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Eastern India must not become a desert

"The forests in eastern India are under a great deal of pressure.  Population pressure, a phrase widely used in Indian media, is often blamed as the single most important cause for the retreat of the forests.  I disagree with this view and would like to point out that Japan, where I live these days, despite having a population density of 339 per square km, which is higher, albeit marginally, than the population density of India at 336 per square km, has over 70 per cent of her total land area under forest cover, as opposed to a mere 20 per cent in India."

Dr Nachiketa Das : June 10, 2009

Just about a quarter of a century ago, in December 1985, I had disembarked at Palam Airport of New Delhi from a flight from London to board an Indian Airlines plane to Bhubaneswar, which is the capital of my state of Orissa, and also my hometown where my parents lived.  The three hour long domestic flight was scheduled to depart around the mid-day with a stop over at Raipur in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India.  After an early morning fog the sky over New Delhi was all clear and a bright and beautiful sunny day had unfolded.  I had never traversed this aerial route before, and I looked forward to the travel, particularly eager to enjoy the panorama of the thick forests and the numerous mountains of the western part of Orissa.  After a request at the check in counter, I had secured a seat by the window to have clear and uninterrupted views.

After the take-off the plane flew over the semiarid landscape that adjoined New Delhi.  The parched brown land appeared very different from the green landscape of Scotland, where I had spent a little over three continuous years conducting research to earn a doctorate degree in geochemistry at the University of Glasgow.  I eagerly waited for the plane to fly over the fabled forests of the Vindhyan Mountains of central India.  In those days the governments of various provinces of India claimed to have large areas of their total land, anywhere between say one-third to half or even more, under forest cover.  In the absence of any readily available satellite images like Google Maps then, there was no way of independently verifying the aforesaid claims but to accept the exaggerated inaccuracies offered by the governments.  Within the first hour the plane reached the air space over the Vindhyan Mountains, and I saw the forests but they did not appear dense enough.  I was a bit disappointed, but patiently waited to indulge my visual senses in the sights of the emerald forests on the mountains of western Orissa. 

The dense forests in eastern India, in official government parlance, are termed Reserve Forests that apparently teem with wild-life, and apparently again where the forest canopy is so thick that sunrays fail to penetrate and reach the ground.  As the plane flew over the mountainous highlands of western Orissa, I did notice the woods, but they lacked the density to be termed thick forests.  The total forest cover to the naked eye did not look anywhere near the figures claimed by the government.  I could see plots of cleared land even homesteads right at the edge of the Reserve Forests.  I was shocked at the obvious destruction of forests, and quite unconsciously exclaimed in Oriya language, ‘Deshata maru bhumi hei jibare!’ an English translation of which would read, ‘Lo this country will become a desert!’  I vividly remember the startled expression of a high-ranking government servant who sat beside me, upon hearing my utterance, and I still visualise the incomprehension writ large on his expressive face.  People did not see the approaching calamity then that we have brought upon ourselves, through a systematic destruction of forests that started almost half a century ago in the 1950s and 60s in India.  The percentage of total area of the various provinces of eastern India under forest cover, now in 2009, stands at a little less than twenty.

As I start writing this article in March 2009, with a heavy heart I record that by the end of the last month of February, the day time temperature of Bhubaneswar touched 41oC.  In the first week of March this year, several towns in western as well as coastal Orissa recorded their temperatures at or above 40oC.  A quarter of a century ago, the maximum temperature for this time of the year, i.e. towards the end of February even early March, practically anywhere in eastern India, never went past 25oC.  This time of the year used to be the season of spring with a touch of chill in the morning air.  That spring seems to have disappeared entirely.  Where did we banish that spring to, and what wrong have we done?  Can we do anything at all to invite back that spring or have we lost her for ever through the irreversible damages we have caused to our climate? 

The forests in eastern India, for that matter in the entire country, are under a great deal of pressure.  Population pressure, a phrase widely used in Indian media, is often blamed as the single most important cause for the retreat of the forests.  I disagree with this view and would like to point out that Japan, where I live these days, despite having a population density of 339 per square km, which is higher, albeit marginally, than the population density of India at 336 per square km, has over 70 per cent of her total land area under forest cover, as opposed to a mere 20 per cent in India.  The forests are disappearing essentially due to poor management brought about by a combination of reasons, which I propose to discuss in this article.

Now, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, eastern India ranks as the poorest part of the country.  The forest lands as well as the vast stretches of wet lands in this region are being slowly and steadily taken over by the traditional farmers who are hell-bent in enhancing the acreage of their land holdings to raise the production of food grains essentially to ward off the terrible fears of famine that constantly lurk in the psyche of the inhabitants of eastern India.  Prospect of a prolonged starvation that could invite death is perhaps a primal fear.  Memories of the horrors of the mass starvations of enormous proportions that led to the death of millions in the last 100 years of the British Raj have remained indelibly etched in the psyche of generations of the population of eastern India.

Let me start with a description of the political situation in the pre-independent India of the 1940s, to be precise during the Second World War, that have a direct bearing on the horrendous famine that was unleashed on eastern India by the British Raj, in the first part of this long article discussed in three.

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Part I: Fear of famine

(Points of reference: a. Political situation during the last decade of the British Raj, b. Serious food shortages in the 1940s, c. Need for substantial increase in food-grain production, d. Efficiency of food-grain production is still very low)

Political situation during the last decade of the British Raj

On the 8th of August 1942, an exasperated Mahatma Gandhi two months shy of his 73rd birthday, in a most defiant and audacious speech of his life delivered at Gowalia Tank Maidan in central Bombay, served an ultimatum on the British, urging them to quit India immediately.  The Mahatma issued a call to the masses to act as an independent nation, and his call found a huge support among the populace.  He threatened the British Raj with mass agitations, and his call for civil disobedience would mark the beginning of Bharat Chodo Andolon also known as the Quit India Movement.  The British Raj responded with unprecedented savagery, and arrested almost the entire leadership of the Indian National Congress within 24 hours of Gandhiji’s speech to be incarcerated in prisons all over the subcontinent.  Within days, well over a 100,000 people that included my idealistic grandfather, were arrested nationwide, and mass fines were imposed.  Demonstrators were flogged mercilessly in the public, and thousands of freedom-fighters and innocent bystanders including women and children were massacred in army and police firings.

This massive uprising in India happened smack in the middle of the Second World War, which at that point in time was not going well at all for Britain.  Allied forces had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japanese first in the Battle of Malay at the end of January 1942, and then in the Battle of Singapore a few weeks later on the 15th of February.  Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita, commander of the Imperial Twenty-fifth Army of Japan, having taken 50,000 Allied troops as prisoners in Malay, captured the Allied stronghold of Singapore with only 30,000 Japanese soldiers.  British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the ignominious fall of Singapore, where 80,000 Allied troops had surrendered, as the ‘largest capitulation’ in British history.  A sizable fraction of these Allied troops were Indians who fought for the British army.  Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, chief of intelligence of the Japanese Fifteenth Army, saw the Indian soldiers as potential allies who could help the Japanese fight the British.  

Major Fujiwara Iwaichi was in contact with an Indian revolutionary Giani Pritam Singh, and they both combined to convince Mohan Singh, an Indian captain of the British Army who had just been captured by the Japanese in Jitra town of Malay in December 1941, to form an Army of Liberation for India.  Mohan Singh actively recruited among the Indian prisoners of war (PoW) to form the Indian National Army.  In a conference held at Bangkok in June 1942 of the Indian Independence League under the leadership of Rash Behari Bose, Mohan Singh was appointed commander-in-chief of the ‘Army of Liberation of India’ or the Indian National Army (INA).  By the 1st of September 1942, General Mohan Singh of INA would lead 40,000 troops.

While the Japanese Twenty-fifth Army marched on the Malay Peninsula the Japanese Fifteenth Army commanded by Lieutenant General Shojiro Ida overcame a weak Thai resistance en route to Burma.  Thailand signed a defence pact with Japan, and on the 20th of January 1942, General Ida marched in to Burma.  Despite limited supplies and hostile terrain 35,000 Japanese troops out-manoeuvred the much larger British forces, and by the 22nd of February 1942 Japanese troops closed on Rangoon.  In a last desperate attempt General Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of the American-British-Dutch-Australian command (ABDA-COM) ordered holding of Rangoon for as long as possible, but he resigned on the 25th of February 1942 after handing the command to General Harold Rupert Leofric George Alexander.  General Alexander realising the hopelessness of the British position ordered the evacuation of Rangoon on the 7th of March 1942.  Next day, i.e. on the 8th of March 1942, barely three weeks after the capture of Singapore, the Japanese captured Rangoon, the capital of Burma. 

One hundred and eighteen year long British colonial rule of Malay Peninsula, since the signing of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty in 1824, was overthrown by the Japanese military campaign in a mere two months.  Moreover, the Japanese military took less than 120 days to liberate Burma that had languished for 120 years under a brutal British colonial rule, since the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1823.  I would like to record here that so intense was the Burmese hatred of the horrendously oppressive century old British regime that after Burma gained her independence from Britain on the 4th of January 1948, the Burmese leadership decided not to join the British Commonwealth unlike India, Pakistan and Ceylon.

The ease and the speed with which the Japanese had trounced the Allied forces in Malay, Singapore and Burma had well and truly terrified the British, in fact threatened their hold over India.  The British were now convinced of the Japanese military prowess, capable of outmanoeuvring the Allied troops to invade and capture eastern India anytime.  So after the fall of Rangoon, the Allied forces attempted to regroup in the north of Burma, essentially to thwart the progress of the Japanese military machine.  But the prospect of total annihilation at the hands of the Japanese military, presently reinforced by freedom fighters of the Indian National Army and Indian Independence League, the army of Thailand, and a section of the Burmese army, made the British flee Burma by May 1942, before the onset of monsoon.  The British and Chinese had sustained some 30,000 casualties in Burma at the hands of the Japanese, and by July 1942, the retreat of the British forces from Burma was complete while the Japanese consolidated their position.

Serious food shortages in the 1940s 

Between 1920 and 1940, the British colony of Burma was the single largest exporter of rice in the world.  Fertile plains of the Irrawaddy River, and the Arakan region that adjoined the province of East-Bengal of India produced vast quantities of rice in a British imposed virtual monoculture.  The British Raj imported almost 15 per cent of India’s total rice requirement from Burma, and with the advent of the Second World War Britain procured even larger quantities of Burmese rice for the British troops fighting in the Middle East and elsewhere.  When the Japanese liberated Burma the British lost access to this vast supply of rice at a time when they needed it most for their troops.  The British Raj presently procured that large quantity of rice essentially from eastern India for exporting to the troops stationed in the Middle East and elsewhere, who had been dependent on Burmese rice before. 

In a slight diversion, I would like to record here that the main river of Burma, anglicised as the Irrawaddy, is pronounced very differently in the native Burmese tongue as Ayeyarawati, since it is derived from the Sanskrit name Airavata, the elephant mount of Lord Indra.  The mythical mighty pachyderm Airavata extends his massive trunk into the watery underworld to draw and spray the water into the clouds, which are then converted into life-sustaining rains.  In another related myth Vritra Asura or Vritra Dragon, drank all the waters leaving the earth dry and tabescent.  Lord Indra, mounted on Airavata, defeated Vrita.  This myth of Vritra is in fact an allegory of the last ice age, when the waters were frozen into glaciers atop the major mountain ranges.  As the climate grew warmer, the glaciers broke up and great rivers gushed forth resembling great serpents or dragons on to the plains.  Ayeyarawati drained the melting glaciers of the eastern most part of the Himalayas pretty much like Airavata drew the waters, hence the name.  Life-giving River Ayeyarawati sustains the vast plains of Brahma Desha or Burma.

Now let us go back to our discussion on the causes of serious shortage of food.  In morbid fear of the Japanese advance, the British systematically burnt and destroyed vast tracts of rice paddy fields in the fertile Chittagong region of East-Bengal that adjoined Arakan in Burma.  This ‘scorched earth policy’ of the British further reduced the availability of rice in Bengal.  And in a calamitous move the British horded huge quantities of rice for their troops, which drastically reduced the rice available for the people of Bengal. 

The British Raj virtually initiated no administrative action, even when the scarcity of food became obvious.  General Archibald Percival Wavell who had fled Rangoon in February 1942, had been promoted to the position of field marshal in January 1943.  After Lord Linlithgow retired as the viceroy of India in the summer of 1943, the British Raj replaced him with Field Marshal Wavell essentially to rule the country with an iron hand.  Wavell would hold the position till 1947 to be replaced by Mountbatten.  When large scale starvation deaths were reported, Viceroy Wavell and Secretary of State for India Leopold Amery wrote to the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill requesting for release of food stocks for India.  Churchill totally disregarded the dire situation and most disgracefully retorted, if the scarcity of food is so severe, ‘why Gandhi hadn’t died yet’, and refused additional supplies.  By the way, Leopold Charles Maurice Stennett Amery was born in India in Gorakhpur to a Jewish Hungarian mother and an English father Charles F. Amery who worked for the Indian Forest Department.  Charles Amery abandoned his young family, and the children were brought up by the mother, who made great personal sacrifices to educate them.  Leo Amery had seen hardship, and empathised with the suffering masses in India.  Churchill on the other hand hated India, as evident from an entry in Leo Amery’s diary, where Churchill is recorded to have said in September 1942, ‘I hate Indians.  They are a beastly people with a beastly religion’. 
Churchill’s response and disposition were ample demonstrations of the uncaring and contemptuous attitude of the British Raj towards the people of India.  The British neglect further intensified the Bengal Famine of 1943-1944 that starved at least 3 million men, women and children to death.  And as of today not a single British administrator has ever been punished for this genocide, nor has Britain paid any compensation. 

Bengali literature is replete with many narratives and first-hand accounts of the famine in 1940s.  A particularly heart-wrenching story written in Bengali language bearing the caption, ‘Kaka Ami Bhat Khabo’ narrates the tearful pleadings of a starving little Bengali child urging his famished uncle to fetch him a bowl of rice, which he had no access to.  I hope someone translates this story in to English for a wider circulation.

Eastern India endured many famines and starvation deaths during the British Raj.  Between September 1865 and December 1866, a most horrendous famine had devastated my state of Orissa, which was a part of undivided Bengal then.  A full one third of the population, some 1.2 million people out of a total population of 3.7 million had perished in this famine.  And the cause of the famine, you have guessed it right, was a total British administrative failure.  Sir Stafford Northcote, the Secretary of State for India, had observed in the British House of Commons, ‘This catastrophe must always remain a monument of our failure, a humiliation to the people of this country…’  The arrogant British Raj, who in the language of a widely respected parliamentarian of India, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, had ruled India by, ‘Bandhook ki goli, aur Angrej ki boli’ that in English would read, ‘Gun shots and the alien language of English’, however, learnt nothing and maintained an uncaring and contemptuous attitude towards the people of India.

Need for substantial increase in food-grain production

India won her independence on the 15th of August 1947 after being ruthlessly dismembered by Britain into a democratic India, a theocratic Pakistan and a chaotic basket of 564 independent princely states scattered along the entire length and breadth of the sub-continent.  The singularly most important purpose of dismemberment was to make sure that once the most fabulously wealthy and powerful nation on earth presently utterly impoverished by the systematic syphoning of wealth over two hundred and fifty years of colonial rule, remained indigent and weak.  I am very aware that many of you are unwilling to accept that Britain systematically destroyed the economy of India, and some of you may even go to the length of accusing me of extreme Indian nationalism.  To all of you anglophiles, I recommend a book entitled, The Case For India, written by a universally admired writer and philosopher Will Durant.  This 228 page book published in 1930 by an American Pulitzer Prize winning, obviously non-Indian, writer, who could never be accused of a bias of an Indian nationalistic nature, was written most spontaneously when the writer on a visit to India to conduct research for his books on philosophy, saw the systematic ruination of the Indian economy first hand.  Will Durant most eloquently made a case for India and most tersely accused Britain of haemorrhaging the colony, and the British Raj, in turn very promptly banned the book. 

After India gained her independence, the British in particular and the West in general made all manners of disparaging remarks, predicting the disintegration of India into a million pieces by the end of the twentieth century.  Say for instance, Winston Churchill in December 1930 in London had most disparagingly predicted that after the British departure, ‘India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages’.  He had also prescribed, ‘an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu’.  The West loved watching the most aristocratic lady, an independent Mother India, presently doing rounds in tattered clothes, clutching a begging bowl cadging for food-grains.  The shortage of food-grains in the newly independent India had been exacerbated by the disproportionate partitioning of the two fertile food-bowls of Punjab and Bengal of undivided India, with larger areas allocated to Pakistan.

The 1951 census, the first ever of independent India, recorded the population of the country at 361 million. The total production of food-grain in that year was around 51 million tons, which included 20.6 million tons of rice and 6.4 million tons of wheat, which, needless to say, was utterly inadequate for feeding the entire population of the country. 

Around this time in 1952, a geneticist and agricultural scientist Dr Krishnasamy Ramiah (1892 – 1988) who had devoted his life to studying and breeding varieties of cotton and rice, started a programme of hybridization which would eventually lead to a significant increase in the production of rice.  In the paddy fields of Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) located in the outskirts of the city of Cuttack in Orissa, Dr Ramiah and his team of scientists had carried out extensive hybridization between the Japonica varieties imported from Japan and the Indica strain cultivated in India.  The breeding experiments generated rice strains that would eventually provide parent materials for the High Yielding Varieties Programmes of 1966.  Worth recording here it is that one of these high yielding rice strains, Taichung Native 1, would make the rice yield of 3 tons per hectare jump to 7 tons per hectare in some paddy fields of India.

While the experiments in rice hybridization progressed, wheat breeding to raise yield, which in those days stagnated at less than 1 ton per hectare, started too.  A geneticist and agricultural scientist by the name Dr Benjamin Peary Pal (1906 – 1989) started a wheat improvement programme at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi.  This romantic gentleman, Dr B P Pal was born in a Hindu family in Punjab and was endowed with a great sense of humour, and passionately loved breeding varieties of roses.  In March 1961 the aforementioned programme delivered a significant improvement when a few dwarf wheat strains containing the Norin-10 genes developed by the famous American geneticist Norman E. Borlaug in Mexico, were grown in IARI.  Incidentally Dr Borlaug would win Nobel Prize for Peace in 1970.  The observed improvements would lead to a National Demonstration Programme in 1964, where the yields would exceed 5 tons per hectare.  Dr Pal as the first Director- General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) would subsequently oversee the All India Coordinated Wheat Research Project that would truly revolutionise the wheat production in India.

With all these rice and wheat breeding experiments in full swing, the total production of food-grains in 1961 reached 82 million tons, which contained 34.6 million tons of rice and 11 million tons of wheat.  Although the increase in food production over the decade was impressive, the surge in the total population of India to 439 million by 1961 neutralized all the gains.  A poor monsoon would make matters horribly worse in 1966, when the total food production would actually fall significantly to 72 million tons, forcing the government to import a record quantity of 10 million tons of food-grains that year. 

In order to address the widespread food-scarcity of the 1950s, the Government of India made an arrangement with the US to import food-grains under the PL 480 programme. The Public Law 480 was in fact the Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act of the USA, signed into law on the 10th of July 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The purpose of the legislation was to ‘lay the basis for a permanent expansion of our [US] exports of agricultural products with lasting benefits to ourselves and peoples of other lands.’  President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, renamed PL 480 as ‘Food for Peace’ programme with the statement that ‘Food is strength, and food is peace, and food is freedom, and food is a helping to people around the world whose goodwill and friendship we want’.  Between 1955 and 1971 India imported nearly 50 million tons of food-grains from the US under the PL 480 programme.  I am not interested in getting into a discussion on the pros and cons of PL 480, which flares up every now and then in the Indian media.  The wheat imported under PL 480 may well have introduced some varieties of noxious weeds into India,…’Congress Weed’… but let me assure you that the food-grains of this programme saved many starving millions, particularly at a time when other major wheat producing countries like Argentina, Australia and Canada sold their surplus wheat in international market to countries like the Soviet Union, rather than donate, like the US did.

In our modern India of the twenty-first century, politician bashing is by far the most popular past-time way ahead in popularity of the glitz and glamour filled T20 cricket, the miniaturized version of the gentle languid and romantic sport that takes up to 5 days of competing, often ending with much bonhomie between the rivals and without a decisive conclusion.  I entirely disagree with the most fashionable notion of Indian intelligentsia that all politicians are bad and corrupt, and let me record here my reverence and adulation for an Indian politician, Mr Chidambaram Subramanian, who during his tenure as the Minister for Food and Agriculture of India in 1966 took the bold decision of importing 18,000 tons of seeds of high yielding varieties of Mexican dwarf wheat.  Subsequent hybridization between Mexican and Indian strains would result in many high yielding varieties to significantly improve wheat production in India.  The initiative of this visionary in collaboration with two other great sons of India, one the agricultural scientist Dr M.S. Swaminathan and the other the bureaucrat Mr B. Sivaraman, who officiated as the Secretary of Agriculture to the Government of India, revolutionized the food-grain production in India.  By 1971, the total food-grain production of India stood at 108.4 million tons, which included 42.2 million tons of rice and 23.8 million tons of wheat.  In two decades between 1951 and 1971, India’s rice production had doubled and the production of wheat had quadrupled.  The total food production was still not enough though for the population that had expanded to 548 million by 1971. 

The five aforementioned leaders of the Green Revolution in India, Dr K. Ramiah, Dr B. P. Pal, Mr C. Subramanian, Dr M. S. Swaminathan, and Mr B. Sivaraman, are not only great Indian heroes, but also heroes for the entire humankind, and I salute you gentlemen.  India honoured Mr C. Subramanian, quite deservingly so, in 1998 by conferring upon him the highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna.

Despite the commendable scientific advances in the production of food-grains in India, and despite the bonhomie of Nehru-Kennedy era of the early 1960s, in 1967 a 286 page book entitled, ‘Famine 1975!: America’s decision: Who will survive?’ written by two brothers, William Paddock and Paul Paddock, was published that announced the imminent world-wide famines by 1975 that would cause millions of deaths.  This was no ordinary book, it was a best-seller; and the two authors were no ordinary Americans either, they were no Tom, Dick and Harry.  William Paddock was an experienced agronomist and a recognised authority on tropical agriculture, and Paul Paddock was an experienced diplomat who had spent over twenty years in the US Foreign Service.  The central theme of the book was that only the US would be able to provide any help, and in the name true humanitarianism, the US must divide the underdeveloped countries of the world into three categories, 1) ‘can-not-be-saved-nations’, hence must be ignored, 2) ‘the-walking-wounded’, will survive, and 3) ‘can-be-saved’, hence must be helped by the US.  India figured as a specific example, with a bold prediction that by 1975, millions of Indian would die of starvation.  I invite you my readers to guess the category where India was placed.  You have guessed correctly, India figured prominently in their category number one with the recommendation that all these brown little Indians must be allowed to perish, for it is their destiny.  Now I invite you to guess where Pakistan was placed.  You are wrong, Pakistan was not placed alongside India, but in category three and that meant Pakistan ‘can be saved’, therefore must be helped by the US.  I have always wondered as to what extent this singularly most obnoxious book has shaped the prejudiced American foreign policy towards India vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Now in 2009 right in the midst of the global recession brought upon the world by a profligate America, when many iconic American companies and institutions including General Motors are tumbling like pieces of clothes in a tumble drier, the US appears incapable of saving itself.  And I wonder if that white supremacist arrogance of the 1960s flaunted so audaciously in the title of the aforementioned book ‘America’s decision as to who will survive’ has come back to haunt them.  America’s great ally Pakistan is all but a failed state, could actually collapse as a political entity, and India continues to surge ahead.  With the election of the first ever African-American man Mr Barack Hussein Obama as the President of the US, I do hope that American foreign policy based on those white supremacist views of the 1950s and 60s that have wreaked so much havoc in the world are abandoned for ever.

Efficiency of food-grain production is still very low

As we approach the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century India produces around a quarter of a billion tons of food-grain annually.  India’s total food-grain production in 2008 stood at 227 million tons, which included 96 million tons of rice and 77 million tons of wheat.  In the process, India has not only become self sufficient in food, but also has become an exporter of food-grain; a very commendable achievement indeed.  Although the total food-grain production has increased very substantially, the average yield per hectare, however, continues to be rather low.  With an average yield of 6.5 tons per hectare, China the largest producer of rice in the world produces almost 50 percent more rice than India from a total acreage of 31 million hectares.  Because of our average yield of a lowly 3 tons per hectare in India we on the other hand dedicate a much larger acreage, some 45 million hectares, to rice cultivation.  Another major rice producing country, Japan, yields 6.7 tons per hectare.

Some of the lesser rice producing countries such as the US, Egypt and Australia have much higher average rice yields.  The US produces around 10 million tons per year at an average yield of 7 tons per hectare, where as Egypt produces 6 million tons at 9.5 tons per hectare, and Australia produces some 2 million tons at an average yield of 10 tons per hectare.  Some varieties of rice strains in China are now yielding as much as 12 tons per hectare.  Mr Yuan Longping, one of the most renowned scientists of China who pioneered hybrid rice technology has boldly predicted that the rice yield per hectare in the near future could reach 22 tons per hectare.  This 78 year young dedicated swimmer and volley-ball playing scientist is the director-general of China’s National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre, and the recipient of the World Food Prize in 2004.  He is very confident that with the adoption of biotechnology his predictions will come true. 

Our average yield of 3 tons of rice per hectare in India, which incidentally is even lower than world-wide average yield of 3.8 tons, does not mean that the rice yield is uniformly low throughout the country.  In the two major rice producing states of India of Tamil Nadu and Punjab where all the rice growing land is irrigated and the uses of chemical fertilisers and pesticides are appreciable, rice yield has reached 6 tons per hectare, and is double the national average.  States of eastern India on the other hand, barring some regions in West-Bengal, have much lower yields; for example the average yield of rice in Orissa is only a meagre 1.7 tons per hectare.  Paddy fields of coastal Orissa yield more than the state average of 1.7 tons, where as the yields in the areas that adjoin the reserve forests and other stretches of land that were appropriated to increase the acreage for rice cultivation are even less, lower than 1 ton per hectare.

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Part II: Destruction of forests

(Points of Concern: a. Large stretches of forests and scrubland cleared to increase the acreage of arable land, b. Increase productivity and surrender the appropriated land back to Mother Nature, c. Social reforms necessary to eliminate the detrimental primitive habits, d. Freedom of the holy cows and unholy goats must be restricted) 

Large stretches of forests and scrubland cleared to increase the acreage of arable land

Although some regions in the states of West-Bengal and Bihar produce significant quantities of wheat, rice continues to be the staple crop of eastern India.  In this section, therefore, in stead of discussing the efficiency of wheat production, I restrict myself to rice.  Based on all the facts on rice yield presented above, we could conclude that the large productions of food-grain we have achieved in India is partly because of increased efficiency in yield per hectare, but largely because of an increase in the acreage of arable land through clearing of the forests, and appropriation of wet-land and stretches of scrub land that fringed every village in the past. 

Villagers have often cleared large areas of forests to increase the size of their land holdings.  In many instances such cleared lands, although rarely suitable for rice cultivation due to poor irrigation facilities, are tortured to produce rice.  Every village in eastern India used to be skirted by large stretches of unoccupied barren land and scrubland where the cattle grazed.  Even these poor quality lands have been appropriated and converted into rice paddy fields.  The patches of wet-lands and swamps that are so very vital ecologically, and also for the recharging of the under-ground water reserves, have also disappeared, long taken over by the farmers to be systematically filled to create more arable lands for rice cultivation.  The tiny little non-descript ponds that nestled in the scrubs or simply lay scattered around the villages that existed right up to the 1960s and 70s, where frogs frolicked and innocuous little water-snakes wriggled, have disappeared too. 

I distinctly remember, the croaking of the frogs, the shrill noises and crepitations of the various nocturnal species announcing their availabilities to the members of their opposite sex, in the evenings of the monsoon months in my grandfather’s estate in a village in Orissa in the 1960s.  That cacophony, at least the intensity, is well and truly a thing of the past, and does not exist in eastern India any more.  Frogs are not alone in dying, we are steadily losing large numbers of both animal and plant species to extinction in India.  I contrast the massive extinction of the species of lower life forms in eastern India with the profusion of life around my house here in Seno, which is a suburb of a major Japanese city of Hiroshima, because of the lush environment provided by a forest cover of over 70 per cent of the total land area.  The orchestra outside my house played out in full by the croaking frogs and their myriad creepy crawly companions in the monsoon months distract me often with their intensity.  I see vast numbers of the playful little frogs everywhere, in the fields and the parks and even on the roads here in Japan, which is an advanced industrialised nation of the world.  And the frogs are gone from eastern India! which is essentially rural and agrarian, primarily because we have ruined our environment, and we must undo the damage before it becomes irreversible.  Incidentally frogs symbolise life, and their unprecedented disappearance in a massive scale in eastern India portend the impending tabescence of the land.  Disappearance of the frogs should be taken very seriously as a wake up call to prevent the region from becoming a desert. 

Increase productivity and surrender the appropriated land back to Mother Nature

In order to prevent the desertification of eastern India let us improve our crop management practices, which involve proper watering techniques, optimum use of fertiliser, and pest control.  With improved crop management, even a poor third world country like the Philippines has almost doubled the yield of rice from 4.5 tons per hectare to 8 tons.  The next decade, i.e. the second decade of the twenty-first century will most definitely see very substantial increases in rice yield in different countries of the world, simply by improvements in crop management.  Our priority therefore, should be a rapid implementation of the improved crop management practices, so that the rice yield in the more fertile stretches of the arable lands of eastern India is doubled, even tripled within the next decade.  Once we achieve a higher productivity we could transfer all those vast acreages of poor quality land so ruthlessly snatched away from Mother Nature in the last five decades for producing rice, back to the nature.  Appropriated wetlands could go back to being wetlands for the frogs to proliferate, and the scrublands and the stretches of land where the forests were cleared could play host to plantations of native trees or some other varieties of sub-tropical trees appropriate for the areas.  The farmers need not surrender the title to their acreages, they could well tend the plantations and secure handsome returns through carbon trading schemes, a topic I will discuss in another article.   I will cite the specific case of Orissa to show how much land could be safely returned back to the nature.

The total land area of the state of Orissa is some 155,707 square km out of which 61,650 square km make up the total arable land.  As of this year, i.e. 2009, according to a report published in a respected daily of Orissa, The Dharitri on the 22nd of April 09, only a total of 28,304 square km of arable land is irrigated.  Although the Government of Orissa envisage facilitating irrigation in a big way, only a maximum of 49,900 square km could ever be irrigated, leaving a full 11,750 square km of arable land (61,650 – 49,900 = 11,750) that can not be irrigated essentially due to geographical constraints.  This 11,750 square km of land need not be tortured to produce rice, and must be immediately surrendered to Mother Nature for a variety of trees to grow.   

Social reforms necessary to eliminate the detrimental primitive habits

Even as the first decade of the twenty-first century or for that matter the first decade of the third millennium nears completion, and as Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) gets ready to launch manned mission to the moon in the near future, a very large proportion of rural folks from eastern India still continue with their primitive habits that devastate the forests.  I start with the age-old habit of collecting firewood from the forests and the scrublands.

We human beings, once learnt the art of cooking all those millennia ago, started foraging in the forests not only for food but also for firewood.  Now-a-days however, barring a few miniscule number of tribes inhabiting the dense forests of India, we have stopped foraging for food in the forests as our agriculture produces enough.  Rural people settled in the fringes of the forests in eastern India, however, still continue to forage for firewood even today.  Collection of firewood in eastern India is carried out mostly by groups of women armed with traditional implements to cut and chop small branches and baby trees.  These women never cut down the massive trees unlike the forestry workers and loggers who are equipped with chainsaws and other more powerful tools, and are capable of clearing large stretches of forests in a matter of hours.  The devastation of the forests by the women however, is by no means any less severe, as they tend to cut down the saplings which stop the regeneration of the forests.  Each bundle of fire-wood that theses women carry home on their heads is equal to at least a few truck-loads in a few years down the track.

This insidious practice of fire-wood collection that devastates the forests could only be stopped if these women are provided with an alternative fuel to cook their food with, particularly the evening meals.  Moreover, the fuel has to be very cheap, may even have to be provided free of cost.  Such conditions could only be satisfied by the construction of community kitchens at appropriately convenient locations in the villages.  Depending upon the population and the straggle of any particular village, one or a good few more such kitchens may become necessary.  The kitchens would provide the basic facilities of a number of stoves, which could be fuelled by a supply of commercial cooking gas or even by bio-gas generated from cow-dung plants.  The women could carry their provisions and utensils to cook the meals for their respective families.

Villages in eastern India always had community centres in the past where people met to listen to religious discourses, to hold annual plays and for a myriad other festivities.  Establishment of community kitchens may in fact revive an important age old tradition, and bring about closer social interactions.  Cooking food in such community kitchens may also help erasing the last vestiges of casteism to a significant extent.

The second primitive habit that I wish to discuss here may appear harmless, but it is not really so.  A lot many people in eastern India perhaps a full 25 percent of the total population, despite the easy availability of tooth-brush and tooth-paste still continue to use dantakathi or freshly cut live twigs from branches of a variety of trees for brushing their teeth in the morning.  A dantakathi is typically about 15 cm long and up to 1 cm in diameter.  A single dantakathi user in a week would easily consume a couple of 1 m long shoots, which could add up to probably a 100 shoots a year.  Cutting of all these 100 shoots and the sprigs from a single small tree would essentially prevent it from attaining full growth and adult hood.  This particular primitive manner of tooth-brushing by tens of millions of people from the rural parts of the eastern Indian states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand are savaging tens of millions of young trees.  How do we solve this problem?

The answer is a massive education programme to make the people aware of the dire needs to give up their age old habit of using dantakathi and a free distribution of tooth-brushes, tooth-pastes, and the various herbal and ayurvedic tooth-powders or the dantamanjans in the rural areas.  The free distribution and the education programme will certainly cost a bit of money, but that would be money well spent for the regeneration of the forests.

Freedom of the holy cows and unholy goats must be restricted

When the founding fathers of our modern nation drafted the Constitution of India, they in their infinite wisdom endowed us with the Fundamental Rights, which guarantee an individual with the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, and freedom to practise religion.  Such rights, say for example, England’s Bill of Rights, the United States’ Bill of Rights, and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man do exist in some liberal democracies, and indeed are a great privilege not enjoyed by the citizens of a lot many countries of the world.  Now it will come as a surprise to my readers that even some democratic countries do not have fundamental rights, a good example being Australia, which as of 2009 does not have a Bill of Rights.  This fact perhaps explains why Australian media is so very prejudiced, for they have to support Australia and Australians regardless of their culpability.  Their bias is in full show during cricket tests, which became obvious to my fellow cricket-loving Indians during the infamous Sydney test of 2008, and also over the ongoing issue of racial attacks on overseas Indian students studying in Australia.

Now going back to our Fundamental Rights in India I would like to state that our noble founding fathers, however, did not realise that the Rights so meticulously drafted would also by logical extension apply to the holy mother cow, who after all is our mother.  And the cattle population of India has wholly, in full measure, exercised their fundamental rights of speech, peaceful assembly, and have vigorously practised their religion of procreation and grazing the greenery to extinction.  They have been so successful a species that their population in India today stands at some 280 million, a little over a full 25 per cent of the total global cattle population of 1 billion.  The population density of cattle per square km of India is 85; shown in a different way, for every 4 Indians there is one holy cow.  In rural areas of eastern India the cattle population density is even higher.

Cows are very nice and gentle, give milk, become the subject matter for children right from the age of 5 to 15 to write essays on, allow their images to be drawn by children often under duress in the primary and junior high school drawing classes, and provide free demonstrations of invaluable sex education, which is not available in the school curricula otherwise, to teenagers.  Despite the string of benefits just outlined the holy cows do cause us significant harm, particularly so in the eastern part of the country, where they are more politically aware, and are very conscious of their fundamental rights essentially because of the great grass-root movements brought about by the Marxists.  Moreover, here the cattle generally give much less milk, do much less work and cause a lot more damage just like the comrades.

The cattle grazing in the forests and the scrubland would eat grass and any foliage within their reach particularly the new shoots, which not only denudes the forests but also prevents their regeneration.  Moreover, these beasts on account of their great weights pound the earth as they walk and stampede.  Their collective pounding action very effectively drives out the soil moisture, which is the life-blood of soil.  In the absence of soil moisture the seeds on the ground or the forest floor fail to germinate, which again stops the regeneration of the forests. 

What could we do to stop the rampaging holy cows that so utterly devastate our forests?  The answer is very simple; we have to restrict the free movements of the cattle, and they have to be confined in pens by their owners.  Every village would have some cattle owners who may not possess enough space to confine their animals, and resources to feed them on a daily basis.  Every village therefore, may have to set up community cattle-pens for the homeless ones.  The era of free movements of the cattle must come to an end.  

Having discussed the holy cows let us focus our attention on the unholy goats.  According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, India’s goat population in 2002 stood at 124 million, which is about 17 per cent of the world goat population of 743 million.  We have 37 goats per square km of land in India, and their population density is significantly higher in rural areas.  Goats are voracious eaters and would often nibble at each and every blade of grass to completely strip the land of any vegetation.  They would even climb small trees to eat the leaves and tender sprigs.  Vast expanses of forests and scrublands of eastern India unfortunately receive regular visits from herds of goats, and get utterly ravaged and stay denuded without ever getting a chance to regenerate.  Just like the cattle, the goats have to be restrained, if necessary in community goat-pens.

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Part III: Rejuvenation of the mountains

(Points of Thought: a. Revive the mountains – the mahidharas – the sustainers of the earth, b. Open cast mines, strip mining of the mountains and industrial townships, c. How do we rejuvenate the mahidharas? d. Instances of regeneration of forests and hills in India, e. Let us revive the mahidharas)

Revive the mountains – the mahidharas – the sustainers of the earth

Among the multitude of synonyms for mountain in Sanskrit and other languages of India, there is a word which is of particular significance to the present discussion on the prevention of desertification of eastern India.  And that word is mahidhara, which etymologically means the one who holds the earth or the one who sustains the earth.  In our Indian civilisation we have respected the mountains, the mahidharas, as the sustainers of the earth.  So great has been our reverence for the Himalaya that in Hinduism, it is not just a chain of mountains, He is God.  Himalaya is not only the father of Goddess Parvati who is the consort of Shiva, but also the father of the Goddesses Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati.  This deification of the mightiest mountain range is the acknowledgement of the central role He has played in preserving and sustaining our glorious mother land.    Now time it is that we become aware that the mountains play the singularly most important role in sustaining the environment in our Indian sub-continent.  And we must also realise the importance of regenerating the mountains in order to revive the environment.

Mountains of the states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand in eastern India have played important roles too.  In the past, say half a century ago, when these mountains, particularly of western Orissa, were crowned with dense forests, they successfully prevented the onslaught of the hot winds from the semi-arid north-west and central India.  Evaporation from the dense foliage of the thick forests maintained the relative humidity at much higher levels throughout the year, particularly in pre-monsoon summer months.  Combined effect of these two processes kept eastern India much cooler than the hotter parts of the Indian subcontinent.  Moreover, the cool mountain air at higher altitudes always initiated precipitations from the dark monsoon clouds that made eastern India receive much heavier rains than the rest of the country.  The dense forests atop the mountains again played a very significant role by arresting the flow of the rainwaters that recharged the groundwater table at the upper end at higher altitudes, which raised the water table over a much larger geographic area.

As mentioned earlier mountains of the states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand have already undergone extensive denudation.  In addition to the recurring damages done by firewood collection and cattle grazing, the rampant unlawful loggings carried out by criminal gangs often in collaboration with corrupt government officials are utterly destroying the forests.  Another serious menace of the last few years is the vandalism of the pyromaniac criminals who just for the thrill of it set the tinder-dry forests ablaze in summer months.  These forest fires decimate vast swathes of forest, which take decades to fully regenerate.  Forest fires in Australia, in their local lingo called the bush fires, have now pretty much become a regular annual event that cause serious devastations at times causing enormous casualties.  The latest bush fire of February 2009 killed a total of 173 people and injured around 500 in the state of Victoria in Australia.  Majority of these bush fires in Australia are deliberately lit by pyromaniacs who are rarely prosecuted and punished.  Leniency towards these criminals may be an Australian way of life, but here in India these pyromaniac vandals must get the severest possible punishment permitted by the laws of the land. 

In the last few             years, as a result of the serious denudation of the forests on the mountainous terrains of the states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand, the relative humidity in the pre monsoon summer months comes down to as low as 10 per cent.  Heat wave all the way from the deserts of Rajasthan in the far west of the country blows unhindered right up to the coastal plains of Orissa at a speed of around 25 km per hour.  Consequently the maximum temperature virtually in the entire state of Orissa barring the few townships on the coast such as Puri stayed at or above 40o C in the month of April of 2009.  Quite ironically on the 5th of June, which is the World Environment Day (WED), of 2003, the township of Titlagarh of western Orissa experienced one of the highest temperatures ever recorded in Orissa at 50.1o C.  If the ambient temperature of the forests continues to hover above 50o C for a period of time, the dry heat will ensure that spontaneous forest fires become a routine occurrence. Moreover, this extreme dry heat repels the moist clouds of the pre-monsoon months, which otherwise would produce rains.  Say for example, as of the end of the first week of May of 2009, there has not been a single pre-monsoon shower of any significance in Orissa.  This ambient heat and the hot air blowing all the way from the deserts of Rajasthan will not only accelerate the extinction of many species of animals and plants but also seriously affect the rainfall pattern of eastern India.  If the rainfall pattern changes significantly, despite the proximity to the sea and despite a long history of very heavy monsoonal rains, eastern India will become an arid land pretty much like the countries of Ethiopia and Somalia situated in the north eastern most part of the continent of Africa.  I am not indulging in a spot of scare mongering here, I am stating the dire truth.  I would like to record here that Ethiopia and Somalia were not always dreary deserts, once upon time they were lush green too.  In order to substantiate my claim I cite the epic journey the Queen of Sheba undertook almost three thousand years ago, in the tenth century B.C. to visit the wise King Solomon in Jerusalem.  Her entourage from Sheba i.e. Ethiopia carried vast quantities of spices, gold, precious stones and beautiful wood as gifts for the noble king.  I want my readers to note the gift of ‘beautiful wood’, which Ethiopia produced in enormous quantities from her rich emerald forests.  Right up to the beginning of the twentieth century, 35 per cent of the land mass of Ethiopia was under forest cover, which now in the beginning of the twenty-first century stands at a miserable 12 per cent.  One of the oldest human settlements of the world, Ethiopia, has all but become a desert because of a systematic destruction of forests. 

There are many who would like to blame this extreme hot climate of eastern India of these past few years on global warming, which has become a convenient excuse to mask all manners of mismanagements and corrupt practices.  These days there is a tendency to blame global warming for all the ills of the world such as the resurgence of Taliban, collapse of American banks, the intense crime wave in Melbourne, even the worldwide wardrobe malfunction of the super-models and movie-stars.  I admit that global warming is real and upon us, but it is not the root-cause of all the evils of the twenty-first century.  The extreme temperatures we are getting in eastern India these days is because of regional warming that we have brought upon ourselves by denudation of the forests and the degradation of the land.

As the first decade of the twenty-first century nears completion, India is well advanced on her march to achieve the status of an economic super-power.  This great achievement has been possible to a very great extent due to a boom in the knowledge based industries.  Quite an irony it is that at a time of a boom in technical knowledge, we are losing the fundamentally profound knowledge of living in harmony with nature.  This reminds me of the prophecy of my forebear, the very great saint and seer of Orissa of the sixteenth century, Achyutananda Das.  In one verse of his book of prophecies he foresees,
Amaa andhakaara,
Ghotiba mahira;
Agyaana hoiba dharaa, …’, which in English would read,

‘Blinding darkness
Will wrap the earth,
Lost will be all the
Knowledge of the world …’ (translation N.D.)

I wonder what exactly did he mean; did he foresee blinding dust-storms, which are a distinct possibility now in eastern India in summer months on account of the massive deforestation and the consequent soil erosion, or did he envision something far more sinister.  Let us rejuvenate our mountains to delay his prophecies indefinitely.  I wish to sing the praises of this great seer, hence I do not hesitate mentioning briefly again his life and time, even though I have done that in an earlier article of mine entitled, ‘Sea level rise and inundation of coastal India’. 

Achyutananda was born in the village of Nemala, which is some 30 km away from the ancient capital city of Cuttack.  After spending his early childhood in the village, Achyutananda moved to Puri to live with his father Dinabandhu Khuntia, who was in the employ of the Jagannath temple.  Achyutananda’s grand father Gopinath Mohanty had also served the holy temple as a scribe.  Achyutananda became a great devotee of Jagannath, and worshipped Him as the Buddha.  Stringent practice of yoga and meditation, and austere adherence to the rituals of Buddhist tantra, endowed Achyutananda with vast spiritual powers that made him a prolific author and a great seer.  My grand father, Alekh Prasad Das, in his autobiography that won the Orissa Sahitya Academi Award, has recorded my family’s descent from the seer.

Open cast mines, strip mining of the mountains and industrial townships

Open cast coal mines, and strip mining of the mountains for bauxite, iron ore and a range of other minerals have seriously denuded the forests of eastern India.  Moreover the large industrial complexes that have come up in the recent years have also destroyed significant stretches of forests.  Discussion of these and the measures to remedy the devastations would form the subject matter of another article, hence not presented here. 

How do we rejuvenate the mahidharas?

Could we really regenerate our forests on the mountainous terranes of the states of Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand; the answer is: oh most definitely yes.  In a matter of just two to three decades these states and much of eastern India could become green again, just like the imageries of the nineteenth century eastern India so magnificently captured by Bankim Chandra in the most inspirational poem of ‘Bande Maataram, Sujalaam suphalaam,
malayaja sheetalaam,
sashay shyaamalaam…’, which in English would read,

‘Endowed with an abundance of water,
Full of bounteous harvests,
Cool with vernal breeze,
Lush green in rice paddies…’ (translation ND).  

How do we go about regenerating our mountains, the mahidharas?  In addition to taking the immediate measures of restricting the cattle, goat, sheep and any other herbivores from devouring the forests, and banning the firewood collecting folks from ravaging the forests, we have to stop the clearing of forests and put an absolute end to the illegal logging operation that is going on with the connivance of corrupt officials.  The biggest step for the revival of the mountains however, would be a massive programme of civil and environmental engineering, which is discussed below.

The massive civil and environmental engineering programme would involve building of tens of thousands, yes you have heard it right tens of thousands of micro-dams that is small dams, weirs and dykes, anywhere from a meter to 10 m high, right up in the mountains as well as on the foothills over the entire sprawl of mountainous terrains.  The purpose of these dams and dykes is not necessarily to create reservoirs of any great capacities but simply to arrest the flow of rain water right at the higher altitudes of the mountains and the foothills at suitable locations.  The arrested rain waters may well form tanks comparable in size to the village ponds, which are either being renovated or excavated or simply planned at the rate of one for each and every village in the state of Orissa.  These water tanks, be they tiny or large, simply on account of their location on higher grounds up in the mountains, would have much greater efficiency in recharging ground water than the village ponds which are generally located in low lying areas.  I would also like to mention here that any number of such village ponds in low lying areas, which admittedly provide a great many benefits, would not however help revive the mountains. Construction of these micro-dams and dykes would rarely require any sophisticated high technology, for the structures would be mostly earthen, built with the locally excavated soil and dirt.  Moreover, these tanks would help recharge the ground water table over a vast area.  The resultant increase in soil moisture and the availability of water high up in the mountains will very significantly help in the regeneration of the forests.  Many dead and dying mountain streams will be revived, and the ephemeral ones will become perennial, which will again ensure a significant regeneration of the forests atop the mountains.  The revival of the forests would further enhance the water holding capacity of the soil which will contribute to a further proliferation of plants.  As these plants prosper they would breathe out more moisture which will moisten the mountain air, enhance the relative humidity, and cool the environment.  The moisture and the cool mountain air would help precipitate rainfalls, and avert the dangers of a drastic change to the rainfall patterns. 

However astounding these simple measures may seem, they are not exaggerated claims.  Regeneration of forests and hills has already been demonstrated most spectacularly in a sufficiently large scale at least in two places of the country.  I discuss briefly these two cases in the following section in order to convince you my readers that revival of the forests and the mountains is very possible. 

Instances of regeneration of forests and hills in India

Let me start this section with the story of regeneration of a patch of forest and a 3 km long, 1 km wide, 280 m high non-descript hill by the name Binjhagiri in Nayagarh district of Orissa.  Binjhagiri like many other hills of eastern India suffered serious denudation due to rampant cutting of trees by all and sundry in 1960s and early 70s.  The residents of the nearby village of Kesharpur and a few other adjacent villages suffered the most on account of the degradation.  Not only did they endure as many as 6 droughts during the space of a mere decade in the 1960s but also noticed substantial changes to their climate by the year 1970.  By then rainfall had declined noticeably, the air in summer months blew unbearably hot, and agricultural production had declined considerably so much so that many marginal farmers were forced to abandon their fields and seek employment as daily labourers elsewhere. 

A marginal farmer of Kesharpur by the name Mr Udaynath Khatei, out of sheer desperation perhaps, resolved to organise the villagers do something to help save the fast deteriorating forest.  He was however, very unsure of a precise plan of action to achieve his goals until the local Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Mr Pratap Patnaik provided the initial knowledge and guidance.  The villagers desperate to save their meagre livelihoods whole-heartedly accepted the leadership of Udaynath Khatei and initiated measures to protect the forests.  Udaynath Khatei was soon joined by two others, an idealistic primary school teacher of Kesharpur Mr Joginath Sahoo, and a compassionate Professor Narayan Hazari, also a resident of Kesharpur.  I have the good fortune of knowing Professor Hazari since my childhood as he was a frequent visitor to our house because my father Professor Rajendra Prasad Das was his teacher.  Professor Hazari taught political science and was always a generous and a noble teacher.  The two idealists Joginath Sahoo and Professor Hazari played the vital role of educating the mass movement on protecting the environment.  Little did they know that their humble campaign would become a significant mass movement involving some 22 villages, and the story of their success would receive world-wide publicity.  They would moreover, receive several provincial, national and international awards including the Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environment Programme in 1989, ‘in recognition of outstanding practical achievements in the protection and improvement of the environment.’ 

In the very first step the villagers drastically reduced, by as much as 50%, their own requirements of firewood that they had traditionally obtained from the forest, by cooking once a day instead of the two meals they normally cooked.  A very important second step involved the prohibition of goat and sheep from ravaging the forests.  The mass movement then initiated not only its own tree plantation programme in the denuded forests but also provided protection to the plantations carried out by the forestry department of the government.  The villagers moreover, most meticulously guarded the forests day and night on a volunteer basis, to stop the cutting of trees particularly by the illegal operators.

This mass movement to protect and regenerate the forests of Binjhagiri produced remarkable results; within two decades, by 1988, the forests were regenerated to a very significant extent.  During this period, the revival of the forests raised the ground water table of the villages by as much as 40 ft or 12 m so that the wells upon reaching a depth of a mere 20 ft could provide drinking water round the year, which was possible only after digging to a depth of around 60 ft in 1970.  Soil erosion from the hill moreover, decreased substantially.  And needless to say agricultural production in those 22 villages around Binjhagiri increased.   

The case of the regeneration of the forest of Binjhagiri is now well publicised in a book entitled, Community Forest Management: A Casebook from India, published by Oxfam.  

The second case of regeneration of forests and hills that I propose to discuss now took place in the arid western part of India in Alwar district of the state of Rajasthan.  This is also the story of an idealist Mr Rajendra Singh who chose to make enormous sacrifices to accomplish his mission against all the odds stacked sky high.

Right up to the 1930s the district of Alwar that nestles in the vales of the Aravalli hills was green.  But then the local prince sold away the forests full of timber up in the hills to logging contractors.  In a matter of only ten years the contractors cut the trees that thoroughly denuded the forests, and rains washed away the rich top soil of the forest floor.  The hordes of domesticated herbivores of cattle, goats, sheep and camels grazing grass on the forest lands nibbled at the new shoots too, and that utterly prevented the forests from regeneration.  Subsequent monsoonal rainfalls on this denuded wasted forest land raced downhill without ever stopping to recharge the ground water table.  The absence of soil moisture contributed to further wastage of the land.  The denudation of the forests on the hills thus completely reduced the relative humidity, and enhanced desertification.  Consequently rainfall declined too, and the entire vicious cycle of desertification not only intensified but also continued unabated.  By the time a 28 year young Rajendra Singh arrived in 1985 at the scene, every body including the natives of Alwar had accepted the arid nature of the land as a fact of life.  Moreover, they were also convinced that the arid land was incapable of regeneration.  The young Rajendra Singh and his four friends who would embark upon the campaign to regenerate the forests however, visualised the scenario differently.

Rajendra Sing and his non-governmental organisation (NGO), Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) or Young India Guild took a simple two-pronged approach.  The first one was the revival of vegetation on the barren hills by a prohibition on any further cutting of trees and grazing of the land, and second was the construction of numerous micro-dams to build small water catchments in the hills, valleys and the plains to arrest the rain waters.  They started their experimentation in a remote village by the name Bhikampura in Alwar district. 

TBS achieved spectacular success in the regeneration of denuded hills by placing a total prohibition on the grazing by cattle for 3 years, goats for 5 years and camels for 7 years.  Vast stretches of waste-land and denuded forests that were given up as hopeless cases were totally transformed into lush green fields within a decade.  However miraculous it may sound, within a time span of only 15 years, quite a few rivers such as Arvari, Ruparel, Jahjajwali and numerous rivulets that have been very dead for a very long time were revived.  In fact river Arvari that had been dead for 40 years is now flowing again.  Agriculture which had been reduced at best to a seasonal chore is now round the year activity again.  Their simple techniques of rain water harvesting raised the levels of ground water considerably, and the micro-dams were so effective that the local villagers felt inspired to construct similar weirs wherever necessary.  In the process they would build some 3500 such water harvesting structures in Rajasthan.

Rajendra Singh in 2001 received Ramon Magsaysay Award, and the citation read for community leadership ‘to rehabilitate their degraded habitat and bring its dormant rivers back to life’.  India needs a thousand Rajendra Singhs, one for each and every district of the country, to regenerate the denuded forests and the waste-lands.

Let us revive the mahidharas

In the summer of 2008, the government of the state of Orissa announced a plan for the planting of trees over an area of 100,000 hectare (1,000 square km) every year.  This is a well intended and a welcome policy.  In order for this policy to be fruitful it is essential that proper attention be paid to the selection of the right species of plants depending upon the topography, type of soil, rainfall patterns and micro-climate of the various parts of the state.  Plantations of trees are required everywhere but afforestation necessary for the regeneration of the denuded forests atop the mountains is absolutely crucial.  Let these plantations of trees proceed hand in hand with the construction of those numerous, tens of thousands of micro-dams. 

If we do not act now, and continue to procrastinate in rejuvenating the mountains, a time will come that is not too far away, when the damages will be considered irreversible.  Let us act now, before it is too late and let us launch the Programme of Revival of the Mahidharas.

I call upon the chief ministers of all the states of eastern India, for that matter of all the states of India, to lead by example of planting trees.
Let the leaders show the way,

By planting one tree everyday.

(Author is the Director, NRI-Enviro-Geo-Tech - Australia, Sydney & presently based in Hiroshima, Japan)



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