florican and swamp partridge. "The loss in natural rangeland habitat will naturally result in loss of biodiversity," says Choudhury. The causes are not new: population explosion, agriculture and constant grazing. Villagers living on the fringes of the rangelands graze their cattle here. Rangelands continue to be encroached for agriculture.

BIHAR: Faced with intensive cultivation and grazing pressure, there are no grasslands left to protect in northern Bihar. The Valmiki Tiger Reserve is perhaps the only place where some terai grasslands can still be found.

GUJARAT: Some of the best grasslands in India can be seen in the Saurashtra and Kutch regions of the state. Scattered over eight districts, the size of these grasslands varies from 0.2 ha to 2000 ha. The Banni grasslands of Saurashtra are under tremendous pressure from grazing and change in land use patterns (see related story on p32: An army of mad trees).

MADHYA PRADESH: In forests, grasslands are either absent or present in the form of fragmented patches. The existence of animal species like wild buffalo, hardground barasingha, blackbuck and birds like the lesser florican in the region, however, implies that there have always been grasslands among the dense forests. The Sailana florican sanctuary in Ratlam and the grasslands nearby are under intense pressure from agriculture. More than half of the grasslands have disappeared during the past 10 years.

MAHARASHTRA: Vast grasslands used to be present in the Deccan region of Maharashtra, especially Ahmednagar, Aurangabad, Sangli, Solapur, Beed, Osmanabad, Latur and parts of Buldana. Locally known as kurans, these are fast disappearing. The total land area under kurans came down by about 42 per cent from 1989-90 to 1991-92. The grasslands here are scattered and interspersed, and are difficult to protect. Of the 8,000 sq km area in the Jawaharlal Nehru Bustard Sanctuary, only 400 sq km is under the forest department. Less than half of this area in under grass cover, according to Rahmani. Not surprisingly the availability of forage is extremely limited: available grasslands can feed 3 million cattle; the actual cattle population is 34.5 million.

RAJASTHAN: In the districts of Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner are found some of the finest grasslands, especially near the Indo-Pakistan border where the population is low. The Thar rangelands are depleting with time; optimum cover is now confined only to some inaccessible areas (see box: The wonder grass).

THE HIMALAYAN STATES: Known by various names -- margs, bahaks or dhoks in Jammu and Kashmir and thach and bugiyals in Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh -- alpine grasses and meadows account for 114,250 sq km of the land area in the Himalaya. Grazing, controlled by community regulations that the pastoralists observe, appears to be sustainable. Humid grasslands of the Himalayan terai region and the Brahamaputra valley have become severely fragmented and remnants can now be found only in some of the protected areas.

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