The Thar needs restoration; and greening is not the solution
The article has been authored by Chetan Misher an ecologist studying the dry grasslands of India and their associated wildlife . And Priya R, a geologist who has worked on landscape ecology and management in Rajasthan and the Western Ghats.
In the western part of the country lies the great Indian Thar desert- a misunderstood unique ecosystem- characterised by its vast expanse of sand dunes, seasonal grasslands, dry rocky scrubs, and endless white salt plains. The Thar desert in India covers the part of Punjab, Haryana, western Rajasthan (13 desert districts) and Kutch district of Gujarat. Historically, considered as vast expanse of barren dead land with no vegetation, The Thar has been a prime focus of many land improvement schemes including large scale plantations drives. Planting trees in drylands has been a prominent dryland management practice across India since the time of independence and even earlier, during the time of the Maharajas and British Raj. In past decades, several unprecedented actions were taken to halt the supposed expansion of the Thar desert, such as large-scale plantation of exotic species through the aerial distribution of seeds, or diverting water from the Himalayan rivers of Beas and Sutlej through canals to support agriculture into the heart of the desert.
The landscape has witnessed over 50 years of greening interventions, be it through extensive plantation during the 1970s, widespread network of canal irrigation, or annual plantation drives taken up by local communities each monsoon across the desert. Today, while we are celebrating the 75th Independence of our nation, our desert is greener than it ever was. Yet this greening does not symbolise a healthy functional state of the Thar ecosystem. Ironically, the very same practices that were initiated to increase the productivity of the desert through greening, caused various negative aftereffects in the long-run. To understand this irony, we need to get a few facts right about desert ecosystems.
First, deserts are not vast unproductive wastelands, but are some of the most resilient ecosystems. Extreme climatic variability, a definite characteristic of these ecosystem causes a short span of low growth period resulting in an increase in bare soil or reduced vegetation cover. Historically, this temporary state of the ecosystem has been mistaken as permanent degraded condition, overlooking the fact that one average monsoon spell convert back these lands into lush green blanket of highly nutritious grasses and shrubs. The capacity of these ecosystem to regain its highly productive stage even after a prolonged spell of drought is what makes these systems highly resilient. Most land management interventions made in these landscapes to increase their productivity have historically avoided accounting for these climatic variations and restricted to a one-size-fits-all kind of solution, such as ecologically unsound plantation practices.
The open structure of native vegetation communities characterised by sparse cover of native Acacia tress and mosaic of small shrubs like Ziziphus, Caparis, and Laptadenia in the Thar support a surprising range of uniquely adapted wildlife. From sand boas to desert foxes, from caracals to chinkara, from the Great Indian Bustard to sandfish, life abounds in the Thar. Apart from supporting some of the largest livestock populations in India with over 13 million cattle, 24 million buffaloes, 9.7 million sheep, 21 million goats, and 2.5 million camels, native desert vegetation provides numerous varieties of food resources of high economic value such as Ker, Sangri, and Kumthiya, supporting the livelihood of locals.
Lack of understanding about the resilient nature of these ecosystems led to large-scale tree planting across its range. Such interventions converted these open systems into a permanent alternative state; woodlands resulting in a loss of ecosystem services these ecosystems provide such as fodder, water, and food for their inhabitants. One such prominent example of the unintended negative effect of plantation in the desert is the Banni grasslands of Kutch.
Once considered among the finest dry tropical grasslands of India, Banni is among the most degraded grasslands facing the threat of rapid encroachment of the invasive prosopis juliflora. The colonial view of deserts and grasslands as degraded landscapes prompted the extensive planting of this invasive species to supposedly control desertification and decrease soil salinity. However, prosopis juliflora has significantly reduced local grass production by occupying more than half the landscape and converting it into dense woodland. These shrinking grasslands negatively impact native wildlife populations and affect the livelihood of local pastorals. The remaining half is a mosaic of grasslands and seasonal wetlands which remain barren during the dry season and last for most of the year. Recent studies reveal that areas with a dense cover of invasive prosopis show a rise in the water table and higher salinity than other areas. The plant also impedes the growth of surrounding native vegetation.
Second, deserts are not human-free natural ecosystems but instead are complex socio-ecological landscapes. Traditional human interventions such as livestock grazing, water resources management, and seasonal cultivation are well adapted to the climatic fluctuation of these habitats. Such activities have shaped the very structure of this landscape to sustain life in harsh climatic conditions for a very long time. In the Thar of western Rajasthan, large parts of these lands have been managed by local institutions based on their natural structure and social value in the form of oran, gaucher, or johad paytan. Orans are the sacred grooves mainly protected in the name of a local deity and mostly managed as well-covered thickets of native shrubs and trees, thus functioning as oases in deserts. Gauchers are protected and managed as large pastures for livestock grazing, while johad paytan are the land areas managed as the clean catchments for water bodies supporting the drinking water requirements of communities. All these landforms are part of the common property resources (CPR) regime.
The modern land tenure system has led to increased privatisation, and illegal encroachment at a large scale is threatening the traditional CPR regime by reducing large proportions of common pastures through encroachment. Reduced availability of pastures across the desert along with an increased population of livestock (a result of a relatively better socio-economic scenario) increases the pressure of over-grazing in the remaining small patches of pastures. The long-standing popular narrative of overgrazing causing the degradation of drylands has been well disputed now and holds no scientific ground anymore. The sheer number of livestock and their grazing practices does not cause the dryland degradation but increased privatization at the expense of large pastures pushing the huge number of livestock toward a small amount of land causes dryland degradation. Therefore, restricting grazing in grasslands might not yield the desired outcome of increased productivity in drylands, although many studies have shown that regular grazing enhances the productivity of grasslands through the re-mineralisation of soil.
Third, water needs to be handled carefully in the desert. The Indira Gandhi Canal (IGC) created during the 1970s transformed the socio-ecological system of the Thar desert. Water was drawn from Himalayan rivers through the Harike Barrage to provide drinking water to villages in the Thar and to increase agriculture through irrigation. The canal has resulted in around 52% of the total area of the region falling under cultivation, yielding a 78% increase in food crops and a 68% increase in cash crop production by the year 2010. This increase came at the cost of a 30% decline in fallow land and a 20% decline in grasslands.
Further inadequacies in the planning and operation of such water irrigation projects have led to the degradation of desert soil in the canal command area. In absence of a natural drainage system, and an impervious calcareous accumulation in the subsurface soil of the desert, cultivation of water intensive crop and flood irrigation practices causes waterlogging of low-lying areas, resulting in increased salinity of surface soil of agricultural land and village pastures. A study estimated that around 500,000 Ha of land in the state of Haryana has been left uncultivable due to increased waterlogging induced high salinity.
Lastly, the Thar desert is not expanding, but what is seen as expansion is actually the degradation of fringing habitats of the unique Aravalli ecosystem. The Aravalli, one of the oldest mountain chains in the world, separates the Thar from the dry deciduous woodlands of the eastern side. Over these several decades, the Aravalli ecosystem has witnessed wide-scale uncontrolled mining and exploitation of natural resources. Multiple impacts have been reported. Mining has flattened parts of the well-canopied hills of Aravalli resulting in the loss of natural barriers to western winds, and possibly other undocumented impacts. These impacts are only local but the report suggests that the recent increase in the frequency of sandstorms reaching Delhi and parts of Uttar Pradesh is possibly the outcome of Aravalli’s degradation. So interventions - widespread plantation drives in Thar - to fix perceived degradation of the system create more problems where the actual problems lie in the rising degradation of the Aravalli hills. Therefore, the restoration of the degraded Aravalli needs to be prioritised on an urgent basis to meet India’s land degradation neutrality target committed during UNCCD 2019.
Our desert ecosystems, therefore, are degrading in multiple ways, and the restoration of these landscapes also has to be multi-disciplinary. A long-term ecological and socioeconomic monitoring of desert ecosystems using science-based approaches is much needed to form well-informed policies. Only scientifically informed policies can lead to an effective restoration plan involving local stakeholders and integrating traditional ecosystem knowledge to save our unique Thar desert ecosystem. Restoring for whom should be the goal and large-scale plantation drives will not help in the restoration of the great Indian Thar.