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Issue 97
, 2020
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Thriving Barrens: Ravines and Desert are not wastelands

Shania Tahir
Source: Shania Tahir, Date: , 2020

One can easily forgive a common man who perceives ravines, deserts, and wetlands as 'barren' land of no ecological importance. However, this naive view is not expected out of a specialized government panel. The Central government recently declared more than 3 lakh hectares of rugged land in Gwalior-Chambal belt as 'Wasteland' and has decided to turn the ravines of Madhya Pradesh into arable land. Center is seeking World-Bank's support for the project. There is also a proposal for 'Chambal Expressway', that will pass through the region. The project is at the land acquisition stage and government plans industrial units and food clusters on both sides of the highway to boost micro, small and medium enterprises. Understandably, the government aims to increase the economic value of the region. However, it must be realized that every landscape cannot be reduced to its value in simple economic terms. Even 'barren-looking' landscapes have productive ecosystems with thriving niches.

Bihads (ravines) are part of an integrated ecosystem. The course of the Chambal, which is roughly 1,000 kilometers long, is through these ravines, away from human settlement. Hence, wildlife flourished in the river and on its banks. The National Chambal Sanctuary is blessed with unique flora and fauna. Here more than 5,000 gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) were born in the last hatching season and rare species of dolphins - Platanista gangetica declared endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), are found.

For converting ravines into arable land, a large-scale land leveling is being planned. This can have disastrous impacts. Flattening not only destroys the ecology but also loosens the topsoil, making it prone to erosion and susceptible to further gullying. Another major impact of large-scale leveling is the disappearance of common lands like grazing lands. On these grazing lands, landless people graze their livestock to support their families. This will lead to a decline in the livestock population, and the natural links between rainfed agriculture and livestock rearing will collapse. Clearing of land will erase the indigenous trees and ultimately become prone to flooding. Instead of thinking 'one size fits all' government should use a more holistic approach for inclusive and sustainable development which avoids large disturbances in social and ecological harmony in ravines.

Among the lands chosen to generate the solar component for India's ambitious target to generate 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, the Thar Desert, a huge ecosystem in the state of Rajasthan is also included. The Thar is dotted by Orans, small patches of forested landscape (sacred groves). Local deities are believed to be residents in these Orans and during the dry months between April - June and October -December, Orans are used as grazing lands for camels, goats and sheep.

Solar energy will constitute a major chunk of India's renewable energy capacity. The planned high-tension power transmission lines will connect to a 700-megawatt grid service station (GSS) located just a few meters outside the Oran in the Sanwtha village cuts through several other Orans. The Sanwtha Oran is a habitat to a variety of wildlife like critically endangered great Indian bustards, of which there are only about 250 mature adults left in the world, Chinkara (Indian gazelle), desert fox, and Nilgai, among dozens of species endemic to the Thar. Numerous migratory birds, including Siberian cranes, are winter guests here.

Many Orans are being allotted to energy companies which are felling age-old trees and destroying local ecology. In 2018, the Supreme Court passed an order that sacred groves of Rajasthan are to be treated as 'deemed forests'. Deemed Forests, which account for about 1% of land in India, are tracts of land (which may include deserts and grasslands) that have not been officially recognized as municipally protected forests. Some orans have been rescued like this, but all are not safe and villagers want their Orans back. For authorities, development means having power transmission lines (not electricity supply), highways and flyovers not education, health facilities, and a sense of inclusiveness.