Beyond the Thar's austere barrenes, a battle of survival rages - between the region's treasure-trove of floral diversity and marauders like humans, animals and weather

-- (Credit: M M Bhandari)CONTRADICTIONs abound in the Thar, the Indian desert. Referred to as Maru pradesh or Marusthali (land of death) in the local dialect, the Thar's abiding features are the seemingly unending bouts of famines and droughts which afflict its inhabitants. In fact, the locals have an apt saying for the phenomenon: Marwar me kanwale ubikal ("The famine is ever standing at the door of Marwar").

And yet this hostile landscape lays claim to being one of the most densely populated (71 persons per sq km) and zones on earth. What makes these forbidding wastelands - sun-seared, wind-scoured and waterless - home to so many? The answer lies in the amazing floral diversity of the region, which gives sustenance to man and animal.

"While visiting the Indian desert, the response of even a trained botanist like me is one of overwhelmed astonishment," says M M Bhandari, professor emeritus of botany at Jodhpur University, who has been actively engaged in the study of desert plants for the past 40 years. The Thar is host to around 700 species of plants, of which 6.4 per cent are endemic to the region compared to the 3-5 per cent figure for the Sahara in Africa. "This high endemism and inten;,speciation is on account of the extreme dyna f the ecological conditions and recent geological, physiographic, topographical and altitudinal changes," explains Bhandari.

This array of genes, species and ecosystems is a resource that is closely intertwined with the cultural diversity of the region, one shaping the other. Says Pirdan Singh, a poor farmer from Bikaner, "A Rajasthani uses a tree's fruits for himself, its leaves OR for his camel, cattle or sheep and its twigs for his c oolha (earthen oven)." Singh's is an understatement; trees mean much more for the locals.

For instance, the khejri (Prosopis cineraria) is one of the most revered plants of the Indian desert. An evergreen, long-lasting friend of the locals, it is said to be the kalpavriksha (the mythological tree of munificence) of the region as it improves soil moisture and fertility, serves as a wind-breaker and provides fuel, timber, vegetables and green fodder; almost every part of this tree is used in one form or the other.

The tree is held sacred by the Bishnois, an agricultural community native to the desert. Says Mohan Shankar Dashora, lecturer in biology at Jaipur's Government Ayurvedic College, "Its charcoal burns more efficiently and the ash, which contains 31 per cent soluble potassium salts, is a good source of potash. Women apply this ash on their skin; it acts as a hair remover." Unripe pods of the khejri are used as,fodder for livestock, while ripened pods or sangri are used as a vegetable.

Rohida (Tecomella undulata), another local species, is an excellent -source of timber. The wood, which is soft, tough and durable, is used in making furniture, Persian wheels and lacquered toys. Often called the 'teak of the desert', this tree has now all but disappeared.

Besides these two species, the region supports an incredible variety of shrubs and smaller plants. The phog plant (Calligonum polygonoides), with its extensive root system, grows on sand dunes and acts as an effective sandbinder. Its leaves serve as fodder for sheep, while its flowers are eaten by the locals. Its roots make excellent firewood and the charcoal produced - which burns with a high intensity - is popular with goldsmiths and ironsmiths.

The aak (Calotropisprocera), a much-branched shrub provides fibre from its stem, which is used to make cords and ropes. The fibre can withstand regular contact with water; hence, ropes made from it are used in wells and tanks. The floss from the seeds is utilised in stuffing pillows, while the latex and root bark are used medicinally.

"We believe that Lord Shiva resides in the aak tree. In fact, safed (white) aak, a rarer version, is always found in or around the shrines of the deity," says Nakku Singh Bhati, a wizened old resident of Jaisalmer. "Extract from the leaves of the chanikash is good for the eyes; the seeds of the detnal shrub serve as pain relievers for the joints. The roots of jhino-biyono, another herb are used to cure toothaches. This desert is better than any modern dawa-khana (dispensary)," asserts Bhati, his eyes twinkling.

The influx of exotic and modified species of fruits and plants into the region have pushed the traditional inexpensive types into obscurity. Pilu, a much-relished fruit of a wild shrub, Salvadora persica, and ker (Capparis decidua) whose unripe fruits are consumed as vegetables and made into pickles, are examples of locally available fruits. Ker is believed to be helpful in, reducing cholesterol. Since the cholesterolenhancing ghee (clarified butter) is an important ingredient of the Rajasthani diet, ker is traditionally served before a meal.

Since agriculture is at the mercy of rains, most of the more and parts of Rajasthan - especially Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner - have always depended on livestock. The desert has a wide variety of grasses and shrubs that provide excellent fodder. The major and more extensively found grasses are sewan (Lasiurus sindicus), ganthia tantia (Dactyloctenium sindicus) and murut grass (Panicum turgidum).

Thanks to this immense floral diversity, the Thar has succeeded in nourishing both humans and their animals through the ages. On the other hand, the exploitation of the vegetation for fuel and forage and a growing population's continuous pressure on this fragile ecosystem have negatively affected the biodiversity of the region.

M M Bhandari is a worried man today. "I have myself been a witness to a rapid destruction of plant-life in the desert. Thirty-four plants are threatened or endangered, of which three are probably already extinct. I have been unable to locate them in any of my recent field trips," he laments.

The increasing demand for firewood is one of the principle causes behind the depleting vegetative cover. Trees, shrubs and their roots are indiscriminately removed for fuel, food, fencing and construction.

Phog, essential for checking desertification, is one of the major victims. According to British botanists Blatter and Hallberg (1918-21), this species was common in the vicinity of jodhpur, but has now disappeared completely. Bhandari recalls how, a few years ago, he and some of his students had posted themselves on the roads coming into the city of Bikaner and discovered that cartloads of phog roots were being brought into the city. They estimated the traffic at around 800 tonnes of wood per day. Bhandari winces when asked to imagine what must be the rate of exploitation today.

The requirement of fuelwood in the region has increased from 1.85 -million tonnes (mt) in 1951 to 4 mt in 1991. No wonder the main target species like the khejri and phog face an uncertain future. The pressure on the flora increases during droughts when even normally untouched plants like thor (Euphorbia caducifolia) are removed for fuel or fodder.

To add to the sorry picture, the Indian desert is home to more than double the recommended bovine grazing population. Hungry herds of camel, sheep and goat reduce the vegetation to decimated landscapes.

Development activities like mining and road and canal construction have contributed towards further erosion of the habitat. With the construction of the Indira Gandhi canal and the attempts towards a new water-intensive cropping pattern, the floral composition of the desert has altered significantly. Says P L Joshi, scientist at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute's (CAM), jodhpur, outreach programme division, "The numbers of ker, kumat and khejri plants are dwindling because of felling and the fact that their new generations cannot make up for the old ones dead or lost."

Scientists and academics involved in conservation point out that 'gene erosion' can happen at a particularly faster pace in the desert. Another CAZRI scientist, R Mehertia points out, "The combined pressures of man, animal and droughts are giving no time for regeneration, despite the remarkable regenerating abilities of the Indian desert."

A visibly anxious Bhandari says, "There is an urgent need for a concerted effort towairds conservation of the desert's biodiversity. A lot of attention is being given to fancy hi-tech fields like biotechnology in India-today. We seem to be fascinated by the bioech industry of the North, but we must remember that first it is in our own interest to conserve and protect those very gene pools, present in the South, that this technology will exploit."

Bhandari advocates the concept of a 'desert garden' for propogating the threatened and rare species, besides highlighting the need for a comprehensive survey to document desert plantlife. Obviously, his ideas have not found favour with the government. Even the proposed Thar biosphere reserve has not seen the light of the day. An idea mooted by conservationists and scientists, the reserve envisages an area of 3,162 sq km, with its core area and a buffer zone in western Rajasthan. It is widely believed that the presence of precious limestone deposits in the pro- posed biosphere reserve is responsible for the state government's stalling manoeuvres.

The concern for conservation demonstrated by the inhabitants of the region is not an isolated phenomenon, notes S M Mohnot, director, School of Desert Sciences, Jodhpur. "It stems from a tradition of a people living in a resource-scarce area like the Thar. It is the land of the charismatic Bishnoi sect, whose ideas and practices of conservation are legendary... People of the desert respect the bio-diversity of their land," he says.

The government's belated action at germplasm conservation is yet to take off. The National Arid Horticulture Research Institute (NAHRI) was set up two years ago under the Indian Council ofAgricultural Research. Apart from the director, scientists have been appointed so far to the institute. Functioning from a rented building in a Bikaner suburb, NAHRI's director Pareek Singh is however, optimistic. "Our mandate is to con serve indigenous species. We have just beg our work. This year we have collected 250 varia tions of khejri. It will take time for our endeav ours to bear fruit. Germplasm conservation of desert plants is one of our prime priorities,"he says; a priority that still awaits its appropriate place in the minds of the politicians and bureaucrats who rule the sands of the Thar today.

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