At a blind bend

The Madhya Pradesh government has over and again failed to reclaim the ravines of Chambal Valley. Will it succeed this time?

By Shreeshan Venkatesh
Published: Sunday 31 July 2016
Ravines around Bhindwa village in Morena district. Ravines along the Chambal river are expanding and becoming deeper (Photo: Rakesh Nair)

Surrounding the temple of Baba Devpuri in Morena district, near-barren hillocks and steep gorges stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see. The only aberration in the landscape is a streak of blue at a distance. This is the infamous badlands along the Chambal river. It seems improbable that the unforgiving ravines could have ever been inhabited by people. But the priest informs that the temple once adjoined Piprai village, now located two kilometres from the site.

“We were forced to relocate,” says Dwarka Singh, a village elder. “It was in the late 1950s, when ravines started appearing in the form of small cuts on our farmland. Over the next few years, all the land in and around the village turned into deep pits,” he recalls. Today, ravines are once again on Piprai’s doorstep, and the residents are preparing for another exodus.

Such tales of repeated displacement are common across Bhind, Morena and Sheop ur districts of Madhya Pradesh, where unusually deep ravines are gobbling up villages and wasting away land. They are spreading faster than before (see ‘Geological wonder’).

After 60 years of chase and failure to check the spread, the state government has embarked on an ambitious drive to reclaim the ravines. It plans to convert 68,833 ha of ravine area in Bhind, Morena and Sheopur into farmland. This involves flattening a massive 18,000 ha of deep gorges and hillocks. Named Integrated Approach for the Reclamation of Ravines in Chambal Region of Madhya Pradesh, the project will be implemented by the departments of forestry, land resources and agriculture, horticulture and animal husbandry over five years. The government has sought assistance of Rs 900 crore from the Centre and the World Bank for the Rs 1,100 crore project, and plans to raise the remaining by roping in farmers and industrialists, who will be later allotted the reclaimed land. The project, though launched in January 2015, is yet to take a final shape. Experts, however, say it may face the same fate as the previous ravine reclamation projects.

Since 1955, the state and Union governments have tried several strategies, right from afforestation projects, bunds, check dams and drainage systems to aerial seeding, to make the ravines suitable for agriculture and industries. But they have had little impact on the region’s landscape. In fact, the attempt to vegetate the area by sprinkling seeds of hardy plants, such as babul and Prosopis, from aeroplanes backfired. The seeds were often dropped inadvertently on farmland. “Farmers are still trying to get rid of the weeds,” says Dwarka Singh.

“So far, only a few bio-fuel companies have set up production units in the region, which is otherwise lying completely waste,” says Rajesh Rajora, principal secretary in charge of the state departments for agriculture, horticulture and food processing. Analysts say containing ravines is not an impossible task. The problem lies in the way the government implements the projects.

“It requires sustained efforts which can be possible only by involving local people,” says a senior forest official in Morena. The success of community-driven projects can be seen at Morena’s Jabrol village. To protect their farmlands from advancing ravines, Jabrol residents built a three metre-high mud bund around the village. Such bunds usually give way in a year or two. But at Jabrol, it works well even after three years due to regular maintenance by farmers.

Analysts are particularly sceptical about the government’s latest strategy to flatten the ravines. “It is expensive and offers only short-term benefits,” says Moni Thomas, professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya, Jabalpur. Besides, the Chambal ravine system harbours a sensitive ecology (see ‘Haven in the underbelly’,). Flattening it will not only destroy the ecology, but will loosen the top soil, making it prone to erosion and susceptible to more gullying, he says. “We have seen flattening backfire in some sites in Morrocco and Spain, and the Chambal ravine system is more complex than these,” says Padmini Pani, assistant professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, who has worked on the Chambal ravine system.

But people in the valley are desperate. “With soaring land values, they are now reclaiming land wherever possible by levelling the jagged terrain,” says S K Verma, professor at Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia Krishi Vishwavidyalaya in Gwalior. One can see dozers and JCBs razing the stretch from Morena to Jaunpur, along Morena-Agra highway. A study based on satellite images, published in the journal Environmental Earth Sciences in February 2016, shows that the ravine area in Chambal valley has reduced by about 20 per cent between 1970 and 2010. The reduction is over 60 per cent in Bhind, Morena and Sheopur, shows another analysis of satellite images, published in Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyala ya Research Journal in 2015. There is a catch. The reduction is more likely as one moves away from the Chambal; the ravines closer to its banks are expanding and becoming deeper, notes the Environmental Earth Sciences paper. Containing these massive ravines would require an intelligent approach. It’s time the government learnt from communities who have reclaimed land along the Chambal and are benefitting from it.

Wisdom in hardship

One such community is in Morena’s Bhindwa village. “Ravine is the result of accelerated surface erosion. So we regulated the flow of water,” says Gabbar Singh, a resident. They built a 100 m-long concrete retention wall on a slop next to their farmland. The wall has a 13 m-wide conduit at the centre. As the rainwater flows through the conduit, its erosive force is reduced. The soil eroded gets deposited on the farm-side of the wall. The result was beyond imagina tion. In five years, gorges have filled up and hillocks have shrunk. “We have reclaimed 100 ha of fertile land,” says Singh. It has been distributed among 18 families who built the wall at an expense of Rs 10 lakh.

In Morena, non-profit Sujagriti Seva Sanstha is trying to improve soil strength by reintroducing a thorny shrub, guggul (Commiphora wightii) in 10 villages. The plant, which was once endemic to the valley, is known for the medicinal use of its resin. But it takes three-four years to fully take root. “During this period, they require regular supervision,” says Zakir Hussain, president of the non-profit. Hussain persuaded people to take care of the plant by explaining its economic value and by training them in tapping the raisin. Since the project began in 2006, guggul plants have taken root across 100 ha of community land.

The forest department has to plant guggul over 300 ha as part of 12th Five Year Plan. Morena District Forest Officer P P Tittare says poor survival of the plant is a stumbling block in achieving the target. Maybe he can follow Hussai’s strategy. This will protect the region from ravines and provide additional income to people.

Sources: October-December 2015 issue of Jawaharlal
Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya Research Journal
Geological wonder

What makes Chambal ravines unique

Ravines are formed by deep erosive action of water on the alluvial soil. However, unlike ravines elsewhere in the country, those in Chambal Valley are massive—up to 10 metre deep and 30 metre high. Worse, they are spreading fast.

Studies show farmland availability per person has reduced to 0.20 ha from 0.29 ha in Bhind, Morena and Sheopur in the past three decades.

This is because of two reasons. One, ravines in the Chambal are hundreds of thousands years old. Their origin can be traced back to a geological process, the last thrusting event in the Himalayas.

As sediments in the upper Siwalik region were uplifted 500,000-700,000 years ago, a peripheral bulge acted in the south, around the Bundelkhand-Vindhyan plateau.

It forced the Chambal river to incise and find a new equilibrium of flow. As the flow of its paleo-channels got disrupted, they started eroding the land and giving rise to ravines.

The other factor is that the alluvial soil in the valley is loose, has high sand content of up to 95 per cent and extremely low organic content. This makes it further prone to erosion.

 The story was published in the 16-31 July, 2016 issue of Down To Earth magazine.

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