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A desert weeps

In the Kutch, the locals are in uneasy co-existence with their natural resources, writes PAMELA BHAGAT.

SHAILENDRA YASHWANT

... everything depends on the availability of water.

SUKHPUR, KUTCH DISTRICT

LAST June (2003), it rained after four consecutive years of drought. Despite that, for the first time, the village pond in Sukhpur, Kutch district, has dried up. The neglect of indigenous and traditional practices has led to an inability in ensuring a continuous flow of resources. Factors like intense cultivation without conservation of soil fertility, changes in land use practices like the growth of salt farms and the proliferation of exotic species have led to increasing desertification and soil erosion.

Kutch, in Gujarat, is one of India's largest districts. Perhaps the bleakest, dustiest and hottest region in India is the Rann of Kutch, a saline desert shimmering with images of a perpetual mirage. The sun beats down mercilessly on brittle scrub brush, cacti and salt flats. It rains only twice or thrice a year, if at all; and when it does, it comes down in torrents, carving channels through the cracked, sun-dried soil, racing to the sea before the soil has time to soak it in.

The desert ecosystem poses difficult problems — the forest area is scanty with poor growth of vegetation. Productivity is extremely low but the demand for fuel and fodder is very high. Consequently, the vegetation cover is over-exploited, and this accentuates the pace of desertification.

The Rann of Kutch harbours unique, and now-endangered, native flora and fauna besides considerable agro-biodiversity. Wild relatives of a number of indigenous variety of crops such as cumin and isabgol (its husk is used to make a natural laxative) are found here. It is also the sole habitat of the last surviving population of the endangered Indian wild ass and supports the breeding colonies of the Greater and Lesser Flamingo. The unique saline grassland (called banni) encourages many varieties of salt-tolerant grasses and numerous wild relatives of economically valuable species of shrubs.

This biological diversity has remained remarkably intact as a result of cultural values, social controls and indigenous knowledge, maintained and enforced by mechanisms of community control. But today, nowhere is the conflict between humans and biodiversity so intense as in this region where the population has high levels of illiteracy, poverty and population growth. These have forced the locals into an uneasy coexistence with their natural resources.

Along with 60 others, Kanha Bhai, 40, a farmer, is now labouring to revive a traditional water system in Sukhpur that had fallen into disrepair. The decision to initiate this work was taken by the village elders, with technical and financial support from "Cohesion", a local NGO that initiates natural resource management projects. This is an initial input whose impact will be visible only after another phase of rain.

"Soil erosion is also a serious problem here," says Kalyan Arya of "Cohesion". "Strong winds remove the fertile top soil and seawater intrusion during the rains leaves the soil and water saline. Denudation of natural vegetation has increased their vulnerability. We hope to build bunds around productive farmlands to stem this at least to some extent."

During drought years, Kanha Bhai's family of five subsists on wages from salt panning in the salt farms just a few kilometres away. Here, they have to vie for employment with increasing numbers of migrant workers. They normally earn Rs. 50 per day. During the dry months from October to June, after the seasonal salt marshes dry up, a majority of the population is employed in the preparation of salt pans and the production of salt or in its transportation.

The salt pan workers are exploited and often suffer from poor health but get no protection since it is an unorganised industry. Due to an increasing availability of cheap daily wager earners and the possibility of enhanced production, the companies that lease the marshes are expanding salt farms by encroaching upon grasslands and shrublands. This expansion of commercial salt extraction has resulted in disturbance to wildlife, especially the wild ass population and ground nesting birds like the bustard. With shortage of food, herds of the otherwise shy wild ass have now started attacking crops in neighbouring villages, further affecting the fragile economy and making agriculture even more unsustainable.

According to Kanha Bhai, even the poorest farmer has large holdings, up to 25 acres. The problem is output. Earlier, a mixture of any four crops — bajra, beans, moong, til, arhar, moath, jowar (different grains, pulses), was sown so that at least some could be harvested, depending on the weather conditions. Traditional practices of cultivation and storage (grains are not deseeded but kept on the stalk to prevent spoilage), reduced the impact of the recurring droughts on food intake. One good harvest sustained the family for up to three years and also took care of the seeds while fodder and firewood were by-products.

But during the past few years, Kanha Bhai cultivated jojo and senna, which are in great demand for medicinal purposes. The profits were good initially but he could not overcome the impact of market fluctuations. Also, growing jojo and senna did not restore the necessary balance of the soil, which tends to get saline. This year his crop failed due to insufficient water.

The fragile ecosystem here is circumscribed by water — or a lack of it. Dryland systems have their own dynamics of ensuring sustainable use of natural resources.

Today, Kanha Bhai knows that his problems are far too complex to be resolved by just another good phase of rainfall. Sukhpur, which literally means "land of contentment", is no longer what its name promises.

Women's Feature Service

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