The Rann of Kutch in northern Gujarat is a fragile desert ecological zone, comprising flat sandy and stony plains interspersed with small rocky hillocks. Harsh and inhospitable though the land is, there are numerous small villages and settlements on the fringes of the Rann. Most of the people who live here are Sindhi- and Kutchi-speaking Muslims, mainly cattle grazers. In addition, there is a sizeable number of Dalits and other so-called “low” castes living here.
The vast majority of the people live below the poverty line. Their poverty seems to have worsened in recent years as their traditional pastures are rapidly depleting due to overgrazing, persistent drought-like conditions and expanding urbanization.
That is forcing a large number of families living around the Rann to literally “charcoal the desert”. Around two decades ago, in a bid to check the advance of the encroaching desert, government authorities arranged for a thorny desert bush, the ganda bavar, to be planted across northern Kutch. It appears that no serious survey was done to gauge all the possible effects of introducing the ganda bavar in northern Kutch. Today, the devastating effects of the plant are obvious as local inhabitants readily relate. At the same time, however, the plant has now become the only source of income, or at least the most lucrative one, for many of these families.
Till three years ago, cutting the ganda bavar was banned in Kutch. Now, almost every family in many settlements in northern Kutch supplements its income by felling the tree and burning its wood to make charcoal. Making charcoal involves the entire family, even children, which explains in part why almost no children above the age of 10 attend school in those few villages in the area that are fortunate to have one.
Middlemen from towns in Kutch and elsewhere in Gujarat travel these remote villages in trucks, buying the charcoal for a pittance.
The thick smoke spewing out of the charcoal fires is the cause of new respiratory diseases and eye ailments in the area. There are almost no government-run health centres here. The ganda bavar is also a potent threat to their goats and cows, causing their teeth to rot, and knots to be formed in their stomachs.
The indiscriminate growth of the ganda bavar threatens local varieties of trees and plants, too. Hasan Jath, a local, says, “The ganda bavar grows rapidly, and so the native meetha, or sweet, bavar that grew here earlier, which provided us gum and wood for making furniture, has been almost totally exterminated. It consumes a lot of water, unlike the native babool, which has caused the water table to drastically fall.”
The ganda bavar thus might be proving to be a silent disaster, which is probably why the government lifted the ban on cutting of the tree three years ago. But now, since vast numbers of families in this impoverished part of Kutch have become so dependent on the tree simply to survive, its wholesale destruction raises crucial questions related to people’s livelihood in the absence of any measures by the state to provide the locals alternative sources of livelihood. Further, as Salim Samma, a cattle grazer in Haji Pir, says: “Completely exterminating the plant might have serious ecological consequences. The plant does take up a lot of water, but now that it has spread all over, cutting down all the trees might lead to excessive flooding and water-logging.”
The authorities, he suggests, should do a proper survey and introduce new plants to take its place that, while being ecologically friendly, also provide a source of income for the desperately poor people.
But will that really happen?
Yoginder Sikand is a freelance writer based in Bangalore. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org