Osmanabad/Solapur/Pune: Water diviner Datta Maharaj, a mobile phone pinned to his ear and a shiny gold-coloured watch strapped to his wrist, started chanting a prayer. Dozens of villagers milled around the man who had an important job to do—he needed to find an aquifer in a region that is desperate for water.

“He has never failed," said Sanjay Nichale, introducing himself as a social worker. “Please stay back and watch the miracle."

As far as the eye could see, a matt of dry grass lay across the undulating arid landscape, part of the drought-struck Marathwada region of Maharashtra.

The villagers were from an adjoining cattle camp for destitute pastoralists and their cattle.

Suddenly, Maharaj broke into a barefoot run on the rough scrubland. He paused at a couple of spots and marked them with stones. This was where water would be found, Nichale was confident.

The villagers from the refuge believed in Maharaj’s powers because when everything else has failed, hope in divine intervention was the only way out. Two days later, Nihale called to say that water had been found at one of the spots marked out by Maharaj.

Refugee cattle camps, also known locally as fodder camps, have sprung up across Marathwada. Successive droughts in Marathwada have left the poorest farmers without any fodder for their cattle. The severe water crisis has made matters even worse for farmers and livestock herders.

But the sea of dry grass and rocky outcrop in this rural landscape has another aspect to it—a baffling visual anomaly.

Dotting the vast stretch of dry savanna wilderness are irrigated patches of flourishing sugarcane, grape and banana plantations. Yet for successive years, Marathwada has been facing drought, this year the most severe. Geographically this is a part of the Deccan Plateau, an area known for scarce rainfall in the rain shadow of the Western Ghats.

There are scattered irrigated oases amid sights of destitution —drought-hit famers camping with their cattle, men and cows huddled together for water and fodder for the cattle.

“In Marathwada’s dry arid region, irrigated cash crop farms and refugee fodder camps are a paradox," says a senior agricultural scientist on condition of anonymity. “It reflects how government policies over the years have created this bizarre situation, a death trap for small farmers with meagre resources."

The scientist, and many others specialists in the region, says the government has promoted water-intensive cash crops— sugar is a well-known example—which has dissuaded small farmers from cultivating self-sustenance crops such as wheat and soya bean, which at times of distress could at least have fed their families.

“Also, the imposition of beef ban in Maharashtra has blocked the sale of cattle. Therefore, at the time of crisis there is neither food at home nor cash (from cattle sale) to buy from the market.

“The poor, left with nothing, resort to suicide; the rich farmers with their irrigated drip farms reap bumper crops. Surprisingly, even during state-declared droughts, rich farmers reported bumper production of sugarcane crop. This is the proof of unscrupulous, unabated exploitation of ground water, leading to drought year after year," added the scientist.

On an average, Marathwada receives between 800mm and 900mm of annual rainfall. The average net irrigation requirement of sugarcane at root zone is 2,000mm. The two biggest water-guzzling industries in Marathwada are sugarcane and beer. To produce a kg of sugar, you need 1,904 litres of water, while brewing a litre of beer needs 12 litres of water.

According to Camilla Toulmin, economist and former director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, a London-based think-tank, “Agricultural economies in dry grassland areas are widely viewed as being in crisis, suffering from persistent food insecurity due to lack of rainfall. Many governments look for solutions that will replace existing livelihoods, seeking to master nature by choosing interventions to stabilize the environment by creating a green oasis. But history shows that this rarely succeeds in the long term, and commonly leads to many other problems."

The boundless dry grasslands sweeping across Marathwada are really ‘commons’—home to the indigenous pastoralist community and endangered wildlife such as the Great Indian bustard, Lesser florican, wolves, foxes, chinkaras and blackbucks. Over 100 bird species use the semi-arid grasslands for foraging and nesting. Unfortunately, these unique dry grassland ecosystems remain neglected, labelled by the government as “wasteland", or unproductive land. In Maharashtra, over 15% of the land area of scrub, grassland and grazing land is categorized as “wasteland".

To an ecologist or a wildlife biologist, the term ‘wasteland’ is meaningless. Apart from endemic birds, reptiles and small mammals, large carnivores such as wolves and jackals roam in these dry plains and are known to have coexisted with pastoral communities. Indeed, many ecologists will insist that there is no such thing as ‘wasteland’.

How authorities approach grasslands—whether they protect them or turn them over to water-intensive cash crops—is crucial to their role in water conservation.

The last comprehensive grassland survey in India dates back to 1954 when the Indian Council of Agricultural Research conducted grassland surveys (between 1954 and 1962) and classified grass cover under five different types. The one in the Central Indian plateau is classified as Sehima-Dichanthium, where 24 species of perennial grasses, 89 species of annual grasses and 129 species of dicots, including 56 legumes, grow.

According to the Planning Commission’s report of the task force on grasslands and deserts, “Grasslands have no godfathers, they 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."

What this means in practice is that one of the most ancient productive ecosystems in the subcontinent belongs to all, but is conserved by none.

The report also states that the value of these grasslands in terms of their biological diversity is yet to be fully documented. Grasslands evolved under a system of grazing, drought and periodic fires—almost all the existing grasslands are maintained by one or a combination of these factors.

Therefore, it is imperative to recognize the ecological, hydrological, economic and sociological role of grasslands as a source of survival for millions of livestock and rural people, as protector of soil and water, of rare wildlife species and in biodiversity conservation in general.

Even this task force report is 10 years old and the recommendation for a National Grazing Policy to ensure the sustainable use of grasslands and biodiversity conservation is yet to be acted on.

“A drought year does not arrive all of a sudden. It gives sufficient notice. However, such early warnings are generally ignored and the lessons learnt late, if ever. While a drought brings misery it also exposes systemic weaknesses," says Pradeep Purandare, an expert on water and a former professor at Water and Land Management Institute, Aurangabad, drawing a link between grasslands and Marathwada’s drought.

Even today, India follows the destructive practices introduced by the British Raj—of seeing all land through the prism of the market. Any land from which the British couldn’t generate revenue was deemed ‘wasteland’. And mostly these were open dry commons where villagers and herders grazed their animals.

This concept of ‘wasteland’ continues to inform a section of the bureaucracy, policymakers and development professionals. According to them, the policy challenge lies in how to make ‘wastelands’ economically productive zones. So either they are converted to agricultural lands through irrigation, or plantations, or allotted to set up industries without considering the ecological ramifications.

“In Maharashtra, where fertile agricultural land could not be acquired from the rich farmers, the dry grazing lands were divided and given to landless communities. Through the ages, many small movements and campaigns of marginalized communities were quelled by parceling small portions of land unfit for agriculture. There were people who had never farmed before. When villages lost their commons to private ownership it created unrest, it divided communities and only spread discontent," says Nitya S. Ghotge, director of Anthra, a research and advocacy non-governmental organization working on biodiversity, pastoralism and livestock management.

At the receiving end of this land parceling were agro-pastoralists and their livestock. The migratory herders, known as dhangars in Maharashtra, now had to travel further afield to ever new places to find grass for their livestock.

The Dhangars’ survival depends on livestock rearing, pasture and water. With pasture and water in short supply they are now being forced to change their ways.

“Dhangars are being forced to give up their traditional profession and take to cultivation of land or unskilled labour since traditionally nomadic pastorals had not established right over land, most of them are now forced to cultivate small tracts of marginal land," according to a research paper, Socio Economic Profile of Sheep Reared Dhangar Pastoralists of Maharashtra, by D.S. Patil, a scientist at Indian Veterinary Research Institute, Izatnagar.

Indian pastoralism is in any case an under-researched and poorly documented subject, 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.

The report says 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.

In India, also threatened is the wolf.

“In the Deccan, pastoralism still exists despite grazing lands declining or getting fragmented between the growing metropolises of Pune, Hyderabad and Bangalore. With a growing human population, the demand for land and development is constant. So the constant growth of these cities and smaller towns is squeezing the sheep out of their land and with them the shepherds. This changing land use has also cornered the wolves, who are adapting to newer ways for survival," says Ghotge.

Misguided afforestation drives over the years to increase the green cover on barren drylands have done more harm than good to wildlife and livestock dependent on grasslands.

“We used to see remote areas without human footprints even a couple of decades ago but now these continuous patches of untouched grasslands have been brought under development and infrastructural use. Wildlife in these remaining small pockets of lands is struggling for survival," says Sujit Narwade, grassland project scientist, Bombay Natural History Society. Narwade has documented around 150 different species of grass which play a vital ecological role—from carbon sequestration to soil formation, water purification and nutrient cycling.

“The shepherds with whom we have interacted over the years look at wolves as a beneficial force rather than a threat. The sheep taken by the wolves are considered as offerings to their local deity. They say the wolf helps them manage the flock better and prosper," says Ghotge

There is a belief amongst these nomadic herders, documented by veteran filmmakers Krupakar and Senani in Walking with Wolves, which illustrates the relationship between herders and wolves. Their fable speaks of three brothers who fell out over sharing their livestock—one of them was betrayed by the other two. This brother cursed the other two to roam these lands forever and took to the forest himself.

“We are those roaming the world and he shadows us in the form of a wolf. He keeps coming back in his wolf skin to take his share and to remind us of our greed. After all, the wolf is our own brother—how can we ever hurt him?"

“Although pushed into a corner, traditional pastoral practices have survived, evolved and adapted to changes in their environment. So has the wolf. With no wild prey, it survives on sheep, rodents and cultivated fruits like banana and grapes. Attempts to convert pastoralists to settlers continue but the fact that many of these attempts have been largely futile bears testimony to the fact that the traditional livestock herding communities are perhaps more perceptive to changes in economies and environments than policy-makers," says Ghotge.

Scientific research on dry grassland environments across the globe has shown that there is no state of stability in grassland ecosystems: average rainfall is meaningless, prediction is impossible, and a good spell of rain and a drought may be only a couple of hours apart.

And the appearance of wolves on the grasslands of Marathwada may be a good omen—for herders as well as small farmers.

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