Climate Change

Desertification in India: How a faulty government scheme degraded Gujarat's Banni grasslands

Introduction of a non-native plant, Prosopis juliflora, in the region on the recommendation of the third Planning Commission to fight salinity, worsened the ecology and increased desertification

 
By Shagun Kapil
Last Updated: Monday 09 September 2019
Overgrazing and encroachment of grassland for agricultural activities have also led to desertification in Gujarat. Photo: Adithyan PC
Overgrazing and encroachment of grassland for agricultural activities have also led to desertification in Gujarat. Photo: Adithyan PC Overgrazing and encroachment of grassland for agricultural activities have also led to desertification in Gujarat. Photo: Adithyan PC

The Banni grasslands used to look like an oasis in Kutch: The district’s usual dry and sandy terrain would transform into a green carpet. Not anymore.

It is still referred to as Asia’s finest natural grassland, but all that’s left in Banni are a few green patches amid parched land. 

“At one time we had verdant grasslands for grazing cattle. There was no shortage of grass for fodder. Our pashu (animals) used to travel long distances. Now there’s nothing,” said Kuber Karamkant Jat of Bagaria village.

He is from the pastoral community of Maldharis, who are the worst sufferers of the degradation and desertification of the grasslands, spanning 2,617 sq km in the Kutch region. The Banni buffaloes, a breed famous for its milk quality and drought resistance, have depended on this grassland for centuries.

The locals noted that after every two good rainfall years, a drought year used to follow and they adapted accordingly. However, the last five to six years, especially 2017 and 2018 have seen extreme dry conditions, which have left Banni with almost no grass. 

Lakhpat, some 135 km from Bhuj, is one of the 10 talukas of Kutch. It is said the taluka got its name centuries ago, as people earned a lakh coins a day thanks to their green crops.

“Everybody knows this. It was a town of rich people. Now it is dry and barren,” said Chintan Jethi, who owns taxi cabs in Bhuj.

The area was, in fact, covered by dense forests millennia ago. “The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has in different years collected dinosaurs’ fossils and eggs from the area, which date back to 240 million years ago,” Vijay Kumar, director of Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (GUIDE), said.

The giant reptiles still herbivorous, indicating dense forests flourished in Lakhpat. “I personally have seen a tree fossil nearly 21 metres in length,” Kumar said. Of course, there have been climatic changes since then along with which the land has also changed.

Several volcanic eruptions too contributed to the change and, more recently, a massive earthquake in the 1800s cleared a lot of forest.

At Banni, while erratic rainfall has been a major reason for desertification, experts also blame anthropogenic reasons.

A non-native plant

In 1960-61, the government introduced Prosopis juliflora — a non-native plant — in the region on the recommendation of the Planning Commission to fight salinity and to stop the advancement of the Rann of the Kutch on the northern fringes of Banni.

The seeds were thrown from a helicopter over 31,550 ha. It was done without evaluating the ecological and socio-economic consequences, according to a report by the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun.

The plant thrived in the non-saline and low saline soils and invaded the pristine grasslands of Kutch. In 1997, only six per cent area was under P juliflora; by 2009, it had covered 33 per cent; and by 2015, some 54 per cent, said Vijay Kumar, director, Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology (guide), Bhuj, Gujarat.

“As it increased, Banni decreased,” he said. “Earlier even during less rainfall, the native grass used to grow well. Now only ganda babool (as P juliflora is referred to by local people) sucks all the water,” said Isa Bhai Mutwa, a pastoralist who owns 30 buffaloes.

Overgrazing

The ganda babool, however, is not the only problem. If experts are to be believed, grazing practices over time have contributed significantly to the degradation. 

Pointing out the problem of “repeated overgrazing”, Kumar said: “Overgrazing essentially means that an animal comes and feeds on the grass before the seed is produced which leads to gradual natural reduction of seed bank in the area.”

The grass is divided into two parts: basal is called metabolic reserve and upper is epical reserve. An animal can graze till epical reserve safely. During overgrazing, the animal feeds on metabolic reserve and once it touches it, the plant dies. When that happens, land is exposed to soil erosion, eventually leading to desertification. 

“Overgrazing damages the ecosystem. Earlier the livestock population exceeded human population. The grassland was also used by pastoralists from Maharashtra and Rajasthan for grazing their cows,” Kumar said. 

“We have no regulations on how many animals should be permitted at one given time to graze a land. For example in Israel there is a grazing officer who gives these permissions. In India, the damage has been done,” he added.  

Encroachment of grassland for agricultural activities by some Maldharis themselves served as another blow. As their main livelihood of livestock suffered, some of them shifted to experimenting growing agricultural crops, which left the land barren. 

According to estimates by non-profit Sahjeevan, around 18,000 hectares of land in Kutch has been encroached under agricultural activities. The NGO, working in the state to conserve ecological resources, has now taken up work to restore this area. 

“The soil property got disturbed due to agricultural practices. The grass lost its seed bank. It’s so degraded that it’s a challenge for us to restore it,” said Pankaj Joshi, executive director of Sahjeevan.

Kumar agrees that as people experimented without having knowledge of what they can grow and, “a level came when whatever you put, you are not getting any result and the land became barren”.

Irrespective of the reason, the 2004 study by GUIDE shows that only 33 per cent of the biomass harvested from Banni is suitable for cattle. “The rest is weed,” Kumar said. The Maldharis now purchase their fodder or wait for the government supply. The Gujarat government provides fodder around 8 kg fodder to one cattle per week and cattle feed.

This has affected the quality of milk as well as their livelihood. “We order the grass from Valsad at Rs 1,600 per 100 kg. But that is not natural. We don’t consider even the best quality grass we get from there to be equal to the worst that used to be available here,” Jat said.

“Earlier, the fat content in milk used to be eight to 10 per cent. Now, since last two to three years, it has come down to four to five per cent. As a result, we have suffered losses too. From getting Rs 40-45 per litre, now it’s just Rs 30-35,” Jat lamented.

“The green revolution proved disastrous for us. Earlier even during less rainfall, the native grass used to grow well but now Ganda Babool takes away all rechargeable water,” said Mutwa. 

“The condition will be much worse now,” said Kumar, who was also part of the GUIDE study. 

Villagers agree the land has lost all its strength. Earlier, even in less rainfall, good grass used to grow. But now that only happens after a good shower, said Fateh Mohammad of Bagaria village.

Mutwa recalls that around 1965-66, the Maldhari community’s main livestock population included cows. “There were around 66,000 varieties of cows.  But they could not adapt to ganda babool. Their digestion system became weak. So we shifted to Banni buffaloes,” he said.

With these changes, the livelihood pattern of the community also shifted over the years. Around 25-30 years ago, the Maldharis didn’t believe in selling milk but instead sold milk products like ‘ghee’. 

Milk was only reserved for self-consumption. As fodder shortage hit hard, the community had to find better income options and thus the milk economy grew. 

“Earlier there was no input and no income.  We didn’t have to sell milk. If ever we were in a crisis, we used to sell one cow or buffalo, though with a heavy heart. Isi ghaas se ghar chalta tha. Ab guzara kar rahe hain. Par purana system acha tha (Earlier this grass used to provide us livelihood. We are managing now, but the old system was better), Mutwa said. 

“Desertification in Gujarat has been a cause of worry for decades now. It was known in 1970s when the first convention was held and it was decided that by 2000, we will stop it totally. But the degradation process is still on. The problems are not unknown but not much has been achieved till date,” said Kumar.

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