The Banni grasslands in Kutch, Gujarat, span over 2,600 square kilometres (sq km). These grasslands are home to a pastoral community called the Maldhari. But in the 1960s, the government wanted to protect this region from salinity ingress from the Rann of Kutch and dropped millions of seeds of an exotic species called Prosopis Juliflora from helicopters.
Since then, Prosopis Juliflora has overtaken the native grasses in the area. The locals call this tree Ganda ('Crazy') Babool because it does not let anything else grow. The problem of salinity has also multiplied several times, and the Maldharis are faced with a perpetual fodder crisis. Often called Asia’s finest natural grassland, it now resembles a shrubby forest.
The area under the Prosopis Juliflora was only six per cent till 1997. But by 2015, this alien species had covered 54 per cent of the grassland. Salinity is also spreading across the Banni by 80 sq km every year.
Generally, this area gets about 400 millimetres of rainfall. But for the last two years, there has been hardly any rain, and the region is facing a drought-like situation. Because this tree sucks up all the water from the soil, it is also leading to land degradation and desertification.
Desertification in Gujarat has been a cause of worry for decades now. The state has lost more than 50 per cent of its area to desertification. There has been very little effort from the government to reverse this trend.
To restore the Banni grassland, a non-profit, Sahajeevan is working along with the local communities. They are trying to revive around 18,000 hectares of land in Kutch. They are now planting seeds collected by the local community with the hope that they will be able to revive part of the grassland.
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