Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
It was late one morning, almost noon, when our 4×4 wound its way across the hopping hills of Kalpavalli to arrive at a two-storied watching tower, one of many 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, I could tell that when the light grew long, this grassy landscape would come alive. Already, a cold wind was 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 that evening, Siddharth and Naren* would help me 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 the light of our ultraviolet torches. 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 high with fan-blades almost 30 meters in diameter, were scattered all over the 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, I could also see that for every windmill, there were also winding access roads cut into the hills. The windmills in the Kalpavalli area are a new phenomenon, as recent as 2010. The transformation that they have wrought are many and unprecedented.
History tells us that dramatic change is something Kalpavalli is used to. In government records at present, it is classified as a degraded wasteland. But a hundred years ago, Kalpavalli is likely to have been similar to nearby, present-day remnants of forests, supporting up to 72 species of hardwood trees, dominated by teak and trees of the genus Hardwickia. The British were the first to exploit this resource, strip-cutting the forest continually to supply to the newly formed hub-town of ‘Takelodu’ (teak loading place) where the wood was processed for applications in the then flourishing railway industry. Bablu Ganguly, one of the founders of the Timbaktu Collective, speculates 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. Post-independence, Kalpavalli had become a parched treeless landscape where only the hardiest of grasses and subterranean rodents could survive. Since it was considered a ‘wasteland’, the government and the higher castes of the region let the ‘In a landscape of searing summer heat, strip-cutting a forest leads to significant loss of soil. Post-independence, Kalpavalli had become a parched treeless landscape where only the hardiest of grasses and subterranean rodents could survive. Since it was considered 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. Up until the 1970s, these castes put the land to productive use, even growing crops 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. At certain times of the year, men of a family would camp on the land for a few months to scatter the millet seeds which, with minimal rains, could produce a crop ready to be harvested in a few short months. The land was commons, however, and not owned by these castes; they were only tenants of the land. As such, they had to share part of their produce with the landed and take their animals 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 after the 70s. There were several reasons, the primary being the larger country-wide transformation in land ownership laws, where the previously landless began receiving land for agriculture. This new land was typically more fertile and could support crops other than millet, including cash crops such as groundnut. Simultaneously, the state government was pushing the narrative of decreasing rainfall – helped by a massive drought in the late 60s – and a shift towards chemical-intensive agriculture. Increasingly, agriculture itself was regarded as an endeavor with inherent risks and cash crops were viewed as a ticket out of subsistence. The transformation of a subsistence-based economy into a market-based one was complete.
Fast forward to 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. Bablu was inspired, and he teamed up with Akulappa1 to help form a group of their own called the Anantapur Pariyavaram Parirakshana. This group formed committees in 8 local villages to convince people to protect forests in the Kalpavalli area and to restore it as a watershed. 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. 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. By 2011, up to 7,000 acres of land was 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, fire-lines were built and watchers were hired to control fires in the summer. Later, as natural seeding took hold, saplings were shielded 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 voluntary. The stakeholders had a clear view that this work would benefit 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 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 sold to 40 villages in the region, where the drought had taken a serious toll and where farmers had begun to sell their livestock to slaughter houses.
Some parts of Kalpavalli are thinly wooded, but because of historical soil loss the trees don’t attain much height or girth here. Much of this tree cover is also planted, with particular species preferred for providing firewood anSome parts of Kalpavalli are thinly wooded, but because of historical soil loss the trees don’t attain much height or girth here. Much of this tree cover is also planted, with particular species preferred for providing firewood and leaf for livestock. Decisions on the selection of tree species were taken in consultation with elders of the villages who had recollections of past floral compositions and uses.
A third type 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, from which 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 in Kalpavalli documented 55 species of birds, 28 species of herpetofauna, and 22 species of mammals, including foxes, jackals, leopards and the rare Grey Wolf4. 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.
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 consented to the idea of giving common land away for the project. The windmill companies had many things to offer in return, including the building of pakka temples, roads, and schools. To locals attracted by the lifestyles of a modern, liberalized economy, concerns of hydrology and biodiversity seemed remote in comparison.
After plans for the project were approved, 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 windmill required the digging of up to 15 borewells. In addition, access roads were built on each hill to enable large, construction machines to reach the tops of hills. Some of these roads are 60 meters wide (Rao & Srinivasan, 2013) and cut a steep incline on hill faces. Browsing sheep and cattle try to scale these faces in vain and often fall to their deaths.
The roads have also changed the hydrology of the land. In Bablu’s turn of phrase, the hills of Kalpavalli have veins where water flows naturally into ravines and streams and finally into the Mushtikovila tank. The roads have interrupted these channels, affecting Kalpavalli’s function as a water catchment area for the villages in the plains. Paddy cultivation in the region has also been negatively impacted.
All these changes have been wrought by only 47 windmills in Kalpavalli4, but many more have been proposed by the windmill companies. At present, however, further construction has been stayed by the Green Tribunal in an ongoing case.
Sometimes, not often, there is 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 environmentally-sound alternatives to satisfy humanity’s insatiable need for energy. But Kalpavalli illustrates that along with the type of methods humans employ to produce energy, the scale at which we does so is equally important. 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. At present, the power generated in Kalpavalli is not used by local people but in faraway towns in states such as Maharashtra.
Kalpvalli’s troubles also informs us that the idea of equivalence is corrupt, that 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.
*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.
1. Timbaktu Collective (2012). Retrieved from http://www.goodnewsindia.com/index.php/magazine/story/timbaktu/p5/P4/
4. Rao, S. & Srinivasan, N. (2013). On Oasis of Life. Unpublished report.
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