Representational image of a bird Pixabay

Wiry shrubs and clumps of brown-green fill the semi-arid landscape of Kutch in western India. Many of these patches have, over the years, made way for "more productive" agricultural land. This greening of "wasteland" is, however, degrading a precious and largely ignored ecosystem -- the grasslands. And, as a result, some species of animals that depend on grasslands are being pushed to the brink of extinction.

Not just that. Nature has a way of linking all its elements. So grasslands play a big role in ensuring fodder security for livestock, thereby having a direct impact on the dairy industry. Another largely ignored ecosystem, the wetlands, along with grasslands, also play a crucial role in water table management; agricultural lands near their vicinity are usually fertile and productive.

Grasslands are an important ecosystem. But to quote the first line of the Task Force report on Grasslands and Deserts (2006) submitted to the Planning Commission, "Grasslands and deserts are the most neglected ecosystems by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, which looks after biodiversity conservation in India."

This is significant, because more than a decade after that report, the Draft National Forest Policy 2018, while encouraging an increase in forest and tree cover, still does not give grasslands their due importance.

The draft policy -- an upgrade of the National Forest Policy of 1988 -- which was open for public comments till the second week of April, had a promising note two years back, when, in addition to reiterating its goal of having one-third of India under forest cover, it had said that, instead of an exclusive focus on trees and tree-cover, efforts should be made to preserve other ecosystems too, like the grasslands, deserts, marine and coastal areas, etc.

Two years hence, however, that crucial point is missing in the draft. Branding grassland as wasteland, says Sutirtha Dutta, scientist at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), is the prime reason behind undervaluing its importance and its degradation.

"It is a remnant of the colonial policy that treated grasslands as unproductive, of no economic value. And the stigma has stayed on," Dutta told IANS.

There is a general lack of awareness about the immense value that an ecosystem like grassland (or deserts, for that matter) holds; for instance, its role in water table management.

"In south Manas (Manas National Park in Assam), grasslands have been allowed to thrive, and therefore agriculture around its vicinity has also been very productive. It's a boon to the farmers. On the other hand, in east Assam, where there are no grasslands, there have been long dry spells," says Dr Goutam Narayan, project advisor of the Pygmy Hog Conservation Programme (PHCP) in Assam.

The Pygmy Hog, a critically endangered species, itself rapidly lost numbers mainly because of the degradation of grasslands -- its main habitat. Narayan says that the Pygmy Hog is a flagship species that denotes the health of the grasslands on which many other "bigger" animals are dependent, like the one-horned rhino, tiger, and Eastern Barasingha.

The Bengal florican, another species that is endangered, also has grassland degradation to blame for its depleting numbers. It's a similar scenario is Kutch, Gujarat, where the critically endangered Great Indian Bustard is facing the threat of extinction for the same reason. It is estimated that only 150 such birds are left in the world today, of which barely 10 remain in Kutch, one of its last few abodes.

Devesh Gadhavi, member of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and deputy director of the Kutch Ecological Research Centre, has been working on the conservation of Great Indian Bustards for many years now. Unhindered grazing of livestock on grasslands, he feels, is a primary reason for grassland degradation.

"If one were to draw linkages, Gujarat's dairy industry that the government has been promoting for so many years now is dependent on the grasslands in terms of livestock fodder," Gadhavi told IANS. India has more than 500 million livestock, and more than 50 percent of its fodder comes from grasslands.

Dutta says that only policy-level changes can bring about some change in the current scenario.

"There needs to be a regulation on grazing of animals (on grasslands). The 2006 Task Force report on grasslands and deserts was well-meaning and, among other things, mentioned the urgent need for a national grassland policy. It also suggested fixing ownership for grasslands," Dutta said.

Barring some of its suggestions -- like conservation programmes for some of the flagship species of the grasslands -- being implemented, the report remained largely ignored.

"Grasslands are 'common' land of the community and are the responsibility of none," the report had said ominously, the manifestations of which are increasingly felt across regions now.