Community restores grasslands in Lamkani, making the village drought-resilient

By Vinaya Kurtkoti onApr. 17, 2021in Environment and Ecology
Grassland landscape degraded due to overgrazing. (Below) Aerial view of the Lamkani conserved grasslands with contour bunds running through them. Photos by Dhananjay Newadkar.
  • Lamkani, a village 40 kilometres from Dhule, was known for its grasslands and for being fodder-rich in the pre-independence era. The situation changed after the drought in the 1970s, and the lush green village became completely barren after enduring drought years again in the 1990s.
  • Lamkani has restored its grasslands through watershed management and a return to the traditional practices of ‘charai bandhi’ (ban on grazing) and ‘kurhad bandhi’ (ban on felling trees), managing to restore over 400 hectares of grasslands over its now-famous Govardhan hillock, from where all of Lamkani’s streams originate.
  • Dhananjay Newadkar, a pathologist by profession who hails from Lamkani, initiated the efforts. After suffering a near-fatal accident that left him bedridden, Newadkar decided that if he survived the accident, he would attempt to solve his native village’s severe water crisis.

“Twenty years ago, we did not have 10 litres of milk available in Lamkani village in Dhule district. Today, Lamkani sells about 3,000 litres of milk to Dhule every day,” boasts Dhananjay Newadkar, who, in 2000, initiated a watershed development programme to solve the water scarcity problems of the people of his village.

Newadkar’s native village Lamkani, 40 kilometres from Dhule, was known for its grasslands and for being fodder-rich in the pre-independence era. The situation changed after the drought in the 1970s, and the lush green village became completely barren after enduring drought years again in the 1990s. Lamkani, which once had abundant fodder, could no longer provide employment to its people nor fodder to its cattle. The village had become completely dependent on water tankers, which led to fights and animosity between the villagers over access to the tanker water. “Earlier in Lamkani, there were many fights over water – sometimes over a single handa (pot) of water. Without fodder and water, people had to sell their cattle and most people had to leave the village to work in sugarcane fields,” shared Vijaya Patil, a 36-year-old resident of Lamkani who participates in the watershed development of the village.

Grasslands degraded due to overgrazing. Maharashtra has 1.5 lakh hectares of such degraded grasslands. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.

After suffering a near-fatal accident that left him bedridden, Newadkar decided that if he survived the accident, he would attempt to solve his native village Lamkani’s severe water crisis. He first decided to work on the 600-hectare watershed ridge area of the hillock, from where all of Lamkani’s streams originate. Where Lamkani village ends, a tributary of the River Tapi known as “Burai” flows. “The river got the name ‘Burai’ meaning ‘bad’ in Marathi because there was hardly ever any water in it,” shared Newadkar. Overgrazing and loss of biodiversity had left this hillock completely barren and all the streams and wells were dry. Being a pathologist, Newadkar had to learn about watershed management from experts before he could start working in the village. “First, I visited other villages in Maharashtra and studied the successful watershed development stories at Ralegan Siddhi and Hiware Bazar. After consulting the experts, we started watershed development work on our hillock in 2001,” said Newadkar.

But after studying the topography of Lamkani, Newadkar realised that watershed development alone will not work to help Lamkani’s residents solve their water troubles and he decided to adopt the traditional practice of ‘charai bandhi’ (ban on grazing) and ‘kurhad bandhi’ (ban on felling trees) to conserve the grasslands on the hillock. Compartment bunding, CCT, and other watershed development measures will have to be done every year, and would not ensure that all the rainwater is harvested in the village. Lamkani’s annual average rainfall being around 300-400mm, the village needed to save every drop of water.

“The entire watershed ridge area of 600 hectares of our hillock was barren. How do we ensure that all the rainwater gets percolated here?” Newadkar started his mission with this question.

Continuous contour trenches dug on the slopes of the Lamkani grasslands to help water percolation into the soil. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.
Rotational grazing and the science behind the ban on grazing and tree felling

Initially, the ban on grazing and tree felling was very difficult to enforce in Lamkani, which has a significant population belonging to the pastoralist Dhangar community. According to the Lamkani Village Forest Micro Plan that quotes the 2011 census, of the 883 landless families in Lamkani 723 families are cattle-keepers. “We did not enforce the grazing and tree-felling ban overnight because it would harm the communities who depended on the grasslands. Every year, we worked to protect and conserve 50 hectares of the grasslands,” shared Newadkar. To encourage the Dhangar community to follow the new rules, Lamkani decided to waive the “gavki,” which was the traditional compensation paid by the Dhangar community to the village panchayat.

Newadkar also approached all the tamasha artistes (folk artistes of Maharashtra) and kirtankars (narrators of sacred stories) that performed in Lamkani and asked them to incorporate information about protecting and conserving the hillock in their performances. “When we started this work, people were not convinced easily. But Newadkar’s dedication paid off, because within a few years the kirtankars and tamasha artistes started talking about protecting the hillock without being told to talk about it,” shared Dnyaneshwar Shelar, a high school teacher from Lamkani.

Dhananjay Newadkar (on the right) in the restored grasslands in 2004. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.

The people saw the results of this project within the first few years, and the participation of the people in watershed development as well as protecting the hillock increased. “We had to carry a television set and go door to door to show people the benefits of watershed development when we started. Now, every child in the village knows the value of the hillock near Lamkani, and I see my students feel a sense of pride in the lush green grassland habitat,” said Shelar.

Grazing is a mechanism that keeps grasslands in check; historically, grasslands have been associated with both grazing as well as fires, explains Mandar Datar, scientist at the Agharkar Research Institute, Pune. “The problem arises when there is overgrazing. When a pasture has palatable and unpalatable species of grasses, the cattle tend to consume more of the palatable species, which results in the inability of the palatable species to disperse their seeds and reproduce. Over the years, the area will be completely dominated by unpalatable species,” shares Datar.

Lamkani’s conserved grasslands in 2017. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.

Datar studied ten grassland habitats in Maharashtra, comparing community conserved grasslands and government protected grasslands for “non-grass composition, palatability, and composition of exotic weeds” in 2012. He found that government protected grasslands have more “awned species”, which is a feature in grasses that makes them unpalatable, and that the biomass of excellent palatable species is higher in the community protected grasslands of Lamkani compared to that of Laling, a government protected grassland around 40 kilometres away from Lamkani in Dhule district.

Lamkani’s success in restoring the grasslands was achieved through rotational grazing, which means that every year a 50-hectare patch of the grasslands would be conserved at a time, not allowing grazing on that patch, which allowed the palatable species of grasses to regenerate. “When grazing is controlled, nature gives back. We did not plant a single tree, nor spread any grass seeds,” shared Newadkar. Ketaki Ghate, ecological restoration expert and faculty at the Ecological Society, Pune notes that when grasslands are conserved, the quality of the grass improves through ecological succession. “In Lamkani, overgrazing and degraded land had led to the formation of ‘kusali’ grass (Heteropogon contortus), which is a poor quality grass. But after a few years of conservation, pavna (Sehima nervosum) and dongari (Crysopogan fulvus) flourished here. Pavna is not only better fodder for the cattle but it is also a species that grows in an ecologically improved area,” shared Ghate.

A plantation drive in Lamkani. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.
Drought resilience and economic benefits

After four or five rainfall cycles since Newadkar started his watershed development and grasslands conservation project, Lamkani went from being completely tanker-dependent to water-sufficient even during drought years, shared Dhanraj Patil, sarpanch of Lamkani. The water table has improved, so there is water at 10-15 feet in the wells. “Lamkani is a populous village and yet we have no water shortage problems despite being located in a drought-prone region. We have enough water and fodder; we supply fodder to nearby villages whenever they face a shortage,” shared Patil.

Newadkar also shared how the restored grasslands helped Lamkani endure the changing rainfall patterns. “Earlier, the quantum of rainfall was not high, but it would rain for much longer. Now, the intensity of rainfall has increased so much that it rains very heavily, causing a lot of soil erosion and not giving any time for the water to percolate into the soil. But grasses make the soil spongy, helping us reduce the soil runoff and harvest all the rainwater right here in Lamkani. All our adjoining villages are finding it very hard to retain the rainwater and prevent soil erosion,” shared Newadkar.

Within the first ten years, distress migration reduced considerably, as everyone had access to water for irrigation. Onions, cotton, wheat, bajri, jowar, and fruits are grown here; some farmers have started cultivating a third crop. The initial watershed management in Lamkani was done using the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme and later NREGA, generating employment for the villagers. Later, Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) donated Rs. 15 lakh (1,500,000) for the watershed development to the Joint Forest Management Committee of the village, to which the villagers of Lamkani added Rs. 65,000 to start the CCT digging project. Lamkani also participated in Paani Foundation’s Water Cup in 2018 and 2019.

Conservation of the grasslands resulted in the ‘kusali’ grass (an awned species) changing to ‘pavna’ (a palatable species) in Lamkani. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.
Fighting forest fires and other challenges

“Our village was named ‘Lamkani’ because many years ago this land was known for its grassland habitat, where a species of long-eared rabbit roamed the area frequently. ‘Long ears’ is ‘laamb kaani’ in Marathi,” shared Dnyaneshwar Shelar, a high school teacher from Lamkani.

Grasslands have historically been associated with forest fires, and in Lamkani too, forest fires are not an uncommon occurrence. Two main roads lead to the hillock and fires are spotted easily from the village. The young people of Lamkani have formed a WhatsApp group where news of forest fires is shared and help is arranged to control the fire. “Every year, we make ‘fire lines’ on the hillock to prevent the spread of fires, but with a grassland habitat, fires are inevitable. To ensure that the damage is contained soon, every resident of Lamkani helps. I have seen young as well as old people run to stop the fires,” shares Shelar.

Lamkani village bought a baling machine to make bundles of fodder. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.

“We have also bought a baling machine to cut the grass at the right time so that fires are prevented. The bundles of grass can be used to make a fodder bank to supply fodder to other villages. This also ensures that the nutritional value of the grass is preserved,” said Newadkar.

The ban on overgrazing has been difficult to enforce from the beginning, but the pandemic made it even more difficult to keep an eye on the 400-hectares of community conserved land. “We had to reduce some security measures last year. Some people took advantage of the pandemic and we noticed that some unauthorised grazing happened. The damage was not extensive, but we lost some fodder that we could have used to feed our cattle,” shared Newadkar.

Enforcing the ban on grazing requires relentless commitment, which has become slightly easier over the years but continues to be a challenge till today, shared Dhanraj Patil, sarpanch of Lamkani.

“Despite the challenges, community-protected grasslands have a much higher rate of success as in these cases environmental protection is tied to the livelihoods of the people,” stated Mandar Datar, a scientist at the Agharkar Research Institute, Pune.

Distribution of bundles of fodder in Lamkani in 2019, which was a drought year. Photo by Dhananjay Newadkar.

First published by Mongabay India on 8 Apr. 2021


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