Making wasteland productive for human use threatens a range of unique ecosystems
By Dharmendra Khandal
India has 16 percent of the world’s population and covers 2 percent of the planet’s surface. As a growing economy, the government’s objective has been to make every inch of available land suitable for economic use. However, many find the approach unviable and destructive to the environment. An estimated 63.85 million hectares of India’s terrestrial surface area is categorised as wasteland, which includes snow-covered glaciers, beaches, wetlands, steep hill slopes and ravines.
The government classification of “waste” simply means such land is non-productive in terms of human use. The Ministry of Rural Development runs an Integrated Wasteland Development Programme with a budget of Rs 2,500 crore to make these wastelands suitable for development and economic use. What it does not factor in is that most of these “wastelands” host unique ecosystems and are crucial to the survival of many species of animals and birds.
The Chambal river is regarded as the cleanest river of the north Indian plains. A gullied terrain of ravines characterises its banks and those of its tributaries. Formed by complex processes of erosion, these ravines are undulating mounds of clay and loamy soil. The flora and fauna composition in these ravines is very distinct. The Indian wolf, hyena, jungle cat, ratel, hedgehog and large owls are among several species that inhabit these ravines. Large communities of pastoralists also use the ravines for livestock grazing.
On government records, however, the ravines are “wasteland” and in many areas, projects have been launched to curb soil erosion and promote watershed management. Such development projects and conversion of land have adversely affected both pastoralists, who lose much needed grazing lands, and the wildlife of this unique habitat. Sadly, policymakers still ignore the fallout on biodiversity and the human cost of such projects.
Recently, we conducted an ecological survey in these ravines and presented a report on the presence of the Indian wolf and other unique species in those areas. The findings led to 2,000 acres being declared as pasture land by the district collector of Sawai Madhopur. This status makes any kind of land conversion illegal on this stretch and promotes the co-existence of pastoralists and wildlife.
To appreciate the need for wasteland management, we have to change our mindset first. But even before we turn from a purely economic perspective to a holistic view of development, we need to better understand these neglected landscapes with modern research methods so we can conserve them in their entirety.
Khandal is a wildlife biologist associated with Tiger Watch, a Rajasthan NGO