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Winning Back the Earth

Winning Back the Earth

Author: Uday Mahurkar
Publication: India Today
Date: August 7, 2006

Introduction: As the Gujarat Government attempts to tame a wild plant by legalising an industry around it, there is hope that Kutch's once-famous grasslands could re-emerge from under a carpet of babool

In the Banni region of Kutch, western Gujarat, there is a move to turn back the ecological clock. It will take unusual means and Banni, a 2,900-sq-km area, which once epitomised greenery, may never be the same. But, there is hope still that the damage done to what once claimed to be Asia's largest pasture can be redressed, even if to a small degree.

The culprit, wild babool now covers the grasslands of Banni, having been introduced into the local ecosystem by the erstwhile rulers of Kutch and Saurashtra five decades ago. It was imported from Mexico to arrest the advance of the desert and protect coastal crops from harmful saline winds. But for the past three decades, the babool plant (prosopis juliflora) has turned out to be an environmental monster, growing at lightning speed, enveloping the farmlands and rendering them infertile. It wiped out the grass cover of Banni, depriving cattle of their sustenance and devastating the local economy. The groundwater table in Banni dropped, too, given that babool guzzles enormous quantities of water as it spreads over dry terrain. Locals call the plant gando baval (mad/bad babool) because of its harmful effects on the ecology.

A year ago, however, things changed when the Gujarat Government legalised the business of making charcoal from wild babool. This charcoal is of high quality, and is much in demand as fuel by industrial units. The decision has changed the economy of the region; it may soon begin to impact its ecology.

The charcoal business has become a source of handsome livelihood for the 20,000-strong population of Banni and those residing in the adjoining areas. Everyday, 1,000 tonne of charcoal-priced around Rs 700 a tonne in Gujarat and Rs 1,000 in other states-is transported out of Kutch, its quality a big draw for the factories of Punjab and Haryana. The business has generated income for both owners and labourers. For instance, Vaiyar Sumar Jat of Bagadia village today earns Rs 250 daily, a jump from Rs 50.

Meghrajji Jadeja, a farmer of Banni's Bibbar village, says, "Had this scheme been implemented two decades ago, the damage to Banni's eco-system could have been prevented." Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi hopes to replicate the scheme in the entire state. "We are implementing this project across Gujarat to save large tracts of otherwise cultivable land from babool," he says. Adds environmentalist Kandarp Katju, "The plant had affected all of Gujarat and many other states. If replicated this project can revive the grasslands in not just Kutch but elsewhere, too."

However, legalising the charcoal business is not devoid of risks. Once the number of babool plants starts declining, villagers might start growing more of it in the hope of making big money from charcoal. It would then negate the very purpose of the exercise. Besides, controlled growth of babool helps farmers block dry and saline winds and aids the survival of standing crops in coastal, as well as desert areas. A government order prohibits cutting of wild babool within two kilometre of the coast but not in plantation areas bordering the desert. Clearly, the government's work is not complete despite the success of the scheme. The grasslands of Banni will be able to recapture their old glory only through relentless vigil.

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