A sandy paradox

  • 14/10/1995

A sandy paradox ACROSS the sand dunes on the journey from Jaisalmer in western Rajasthan to Bikaner, is the dramatic sight of vast stretches of rolling grasslands, extending far into the horizon for kilometres on end.

The dominant perennial grass is the indigenous sewan (Lasiurus sindicus), popularly known as the "king of desert grasses". The sewan grasslands cover nearly 80 per cent of the total geographical area of the district. It has two subtypes, L.sindicus-panicum. turgidum and L.sindicus-eleusine compressa. Over years people of the desert have evolved a lifestyle around the sewan grass, based on animal care. Today, however, rapid cHanges taking place in the desert, including the introduction of the Indira Gandhi Canal (Mc), are resulting in water intensive agriculture replacing animal care. Consequently, the land use pattern in western Rajasthan is changing fast.

Thanks to the sewan grasslands, the Jaisalmer area had come to be known as the land where rivers of milk and ghee (butter oil) flow. With 95 per cent of the land area covered by grasslands and about 5 per cent area, mainly irrigated by a traditional technology called khadins, under cultivation, it was only natural that animal care developed into the mainstay of the economy of the people living in far-flung hamlets, or dhanis, of this area.

In western Rajasthan, goat and sheep constitute 52 per cent, while cattle forms 10 per cent of farm animals. The remaining 38 per cent is constituted of camels and donkeys. This livestock wealth is maintained and nurtured by the people of this extremely arid part of Rajasthan, due to the abundant availability of forage from natural pastures.

Pastoralists migrated to these parts from far and wide. Due to scarcity of drinking water, the animals were allowed to graze for 3 to 4 days before returning to water points, called Tobas. The tharparkar and rathi, indigenous breeds of cows, have adapted to the and conditions.

Sewan is a remarkable natural resource for the peo' le of the desert. High water-use efficiency enables this native grass cover to maximise its production even with little water available through scanty rains fall (100mm annually). It also has high energy-use efficiency, which permits it to produce more biomass. Besides, it is one of the most nutritious grasses known, with a protein content of 7 to 11 per cent.

It is no surprise that the people of this area have come to almost eulogise these grasslands. it is said that the butter milk produced from the milk of cattle fed on sewan is highly enriched and is a distinctly darker shade of yellow. A local saying sums up the importance of this natural wealth:
Raja re dhan ro, Palli re sewan ro, Koi ghat koni (just like one has no idea about the King's wealth, one can not estimate the amount of sewan in the Palli area.)

Sewan root stocks can lie dorm4nt for years at a stretch, despite recurring droughts. It only takes a shower or two during the monsoon period (July-August) for the sewan to grow as lush and profuse grasslands. Sewan grows to the height of 75 cm to 100 cm and is a profusely tussocky grass. Vegetative growth starts in July with the onset of the monsoon and flowering and seed setting in August and September. It is rather a stemmy grass, with poor leaf component. The crude protein in the Sewan herbage is high (8.14 per cent) in the early vegetative stage of growth, and low (4 to 6 per cent after 80-120) days of growth. Sewan is cut and stored by villagers for use in times of drought and scarcity. Stored sewan can last for around 8-10 years. Stored in mounds, sewan turns black. Regular browsing and moderate cutting are considered beneficial, as they promote growth.

Sewan gives a high yield (2.5 to 3.6 tonnes per ha) of dry fodder under natural conditions. The Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) at jodhpur has done considerable work on L. sindicus. Ram Singh Mehertia, who heads the Jaisalmer division Of CAZRI says, "We have managed to increase the yield of sewan up to 6 tonnes/ha, with proper protection, re-seeding, better varieties obtained through breeding programmes and optimum plant cover per unit of area." CAZRI has conducted experiments on re-seeding and evolved deferred rotational systems of cutting and grazing, as sewan has better growth with the right amount and timing of cutting to max- imise yields. Mehertia asserts, "Having demonstrated such results, I find it absurd that the state has spent Rs 50 crore on fodder purchase during the worst droughts, between 1984 and 1990. 1 think we can meet the fodder requirements of the state from the sewan grass lands itself." He explains that sewan grass is an ecologically hardy but sensitive plant. A fact that the state authorities ignored when they installed a sprinkler system in 40 ha of natural grasslands at the cost of Rs 4 lakh, with the hope of augmenting the fodder yield. Obviously, their grand scheme did not work, since sewan does not require too much irrigation.

"We still haven't fully understood the ecology of these grAsses," says Suresh Kumar, another cAni scientist who has worked on sewan. "In 1993, we had rains in August and September, which is unusual for this time of the year, as most of the rain comes in the month of July. We expected production of a large natural seed bank by December-January. Much to our amazement, almost no seeding had taken place. We concluded that it obviously means that sewan needs a dry period, after the July rains, in order to form seeds. It is only in Jakalmer district, that one finds such a rainfall pattern. The plant has adapted itself precisely to this ecological and climatic niche!"

Mehertia claims that if well managed and protected, the production of the Jaisalmer grasslands can increase 3 to 4 fold. "Fodder shortages have already led to clashes, among migrating graziers, from jodhpur, attracted by the sewan pastures, and the locals of the area. The grasslands get no time to recover from droughts. Overgrazing causes the young shoots to get browsed, leaving no chance for the pastures to regenerate," he points out.

The carrying capacity of the Jaisalmer grasslands is around 0.2 to 0.5 adult cattle unit (Acu) per ha, while the present figure is 3.2 Acu/ha. Besides, overgrazing of the sewan pastures poses an even bigger threat. The IGC, the main canal and its network of channels, passes through some of the most pristine sewin pastures. The grasslands face two threats: one from land coming under water-intensive agriculture, and the other from indiscriminate use of water from the canal to irrigate these pastures. Heavy irrigation in these grasslands is likely to prove lethal to these desert plants, which may finally be eliminated. Suresh Kumar says, "If at all irrigation does become essential, one has to be very careful in fixing the quantity and schedule of irrigation in view of its obvious ecological boomerangs on the natural grasslands."

With the allbtment of land to people in the second stage of thol' command area of the IGC Project already underway, people are not so sure about the prophesied bexi@fits of irrigation. MaIji Bhati, a resident of Malanavillage in Jaisalmer district, has been allotted 25 bighis (approx. I ha) of land to cultivate. "I still haven't got a patta (title deed) for the land. Besides I do n9i have the capital or skill to farm. I'd rather take 'up pashu-palan (animal care), given all the natural 1@astures that God has gifted our land with."

People like Bhati fear the death of animal care which has been the mainstay as a livelihood, of the local economy for centuries. Their sentiments are echoed by M L Khichi, the Project Officer of the District Rural Development Office at Jaisalmer: "Grazing land-based animal care is, therefore, the most stable, least destructive and profitable land use in Jaisalmer, and perhaps will remain so for many years to come."v Water has only recently arrived in these parts of Jaisalmer. Further north in Bikaner district, around the town of Chattargarh, bordering Pakistan, there are lush green fields of a variety of crops. Farmers have been growing cotton, ground- nut, wheat and pulses, for the past two decades thanks to the coming of the IGC. There is a relative level of prosperity that is evident in these desert villages. Sometimes, in between the patches of agricultural land one sees large areas fenced off. What these barbed wires of the forest department today protects under pasture development schemes are what is left of some of the most pristine and best grazing lands of this region, called the Chitrang. It was once a veritable paradise for pastoralists. It was a sewan-rich area where the famed rathi breed of cows were bred by the Jalukas, a Muslim nomadic pastoral community. The Jalukas, and 30 odd other Joyia communities and their livestock, revolved around this natural resource. Explains Karim Baksh Khan, a panwar from Jhalwali village, "The Chitrang extended around a radius of about 100 km. There was some rainfed agriculture here, but essentially animal care. Milk and milk products were the mainstay of our economy. The Banias (traders) and the Brahmins of the towns acted as the middlemen in the trade. The Muslim pastoralists sold ghee to them. It was taboo to sell fresh milk. Milk from a cow was considered to be as important as your son and you don't sell your own son! Besides, camels, sheep and goats were bred in large numbers."

This livestock-based economy saw a sea change with the coming of the IGC. Suddenly the people had a choice of switching to agriculture. Many did. Sewan tracts came under the plough. Water-intensive agriculture became the order of the day, causing the extensive loss of large areas of grazing land. Most still people keep some livestock. The Jalukas have not yet given up their large herds. With the loss of sewan pastures, they now migrate to Punjab, where they live on wastelands and marginal lands. They manage to purchase fodder from farmers in Punjab. The land allotted to them in Rajasthan gives them an additional income from a share-cropping system.

The command area development authorities propose to designate areas along the left bank of the canal for pasture development. Rahul Ghai, working for URMUL Setu, an NGO in Lunkaransar, has been studying this region and its people closely. Says he, "The government's (that is, forest department) efforts to develop what's remaining of the sewan pastures is a farce. What was earlier an open grazing system is now reduced to a regulated one, giving ample opportunity for corruption. People have to pay bribes of as much as Rs 50 to Rs 70 per animal for grazing, instead of the official fee of Rs3! Besides, those who herd sheep always have ready cash, therefore they can pay easily, and uncontrolled grazing of sheep is disastrous for grasslands."

Ghai is sceptical about the plans,to develop the sewan areas of Jaisalmer by the canal authorities in the second stage of the canal. "It is as yet only at a rhetoric level. With more and more areas being designated as hardpan (land with a gypsum layer beneath), which is unsuitable for agriculture, they are forced to talk about pasture development."

Nearly no one concerned with animal care is hesitant to emphasise the potential of the area. Says M K Biswas, the managing director of the URMUL dairy in Bikaner, I am told that the total annual production of both kharif and rabi crops in the command area of the canal is expected to generate an income of Rs 1,1'00 crore. My dairy alone contributes Rs 75 crore to the state exchequer. Now, surely one can see the potential of these areas, given these natural sewan pastures and ideally suited breeds, like rathi and tharparkar!" A K Ghoshal, director of research at the veterinary college at Bikaner, even suggests legislation to protect sewan pastures, and the allotment of land in the second stage of the canal only to pastoralists. Says Ghoshal, "Maybe I'm biased in favour of animal care but that is the key to development in this region, and not agriculture. If we don't do something now, we'll lose both the precious gifts of God, the rathi breed and the sewan pastures."

Ghoshal has reasons to fear. Already in Jaisalmer district, people have begun burning sewan to prepare the land for agriculture. The tractors uproot the sewan root stocks, causing a permanent loss. Indigenous breeds of cattle are being replaced by new exotic hybrid ones. The survival of sewan, and a whole ecological niche along with its as -sociated lifestyle, stands at the crossroads today.

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