The soil has veins

By Vinay Nair on March 25, 2015 in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

It was late one morning, almost noon, when our 4x4 wound its way across the hopping hills of Kalpavalli to arrive at one of the two-storied watching towers in the area. The day was very bright, but the December sun was mercifully pleasant – it was one of the better times of the year to visit this area in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh; said to be the second driest in the country. As we gazed from the high vantage of the tower, post-lunch, I could tell that when the light grew long, this grassy landscape would come alive. A cold wind began blowing over grass that turned a soft gold in the late afternoon sun and the sky held a nonchalant speck or two of hovering birds of prey. Later with binoculars and with Siddarth and Naren’s* trained eyes, I would be able to spot blackbucks both solitary and in pairs moving like mirages across the relatively short winter grass. Later still in the dark, I would see scorpions glow in ultraviolet light. I could pinch myself, this was a photographer’s delight.

Or so I thought. When I trained my lens on particular things, perhaps a tuft of grass, a scuttling critter on the ground or the colourful date palms in the ravines, my sense of aesthetics and of what a grassland is and can be were deeply satisfied. But whenever I stepped back a bit, and pulled my lens wider on the landscape, neither the lens nor I could escape an unmistakable presence. Giant windmill towers, up to 70 meters in height, with equally large blades about 30 meters in diameter were scattered over this landscape, from the nearest hill to the most distant ones on the horizon. Despite standing in the higher valley as we were, the feeling was one of being surrounded, not only by the sight of these lumbering giants but also by the eerie and ever-present sound their blades made as they cut through the air. Looking more carefully, one could also see that for every windmill there were also winding access roads cut into the hills on top of which they stood. The windmills in the Kalpavalli area are a new phenomenon, as recent as 2010. The transformation that they have wrought are many and unprecedented.

1 The rolling grassy hills of Kalpavalli, with the windmills looming in the distance. Photo by Vinay Nair.

History tells us that dramatic change is something Kalpavalli is used to. In government records presently, it is classified as degraded revenue wasteland. But a hundred years or so ago, Kalpavalli is likely to have been similar to nearby present-day remnants of forests, with up to 72 species of hardwood trees, dominated by teak and trees of the genus Hardwickia. The British were first to exploit this resource, strip-cutting the forest continually to supply the newly formed town of ‘Takelodu’ (teak loading place) where the wood was prepared for applications in the then flourishing railway industry. Bablu Ganguly, one of the founders of the Timbaktu Collective, speculates however that this exploitation was still within reasonable bounds and that the real destruction of these forests was wrought post-independence when new towns began springing up swiftly in the district of Anantapur.

In a landscape of searing summer heat, strip-cutting a forest leads to significant loss of soil, in spite of the scant rainfall. Kalpavalli was now a parched treeless landscape where only the hardiest of grasses and subterranean rodents could survive. Owing to the perception of it being a ‘wasteland’, the government and the higher castes of the region let the ‘backward castes’ such as the Boya and the Kuruba to use it. And right up to the 1970s, these castes put the land to productive use – even farming on it. Attempting agriculture on such land may seem madness, but millets – a group of domesticated grass – are adept at growing in environments of depleted soils and low rainfall. The Boya and Kuruba’s practice of agriculture was a form of natural farming, where in certain times of the year they would camp on the land for a few months (usually men of the same family), and scatter the millet seeds which, with minimal rains, could produce a crop ready to be harvested in a few short months. The land was however commons and not owned by these castes; their status was essentially of tenants of the land. As such, they had to share part of their produce with the landed and had to take their animals (together with their own) out for grazing. They also had to give back some of the resultant dung produced by the herd, to be used as manure in the fields of the landed. Some of this dung was left within Kalpavalli itself, enriching the soil with repeated fall over the years.

This use of the land for subsistence was abandoned post 1970s, due a combination of factors. The primary cause were the larger country-wide changes in land ownership laws, where the previously landless began receiving land for agriculture. In Anantapur, these lands were typically more fertile than that of Kalpavalli where more crops other than millets could be grown. At the same time, the government began encouraging a shift toward chemical-intensive agriculture and an economy increasingly connected to the market, where cash crops would be preferred. Certain psychological factors were also important, such as the perception – justified or not – of decreasing rainfall, and a massive drought toward the end of the 1960s that further summed up agriculture itself as an endeavour with inherent risks, and cash crops as a ticket out of subsistence.

In the early 90s, Bablu witnessed examples in other parts of the district of successful forest commons management where the Sarpanch (village council head) was particularly active. Gaining inspiration from this, and together with Akulappa, a resident of the region and somewhat of a polymath1, he then helped form a group called the Anantapur Pariyavaram Parirakshana that would form committees in villages to influence people to start protecting forests. It took them a year of persuasion and by 1993-94, protection work began on 125 acres of land in Kalpavalli by the forest committee of Mushtikovila village, with a view toward ‘greenery development’ and restoration of Kalpavalli as a watershed. An important initial donation was from the Kogira village committee.  By 2008 the various forest protection committees were together registered as the Kalpavalli Tree Growers’ Cooperative and by 2011, up to 7,000 acres of land were protected across 8 villages. Much of this work was, as Bablu suggests, passive in nature and involved not planting, but building trenches and small dams to encourage water percolation and check erosion. In addition, they built fire-lines and hired watchers to control fires in the summer. Later as natural seeding took hold, they protected saplings from grazing. Labour for this work came from the 8 involved villages and though there was some funding from the government program NREGA, the majority of the labour work was also voluntary. The stakeholders had a clear view that this work would have benefits for themselves.

At present, Kalpavalli is a landscape with distinctive features. Entering it at first, the contrast from the plains and hills outside is stark. The soil is not as rocky, and for the most part a grassland blankets the land. It is a vital grazing resource that provides fodder to between 40,000 and 50,0002 sheep. In fact, in the middle of a three year drought in 2003, the 8 villages procured more fodder from Kalpavalli than they could use, and some of this was being sold to 40 villages of the region where the drought had taken serious toll and where farmers had begun to sell their livestock to slaughter houses. It also provides grass for thatching the roofs of traditional dwellings. Some parts of Kalpavalli are thinly wooded, but the trees don’t attain much height or girth here, owing perhaps to the history of soil loss. Much of this tree cover is also planted, with particular species preferred that provide firewood and leaf for livestock. Decisions on what tree species were to be planted were taken in consultation with elders of the villages who had recollections of past floral compositions and uses.

A third type of landscape element yet are the ravines, where water flowing in from the hills forms small streams and a habitat conducive for colonization by date palms, out of which among other things, palm toddy (wine) is made. These streams also render Kalpavalli an important watershed for the 400-acre Mushtikovila water tank that is known to be more than 500 years old3 and sustains many villages in the district.

A study conducted in 2010 documented 55 species of birds, 28 species of herpetofauna, and 22 species of mammals including foxes, jackals, leopards and the rare Grey Wolf4 that use the landscape of Kalpavalli. These numbers are expected to increase with more intensive sampling. Another study documents 324 floral species of trees and grasses2. More importantly, Kalpavalli is a corridor that links two reserve forests, the Guttur Reserve Forest and the Penukonda Reserve Forest. It is accepted in literature that corridors reduce both human-wildlife conflict and the risk of species loss from protected areas.

2 Landscape elements of Kalpavalli; the grass of the hill slopes binds the soil that channels the water to the palm-dominated ravines. Photo by Vinay Nair.


These are impressive numbers, and it took painstaking effort for over 20 years for Kalpavalli to attain and sustain this plethora of plant, animal and human life. Much of this effort was community work done in villages and the long hours put into understanding particular histories and problems of particular places and families. It is perhaps a sign of the times then, that when the first proposals for windmills in the area arrived, it was many of these families – as Bablu recalls with lingering shock – that bought into it, perhaps without realizing the implications of such a project. The Timbaktu Collective and the various forest protection committees have, as a matter of principle, stayed away from matters of religion. But the windmill companies did not find themselves above offering the building of pakka temples, roads and schools if they obtained the land for their projects. When each windmill costs 8 crore rupees to build, temple construction is loose change. In an overall social and economic climate where pakka anything is a sign of progress, it was a lost cause from the beginning. Many of the people were also however allegedly misled by the companies on the scale of operations that would ensue once they gave their consent. These were not to be smaller localized mills with little impact on their surroundings, but mammoth structures that do much more than ruin a photographer’s day.

3 Blackbuck. Photo by Ashish Kothari


4 One of the watch towers. Photo by Vinay Nair.

Hill tops were razed and flattened since each windmill requires a stable surface for construction of the towers and generators. Nagaraju, a director of the Kalpavalli Tree Growers Cooperative, estimates that construction of one these structures requires much water and the digging of up to 15 borewells. In addition, to be able to get the large machines required for construction up a hill, access roads have to be built that wind around a hill. Some of these roads are 60 meters in width (Rao & Srinivasan, 2013) and cut a steep incline on hill faces of up to 25 feet that browsing cattle and sheep find impossible to scale to get further on their grazing rounds – often trying and falling to their deaths. The hills, as Bablu puts it, have their veins where water flows naturally and into the ravines and streams and finally the Mushtikovila tank. Once cut, these roads become prime areas of soil erosion and more importantly, alter natural drainage patterns affecting Kalpavalli’s function as a water catchment area for the villages in the plains, thereby affecting among other things, paddy cultivation which provides a staple of the region. Presently, there are 47 windmills inside Kalpavalli4 with tens more proposed. As of now, further construction has been stayed by the Green Tribunal in an ongoing case.

5 The winding access roads cut into the hills alters water drainage over the landscape.


6 Steep inclines of a hill side cut by access roads, un-scalable by grazing animals.

There is sometimes, not often, a first discernible instance when long held beliefs and assumptions are shaken. For me, this occurred with my visit to Kalpavalli. Wind and solar power have long been heralded as the game-changers of power production, the true alternatives to satisfy humanity’s insatiable need for energy. But in this landscape where the hills’ veins have been slashed, we realize that it is not so much the kind of methods we employ, but also their scale. Wind energy may well be a viable alternative, but only on scales where we can keep the important question of ‘for whose use and for whose benefit?’ in sight, and perhaps when as a society we can finally also formulate ‘how much should we use?’ Presently, the power generated in Kalpavalli is being sold to the state of Maharashtra. We also realize that we do not own the word ‘alternative’ and the simplistic jargon in which we converse about rising emissions and a warming world in degrees Celsius leaves out much of the complexity of the real world. The idea of equivalence is corrupt; a natural forest cannot be replaced by a plantation, carbon emissions cannot be compensated for, and a small wind-farm is not the same as a hundred mammoth windmills strewn over a landscape.

Kalpavalli is still a thriving place of beauty and continual transformation. One can only hope that this transformation is ephemeral, dependent on the seasons, and exhibited in the colour of its grass and the number of its grazing horde.

Acknowldegements

*I would like to thank Siddarth Rao and Naren Srinivasan of the Adavi Trust who led a workshop on Kalpavalli’s ecology in December 2014. Star gazing was memorable too.

Many thanks also to the members and directors of the Kalpavalli Tree Growers’ Cooperative for answering the many ‘NGO-like’ questions (thanks Sid!) that I threw at them.

Finally, I would like to thank Bablu and Mary for a warm and wonderful dinner at their home on the eve of my leaving.

 

References

1.      Timbaktu Collective (2012). Retrieved from http://www.goodnewsindia.com/index.php/magazine/story/timbaktu/p5/P4/

2.      Leena, M. (2012). Retrieved from http://cseindia.org/userfiles/kalpavalli.pdf

3.      Lenin, J. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/features/blink/cover/making-a-pigs-ear-of-it/article6446221.ece

4.      Rao, S. & Srinivasan, N. (2013). On Oasis of Life. Unpublished report.

 

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Story Tags: Restoration, Water management, arid, energy, ecological sustainability

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