Grasslands — home to the great Poaceae family, with its 10,000 to 12,000 members or species — cover vast swathes of landmass throughout the world and support a wide variety of animal life. They thrive in places where the rainfall is low, typically between 600 and 1500 mm annually. But the forests just can’t make it, either due to lack of rainfall or human interference. It doesn’t matter whether they are in hot tropical areas or benign temperate ones, sprawling high up in the mountains or in the dry flat plains. They are even more useful than forests and provide a host of ecosystem services — storing water and carbon, recycling chemical, and controlling the climate. And, vitally, feeding us and our livestock, besides the wild herbivores that roam the plains. Even the ferocious carnivores must be grateful to grasslands: because grasses feed their prey species. Just three species of grass — rice, wheat and maize — provide us with more than half of our calorific and protein requirements.
In India, almost a quarter of landmass is covered in grassland. This includes the alpine meadows of the Himalayas, the chaurs in the foothills, the famous terai grasslands in the flood plains of the Ganges and Brahmaputra, the phumdis, or the quivering wet grasslands of Manipur (where the deer “dance”), the savannas of western and peninsular India and the renowned “sholas” of the Western Ghats. (And this is not a comprehensive list!). Our livestock, no less than 500 million strong, get at least 50 per cent of their fodder from these grasslands, and the strain is beginning to tell.
The list of animals that are dependent on or live in grasslands is a kind of “Who’s Who” of the endangered and the almost extinct. The one-horned Indian rhinoceros and wild water buffalo live in the wet grasslands of Kaziranga and Manas Tiger Reserve. The swamp deer live in the terai. Manipur’s rare “dancing deer” or “Sangai” thrive on the floating phumdis of Loktak Lake. The lesser florican jumps high in the grasslands of the Western Ghats (during the monsoons), and the Great Indian bustard, (down to 50) stalk haughtily in the dry, short grasslands of Rajasthan. Other rare species include the Nilgir tahr (in the sholas), the hispid hare and the pygmy hog, the last two from the Northeast.
The habitats and ecosystems ought to have been protected by the law because of their precious denizens and the services they provide. But grasslands (except a few) — like the wetlands — in India get no protection. They are free to be exploited. The Forest Department looks at forests, the agriculture department at crops and the animal husbandry department at livestock (but not at what livestock eat). As a result, grasslands are often regarded as wastelands — or turn into one due to over-exploitation, over-grazing, fragmentation and habitat destruction. Many, like the terai and sholas, and the dry grasslands of the Deccan, are being turned into plantations. Some, even in the “protected areas”, are not spared either. A few are part of the protected area network and are looked after — the wet grasslands of Kaziranga and Manas, for example, and a small part of the Desert National Park in Rajasthan.
In 2003, the National Forest Commission suggested some recommendations for the protection of grasslands. The need for a policy on grasslands was identified in the Report of the Task Force on Grasslands and Deserts, submitted to the (then existing) Planning Commission in 2006. The recommendations included the formulation of a National Grazing Policy to ensure sustainable use by livestock, and to modify the Environmental Impact Assessment guidelines to include grasslands and deserts into the scheme of things. One of the most significant recommendations was to include grasslands and deserts into the Protected Area network and to treat grasslands as “forest land”.
None of these recommendations have been implemented. Instead, what we seem intent on doing is setting up more golf courses adjoining massive housing development projects and touting that as living in the lap of nature. Well, here’s what one writer Jay Griffiths has to say about golf courses:
“Golf epitomises the tame world. On a golf course nature is neutered. The grass is clean, a lawn laundry that wipes away the mud, the insect, the bramble, nettle and thistle… Golf turns outdoors into indoors — a prefab mat of stultified grass, processed, pesticided, herbicided, the pseudo-green of formica sterility. Here the grass is not singing.”
If you ever hike or trek in a properly wild grassland, you will return home with a wild exultation in your heart, the wind in your hair, the music of larks still ringing in your ears, a stalk of dried grass stalk dangling from your lips and the rich smell of chlorophyll lingering in your nostrils. Not to mention the ferocious burrs and hooked seed-pods still clinging tenaciously to your jeans.
You will have been where the grass still does sing — and makes you sing along.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Down in Jungleland: Grass’s Silence’