India's Disappearing Grasslands
The grasslands are the most productive ecosystems, but they are the responsibility of none, they belong to all, neglected by all, controlled by none, and have no godfathers
Put a cross-section of a blade of grass under a microscope and you’ll be amazed to see an array of smilies through the eyepiece. These ‘happy’ faces are actually vascular bundles—water getting transported along the leaf system, but the optical illusion that a simple blade of grass offers is the wonder that can be counted amongst millions that nature offers. Now imagine billions of them smiling from seven different unique grasslands that dot the country—coastal grasslands, riverine alluvial grasslands, montane grasslands, sub-Himalayan grasslands, tropical savannas and wet grasslands. And how unknowingly we never noticed!
Rain does wonders to grasslands and this is really a good time to look at the ubiquitous clump of grass, a time they show off their best shade of green, or flowering like the Kans grass. They have sprung back to life with an unmatched radiance from a withered state during the oppressive summer heat. The transformation is near-magical—a testimony to the resilience and character of grass as a species. Yet grass remains an overlooked species in our nature conservation or restoration narrative. Where the focus remains on growing back trees to meet forest cover targets and sequester carbon stocks for climate change mitigation.
Grasslands sequester carbon as well, in the soil, yet they are never included in the climate change story. As global temperatures rise, we are witnessing extreme weather events, especially wildfires gutting acres and acres of forest releasing tonnes of carbon trapped in the tree trunks into the atmosphere. Whereas, the grass is a survivor, which can endure any extreme weather calamity—flood, frost and fire. As dire warnings of temperature rise and frequent extreme weather continue from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a University of California, Davis study (2018) stated that with the increasing threat of drought and wildlife, grasslands may be more reliable carbon sinks than forests. “The resilience of grasslands to rising temperatures, drought and fire, coupled with the preferential banking of carbon to belowground sinks, helps to preserve sequestered terrestrial carbon and prevents it from reentering the atmosphere. Forests have traditionally been viewed as robust carbon sinks; however, extreme heat-waves, drought and wildfire have increased tree mortality, particularly in widespread semi-arid regions, which account for around 41 per cent of Earth’s land surface.”
Raindrops on a blade of grass. Photograph by Shutterstock
From a tiny blade the size of our little finger to the tall lanky bamboo, grass belongs to an evolved group of flowering plants in diverse shapes and forms. For the uninitiated, bamboo is a grass species and so is some of our staple—rice, millets, wheat and corn. Grass comes under the Poaceae family. Of the twelve subfamilies of grasses, ten are found in India. In fact, there are more species of grass than birds, mammals or reptiles in India. The ‘Checklist of the grasses of India,’ published in the botanical journal Phytokeys (October 2020) puts the number of grass species at 1,506. In comparison, the bird checklist is at 1,349 species, mammals at 422 and reptiles at 572, several of whose fortunes and existence are intertwined with the fate of grasslands. Such as, the pulsating dance of the stunning mottled brown, black and white plumed Lesser Florican, a grassland specialist which announces its presence at this time of the year by a series of vertical leaps to impress a female who lies hidden in the nearby grass. But as grasslands gradually get erased for development, the Lesser Florican, once widespread and abundant across the country, is now only seen in scattered pockets of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Grasslands never received conservation attention as forest despite supporting a range of endangered species, some even endemic and threatened with extinction. Instead, they are marked as ‘wastelands’ in the country and first to fall under new development schemes—farmlands, irrigation projects, industries, and tree plantations under forestry operations.
“It is a colonial legacy. Any land from which the British couldn’t generate revenue was deemed ‘wasteland’, and we continue to follow the destructive practices introduced by our colonial masters—seeing all land through the prism of the market,” says Abi Vanak, wildlife scientist and a specialist in savanna ecosystems with Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE). This concept of ‘wasteland’ is now institutionalised by bringing out a Wastelands Atlas of India (now in its 5th edition) that continues to inform a section of the bureaucracy, policymakers and development professionals on how to make ‘wastelands’ economically productive zones. To an ecologist or a wildlife biologist, the term ‘wasteland’ is meaningless. Vanak is aghast at how grasslands continue to get neglected, misrepresented and destroyed routinely, especially the savanna of the Deccan plateau. Karnataka was home to nearly 400,000 acres of semi-arid grasslands popularly known as the Amrit Mahal Kavals at the time of independence. According to a report by the Environment Support Group, Bangalore, the state is now left with less than 60,000 acres. “Ironically we appreciate the African savanna, but are failing to conserve a similar biome: the rich Indian savanna with its unique set of animal and birdlife. For example, the Great Indian Bustard (a cousin of the Florican and an iconic species of the grassland habitat) is facing imminent extinction, with around a 100 individuals fighting for survival,” adds Vanak.
A grassland in India—a vital cog in the ecosystem, it’s a travesty that such areas are either used for pasture or considered ‘wasteland’
To counter the ‘wasteland’ narrative and arrest the continuous decline of dry grassland ecosystems Vanak joined hands with M.D. Madhusudan, wildlife biologist and first Obaid Siddiqi Chair in the History and Culture of Science at the Archives, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) to map the distribution and extent of ‘Open Natural Ecosystems’ (ONE) within India’s semi-arid zones. In July, the scientist duo published the open-source science paper—mapping the distribution and extent of India’s semi-arid open natural ecosystems, revealing how 300,000 square km (this is around 10 per cent compared to India’s overall grassland cover, estimated at 24 per cent of the land area) feature prominently, not among areas prioritised for biodiversity conservation, but rather, in the government’s Wasteland Atlas. “We find that less than five per cent of ONEs are covered under the existing protected area network (national parks or wildlife sanctuaries) of India. But we hope that this open data source is used by policymakers and planners to exclude these habitats when considering the location of renewable energy projects, tree planting projects for carbon sequestration, and other development projects that negatively impact ONEs. These ONEs host amongst the highest densities and diversity of large mammalian fauna. In addition, this ecosystem supports the lives and livelihoods of millions of indigenous pastoralists and their livestock.” According to Pastoralism in India: A Scoping Study, carried out jointly by the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and the League for Pastoral Peoples, Germany, pastoralism makes a significant contribution to the economy of developing countries, both in terms of providing employment and income opportunities and in supplying nutrition to the rural poor; however, as an economic system it is constantly threatened by government policies. Several ecologists reiterate that it is imperative to recognise the ecological, hydrological, economic and sociological role of grasslands as a source of survival for millions of livestock and rural people, as protectors of soil and water, of rare wildlife species (like wolf) and in biodiversity conservation in general. “It is a matter of grave concern that most of the grasslands in the subcontinent are degrading rapidly due to the lack of proper management, with far-reaching consequences, including loss of biodiversity, ecosystem services and human well-being,” writes professor emeritus J.S. Singh of Benaras Hindu University in his foreword to Ecology and Management of Grasslands and Habitats in India published by ENVIS, Wildlife Institute of India (2015).
In 2006, the task force report on grasslands and deserts submitted to the Planning Commission of India aptly described the precarious situation of our grasslands. It stated, “Grasslands are not managed by the forest department whose interest lies mainly in trees; not by the agriculture department who are interested in agriculture crops; nor the veterinary department who are concerned with livestock but not the grass on which the livestock is dependent. The grasslands are the ‘common’ lands of the community and are the responsibility of none. They are the most productive ecosystems in the subcontinent but they belong to all, are controlled by none, and have no godfathers.”
Fifteen years since the task force report, most of the key proposals such as establishing a countrywide long-term ecological research programme, a national grazing policy or “an urgent need to increase grasslands and desert ecosystems in protected area systems” remain a pipe dream.