Look at any land use map of the world, nation or a local area and invariably one of the categories in its index would be ‘wastelands’. According to records 20% of India’s landmass is categorised as ‘wastelands’. Often such ‘designated’ wastelands are up for grabs by the development lobby and interests with the full assistance of state agencies.
Of the many memorable trips made by me to different places in India, three stand out. These are Ladakh in the north; Little Rann of Kutch (LRK) in the west and the Chambal ravines in central India. I found them to be made to order for ecologists; an explorer’s paradise, a poet’s dream destination, a wild lifer’s karm bhoomi, an ethnographer’s place to be and a photographer’s delight.
In technical and official parlance the first two are listed respectively as ‘cold’ and ‘hot’ deserts, while Chambal ravines are the infamous ‘badlands’ used for long as refuge by the local outlaws called Baagis. Ladakh is generally cold due to its high elevation (3500 m – Leh) and latitude (34Deg North), while LRK is generally hot due again to its almost sea level elevation (7 m) and sitting atop Tropic of Cancer (23deg North).
Chambal ravines, the product of fluvial gully action in a hot arid to semi-arid climate (26deg North latitude and 150 m altitude) are most in evidence along the long alluvial tail of river Chambal as it runs to meet the river Yamuna. Annual rainfall in deserts is counted in millimeter than in the usual centimeter while the ravines despite their aridity receive short duration but heavy downpours during the monsoon months.
According to geographers a ‘desert’ is formed due to weathering processes led by extremes of day and night temperatures resulting in breaking of rocks; while ‘ravines’ are the product of frequent vertical erosion by streams flowing over arid and semi-arid regions like the Chambal tail. The deserts characteristically receive low to nil annual precipitation and sometimes special local condition like the annual ingress during monsoon of saline sea waters into LRK – soon getting percolated and evaporated to leave behind salts in the sub soil and soil – is responsible for their mystery and uniqueness as picturesque landscapes.
The flora and fauna ranging from mammals to insects and endemic grasses to few specialized shrubs and trees found here and there in deserts and ravines are characteristic. In short deserts and ravines that have evolved naturally over time are ecosystems in their own right and should be viewed and respected as such.
But it is ironic that deserts and ravines in official and popular imagination have come to occupy the status of a ‘wasteland’ – useless and unproductive piece of land which must be developed, reclaimed or according to UNCCD (United Nation Convention to Combat Desertification, 1994), actively ‘combated’. In the words of the UNCCD, “the Convention unites governments, scientists, policymakers, the private sector and communities around a shared vision to restore and manage the world’s land”.
Fact is that the people in the know like the local inhabitants, scientists, researchers and wilderness documentors (Arati Kumar Rao, an ace photographer, for example) well know the ecological, livelihood and wilderness values of these places. Spend a few days amongst local people in any of these three sites and you would be amazed to find innovative ways in which humans and non humans have learnt to make the best of the prevailing hard and harsh climatic conditions.
If Kiang (Equus kiang) and Khur (Equus hemionus khur) the two wild asses found in India are the representative fauna of Ladakh and LRK then Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus), one of the rarest of crocodilians still survives in the wilds thanks to protection and habitat provided by the river Chambal and its ravines. Changpa people in the Changthang plateau in Ladakh produce the world’s finest pashmina wool, while the Agariyas, the salt people in LRK produce country’s 30% of all inland salt.
The deep alluvial gullies and valleys in Chambal ravine host fisher villages, myriad wildlife including otters and offer sandy nesting sites to turtles and gharials to name but few. The mesmerizing sunrise and sunsets at these locales can rival any other and the ‘Flamingo city’ in greater Rann close to LRK attracts thousands of greater flamingoes to breed and nest, in perhaps the only such place anywhere.
Let us not ignore the fact that these lands and people and wildlife there are already experiencing and adapting to conditions of extreme climate (hot, cold, floodable) which thanks to climate change is slated to become the new ‘normal’ all over. So it is in humanity’s interest that these lands remain at hand – untouched by the developmental juggernaut – as climate adaptation models for the rest of the world to learn and gain from.
This article was first published in The Dialogue as Mend The Mind – Deserts And Ravines Are Not Wastelands on 5 June 2022.
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About the Author
Manoj Misra, a former member of the Indian Forest Service (IFS), and Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Living Yamuna Campaign) a civil society consortium. Member of Water Conflicts Forum and the India Rivers Forum, Organising Committee.