Van­ish­ing ravines

The ravines of Cham­bal used to pro­vide mul­ti­ple liveli­hood op­tions for its poor and mar­ginal farm­ers. Lev­el­ing of land is trig­ger­ing con­flicts and in­creas­ing so­cial in­equity

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - PADMINI PANI (The au­thor is as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor, Jawa­har­lal Nehru Univer­sity, New Delhi)

The lev­el­ing of the Cham­bal River's ravines is trig­ger­ing con­flicts and in­creas­ing so­cial in­equity

THE CHAM­BAL re­gion in cen­tral In­dia is one of the most densely pop­u­lated re­gions in the coun­try. It has a very com­plex so­cio-eco­nomic struc­ture, where more than 80 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion is pri­mar­ily de­pen­dent on agri­cul­ture. The re­gion’s ma­jor life­line is the Cham­bal River, where nearly 4,800 sq km land has been af­fected by severely dis­sected ravines. There are no ma­jor in­dus­tries in the re­gion and al­ter­na­tive liveli­hood op­tions are also very lim­ited. There­fore, the de­pen­dency on land is very high.

A new trend has emerged over the past decades—large parts of the Cham­bal ravines are be­ing lev­eled. Dur­ing the last 40 years, around 600 sq km of th­ese de­graded ravines, lo­cally known as bi­hads, have been lev­eled in the Cham­bal re­gion. The in­ten­sity of land lev­el­ing has enor­mously in­creased over the past decade .

The ravines are among the most vul­ner­a­ble re­gions in the coun­try. Faced with land ero­sion and gully for­ma­tion that shrinks their lands, farm­ers are opt­ing for var­i­ous cop­ing mech­a­nisms. Th­ese in­clude con­tour bund­ing, chan­nelling, gully path

mod­i­fi­ca­tions, chang­ing crop­ping pat­terns, and most im­por­tantly, land lev­el­ing. With in­creas­ing avail­abil­ity of heavy ma­chin­ery, land lev­el­ing has ex­panded phe­nom­e­nally.

But dur­ing a field sur­vey, I found many farm­ers dis­il­lu­sioned about the ef­fi­cacy of land lev­el­ing. “Of­ten the lev­eled lands are un­pro­duc­tive and lev­el­ing is a costly af­fair,” said a mid­dle-aged farmer who had bor­rowed heav­ily to hire earth re­movers to level a por­tion of his land. Ex­cept for a few well-to-do farm­ers with pump-sets, agri­cul­ture is en­tirely rain­fed. The ir­ri­gated lev­eled lands are pro­duc­tive and prof­itable only in the ini­tial years. How­ever, reg­u­lar ir­ri­ga­tion in the lev­eled land cre­ates fur­ther ero­sion as rills and small gul­lies de­velop in­side the agri­cul­tural fields. Man­ag­ing lev­eled land is highly labour-in­ten­sive, as the land needs con­stant main­te­nance by re­fill­ing, com­press­ing, bund­ing, and fenc­ing. It costs 800 per hour to rent an earth re­mover to break the soil mounds. The choice of land to level is based on con­sid­er­a­tions such as prox­im­ity and ac­ces­si­bil­ity of the land. Such ad-ho­cism of­ten leads to in­crease in the cost of land man­age­ment in the lev­eled land.

Dis­turb­ing an ecosys­tem

Bi­hads (ravines) are part of an in­te­grated ecosys­tem. Flat­ten­ing not only de­stroys the ecol­ogy, but also loosens the top soil, mak­ing it prone to ero­sion and sus­cep­ti­ble to fur­ther gul­ly­ing. It takes a year to level a land and to start cul­ti­va­tion. When there is er­ratic rain­fall, the sit­u­a­tion wors­ens, as the heavy and con­tin­u­ous rain ini­ti­ates head­ward ero­sion— ero­sion at the ori­gin of a stream chan­nel. Se­vere ero­sion and gully en­croach­ments are more prom­i­nent in lev­eled lands. Even the un­touched ravine lands are en­gulfed by the gully head­ward ero­sion in a very short pe­riod of time.

Land lev­el­ing has im­pli­ca­tions for the over­all so­cio-eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in the re­gion. Given the high costs of land-lev­el­ing, it is not sur­pris­ing that only peo­ple with re­sources or ac­cess to cash can af­ford to level the land and keep it in a cul­tivable state. Also, main­tain­ing the lev­eled land re­quires con­stant su­per­vi­sion and mon­i­tor­ing, and only rich farm­ers can af­ford main­te­nance.

One of the ma­jor im­pacts of large-scale lev­el­ing is the dis­ap­pear­ance of com­mon lands, which in­clude graz­ing lands. Lev­el­ing bi­hads has given an op­por­tu­nity to wealthy farm­ers to pri­va­tise commons. Dur­ing our sur­vey, we found that many land­less peo­ple, who ear­lier used the bi­hads to graze their cat­tle, could no longer do so. This has led to a de­cline in the live­stock pop­u­la­tion, and the or­ganic links be­tween rain­fed agri­cul­ture and live­stock rear­ing have col­lapsed. Due to this, many land­less and mar­ginal farm­ers are mi­grat­ing to nearby cities in search of work.

Ear­lier, wild fruits like tenti and berr were col­lected by poor peo­ple to make pick­les for house­hold con­sump­tion as well as to sell in nearby mar­kets. Clear­ing of land has wiped out indige­nous trees. The cap­ture and the lev­el­ing of bi­hads by rich farm­ers, pow­er­ful lo­cals and other in­flu­en­tial peo­ple have gen­der di­men­sions as well. As col­lect­ing fu­el­wood from bi­hads has be­come dif­fi­cult, the use of crop straw has in­creased, par­tic­u­larly among poorer house­holds. Dur­ing our group dis­cus­sions, we found that a large num­ber of women had de­vel­oped health prob­lems due to in­door air pol­lu­tion caused by the use of crop straw. This has im­pli­ca­tions for their chil­dren’s health as well.

Such changes have led to a fur­ther dis­in­te­gra­tion of the lo­cal econ­omy and so­ci­ety, lead­ing to ris­ing so­cial in­equal­ity and con­flicts across the re­gion, which has a long his­tory of op­pres­sion and crime. On the other hand, due to the de­struc­tion of the nat­u­ral habi­tats wild an­i­mals reg­u­larly stray into agri­cul­tural fields and dam­age stand­ing crops. Some farm­ers have stopped grow­ing crops like arhar (pi­geon pea or green pea), which has a longer grow­ing sea­son and re­quires pro­tec­tion for a longer pe­riod. A num­ber of farm­ers shared their agony and said they have aban­doned their lands due to this prob­lem.

At the same time, rent­ing ma­chin­ery for land lev­el­ing has emerged as a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity for pow­er­ful peo­ple. There are also plans to use th­ese lands for in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion. Such plans need to be care­fully scru­ti­nised for their long-term im­pli­ca­tions for this frag­ile ecol­ogy. In ge­o­mor­pho­log­i­cal terms, this area is not in an equi­lib­rium state yet; it is still un­der the con­trol of ge­o­log­i­cal ero­sional pro­cesses. Fur­ther dis­tur­bance will cause more soil loss, and the Cham­bal River and its trib­u­taries will re­ceive a huge amount of sed­i­ments dur­ing the rainy sea­son. The en­tire river ecosys­tem will be severely af­fected in the com­ing years, and this will un­doubt­edly lead to fur­ther flood­ing. A more sci­en­tific, sys­tem­atic and sen­si­tive plan­ning for con­ser­va­tion and de­vel­op­ment of this eco­log­i­cal re­gion is the need of the hour. The eco­log­i­cal im­pact of lev­el­ing bad­lands will not only re­sult in the de­struc­tion of unique land­scapes, it will also dis­turb so­cial har­mony, in­crease con­flicts and cause dis­tress mi­gra­tion. A more holis­tic ap­proach to­wards the ravines of Cham­bal will also min­imise the ef­fects of soil ero­sion. The value of ev­ery land­scape can­not be re­duced to its value in eco­nomic terms.

In ge­o­mor­pho­log­i­cal terms, this area is not in an equi­lib­rium state yet. It is still un­der the con­trol of ge­o­log­i­cal ero­sional pro­cesses. Lev­el­ing th­ese lands will not only re­sult in de­stroy­ing unique land­scapes, it will also dis­turb so­cial har­mony


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