Mithilesh Dhar Dubey & Ranvijay Singh, Edited by: Shivani Gupta
Yusuf Halipotra, 70, pointed at a well near his house and said: "I have sweet and clean drinking water. I have enough water for my family and livestock. I will survive this drought."
Yusuf lives in Sathirpur village in Banni Grassland, the largest grassland in the Indian subcontinent spread across 2,500 sq kms in Gujarat's Kutch district. The region is known for rich wildlife and biodiversity, but Kutch, at present, is dealing with the worst drought in the past 20 years.
If you visit Banni Grassland in summers, for miles you will see parched land, dirt and grime. But there are some lush-green patches like the one Yusuf has. While many villagers have migrated en masse from Banni Grassland, along with their cattle, in search of water, Yusuf adopted traditional means of rain water harvesting to save water for the summers. This is something that many villagers used to do, but have stopped after they started getting piped water.
People living in this region have been dealing with drought since decades, but this year's drought has hit them hard for three reasons – changing lifestyle of animal herders, changing rain pattern and cultivation of Babul trees in the arid region of Kutch.
Livestock is their lifeline
People living in Kutch depend on livestock to make a living. As per the 2012 Livestock Census, 19 lakh livestock were living in Kutch, which was almost equivalent to the district's total population of 20 lakh. The livestock included buffaloes, cows, goats and camels. There were 10 lakh camels.
The government of Gujarat declared drought in Kutch on December 13, 2018. According to 2018 report of State Level Bankers' Committee, 401 villages in Gujarat were drought-prone. More than 50% of 401 villages in the state suffered extensive agricultural damage.
Many cattle camps were set up in Banni Grassland to provide fodder to animals. "As of May 8, 481 cattle camps are in operation. They provide fodder to 284,983 cattle," said Mohit Singh, deputy Mamlatdar of Bhuj.
"Livestock has always outnumbered people in Banni Grassland. Animals suffer a lot when drought hits the region. Earlier, people used to make arrangements to face drought. They would not increase the number of their livestock. But, not anymore," said Dr Pankaj Joshi, executive director of Sahjeevan, an organisation that has been working in the area of conservation, governance, management and protection of local biodiversity since past 35 years.
On January 26, 2001, a massive earthquake hit Kutch, which caused widespread damage. However, as part of rehabilitation and rebuilding, brand new roads were built in the region which helped in increased connectivity.
"People started moving from one village to another. As a result of this, many industries, like the milk processing industry, came up in Kutch. This prompted animal herders to increase their livestock. Earlier they would herd animals for personal gains, but now they bought more for business purpose. They bought additional 100-150 cows and buffaloes. This is the main reason why they found it difficult to survive the 2019 drought," said Dr Joshi.
Rain water harvesting has stopped
There are very few like Yusuf who manage to conserve water, but others did not and hence are moving from one village to another in search of water. Most of the homes in many villages are locked.
Earlier, people living in the region used to conserve water using rain water harvesting and store water in virdas (wells). They would use this stored monsoon water during summers.
"After the year 2000, Kutch started receiving an average rainfall of more than 320 mm," said Dr Joshi. People became dependent on rain water and went out of practice of storing rainwater for summers.
"Survival is tough for people living in Banni Grassland. But, after 2000, people became reckless. Changing rainfall pattern, water politics and water supply through pipelines are the main reasons behind their recklessness," said Dr Yogesh Jadeja, director of Arid Community and Technology, which is based in Kutch.
When people started getting water through pipeline, they discarded their traditional method of storing water in wells. This, according to him, was a grave mistake.
"People got dependent on water supply through pipelines. Also, after 2000, Kutch received normal rainfall every year, but something changed in 2018. The region received rainfall only on June 28, 2018. This led to the 2019 drought. People were not in-sync and hence the 2019 drought has hit them hard," he added.
As per the State Emergency Operation Centre, Kutch is reported to have received only 25% of the estimated annual rainfall in 2018. According to the India Metrological Department, Kutch received 56.58% rainfall in 2017 as compared to previous years.
Villagers blame 'Mad Babul' for drought
The arid region of Kutch is covered with wild Prosopis Juliflora trees, commonly known as Gando Baval or Mad Babul. Locals are blaming these "ground-water sucking trees" for drought.
"This tree is commonly known as Gando (mad) Baval because it grows recklessly. Its roots spread beneath ground and it consumes lot of water," said Habu Bhai, 40, a resident of Hodka village.
"Earlier, there were many local Babul tress here. But this Gando Baval, sucked up all the underground water," he added, while pointing at a Babul tree.
Incidentally, Mad Babul was planted by the Forest Department in Kutch. It was imported to Banni Grassland in 1960.
"There were various reasons behind this. Although it is grassland, Banni experiences severe drought conditions. The region has faced 57 droughts between 1901 and 1990. As a result of this, it rapidly turned into an arid region. Plus, it is located near the Rann of Kutch. Due to these reasons, Banni was on the verge of turning into a barren land," said Ramya Ravi, research scholar in Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment in Bangalore.
She is doing a research on Prosopis Juliflora's impact on Banni Grassland's ecology.
"Things were fine until 1980. But after 1980, its growth went out of control as people started planting it randomly. Animals would eat its fruits. No one knew that its fruits are unsafe for cows and sheep. Their excreta served as an effective fertiliser and good rainfall helped it spread," she added.
At present, Gando Baval has covered 70% of Banni Grassland. The grassland has turned into a woodland, according to Ramya.
But locals are still not convinced. They use its wood to make shelters for livestock and for themselves. They also make charcoal from it. But there is a reason why they call it "mad".
Yusuf said, "I cut all the Gando Baval trees around my well, which proved to be an advantage. This is why water lasted in my well. Had it been there, it would have sucked every drop of water up."