Despite their critical role in biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation, grasslands are amongst the most neglected ecosystems in India. Comment. (250 Words)

Mentors Comment:
This is quite straightforward question and you should not have much trouble with it. Start with discussion on grasslands and their spread in India.

Next discussion will focus on their importance in the ecology of our nation. How they support our ever growing cattle stocks, how they are the home of some of our most exotic and endangered species, their role in water conservation and supporting large amount of biomass.

Then jump to the situation of neglect of grasslands ecosystem in India. Major point will be that there is no single agency to look after them and how increased pressure on land have degraded the grasslands; lack of EIA in the usage and transfer of grasslands for other purposes etc.

Major portion of the answer should deal in the steps needed to conserve the grassland ecosystem in India.

The one stop shop for this question and for all the grassland related topics is the planning commission’s task force on preservation of grassland and desert. It has all the Link is here:

http://planningcommission.nic.in/aboutus/committee/wrkgrp11/tf11_grass.pdf

You can also rely on the TERI’s article regarding grassland ecosystem in India.

http://terragreen.teriin.org/terragreen/TGApr17/TG_CoverStory/files/downloads/TG_April_2017_Cover_Story1.pdf

Answer:
Grasslands are areas where the vegetation is dominated by grasses rather than large shrubs or trees. They are an extremely vital ecosystem for us. They are essential to supply fodder for cattle, as well as to provide the diversity from which wild crops can continue to be domesticated into agriculturally suitable crops. The Savanna and Serengeti of India includes narrow lowland ecoregion of the Himalayas,the Ganges and the Brahmaputra River Basin,Little and Great Rann of Kutch and Western Ghats montane rain forests. Some of the most threatened species of wildlife exist in these grasslands. Therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to say that grasslands are extremely important ecosystems and we need to conserve the flora and fauna of these ecologically-fragile habitats.

Why conservation of Grasslands is important for India:
Protection, development and sustainable use of grasslands are very important for the rural economy and livestock.
India has more than 500 million livestock, more than 50 percent of the fodder for this livestock comes from grasslands.
Many natural grasslands like wet grasslands of terai, shola grasslands of the Western Ghats, dry grasslands of Deccan have been converted to plantations, sometimes even in Protected Areas.
Some of the most threatened species of wildlife are found in the grasslands and deserts (e.g. Great Indian Bustard, Lesser Florican, Indian Rhinoceros, Snow Leopard, Nilgiri Tahr, Wild Buffalo etc).
Only livestock is considered as wealth in our thinking. But to protect pastoral communities and their livestock, grasslands need to be protected too.
The grasses are considered to be the most evolved species of plants. They are remarkable as they have short life cycle yet a long life i.e. take a short time from germination to reach maturity.
They are capable of supporting or converting into incredibly huge amounts of biomass.
They are efficient in absorbing rainwater and play vital role in water retention and hydrology of an area.

Situation of Grasslands in India:

Grasslands of India occupy about 24 per cent of the country’s geographical area and are spread across several biogeographic regions.
Today, India’s ecologically-fragile grasslands remain degraded and more areas are falling prey to anthropogenic activities.
Increased anthropogenic pressures, rampant land-filling, grazing pressures, habitat fragmentation, proliferation of invasive species, and impact of climate change have affected Indian grassland ecosystem.
Grasslands are often looked at as wastelands on which tree plantations are carried out, or which can be easily diverted for other uses.
Such diversions often put even more pressure on adjoining ecosystems for grazing and fodder removal, resulting in a cascading chain of degradation.
Grasslands are not managed by the forest department, not by the agriculture department, nor the veterinary department, who are concerned with livestock but not the grass on which the livestock is dependent.
Therefore, there is no single agency under which grassland conservation fall upon.
Most of the states have excluded the grasslands and have not identified them as deemed forest.
Grasslands remain unprotected unless they are notified as Protected Areas under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, or notified as Protected or Reserve Forest under the Indian Forest Act, 1927.

Steps to conserve our grasslands:

Planning Commission Task Force’s Report on Grasslands and Desert talks about the need and steps to conserve the grassland ecosystem of India. Just update the report, and follow its path.
The best way out would be to treat grasslands as forest land for the purposes of the Forest Conservation Act, and restrictions on diversion of such lands for non-forest use should be applicable to these critical ecosystems as well.
The Union Government could invoke Articles 251 and 254 of the Constitution to direct state governments to instruct revenue departments not to divert any grassland identified in the landscape for bustard/florican protection.
Necessary modification would be required in the new Environment Impact Assessment guidelines by including ecologically fragile and environmentally sensitive areas where prior EIAs will have to be made mandatory.
As protection of grasslands would greatly benefit livestock, the Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry should also be involved.
There is an urgent need for a National Grazing Policy to ensure the sustainable use of grasslands and biodiversity conservation.
The Ministry of Environment and Forests should start a division or section to look after the grasslands issues, on the pattern of Wetland Division.
Map all critical grasslands and desert habitats as a comprehensive land/water use plan of the country.
Provide a range of incentives to farmers and pastoralists to continue traditional practices that are beneficial for wildlife and help in sustainable use of grasslands.
Encourage and provide appropriate legal backing to community conserved areas containing grasslands, like Blackbuck protection by Bishnois.
Assist communities in regenerating and restoring degrading grasslands.

Grasslands are the common lands of the community and while there have been robust traditional institutions ensuring their sustainable management in the past, today due to take-over by government or breakdown of traditional institutions, they are the responsibility of none. They are the most productive ecosystems in India, but they belong to all, but are controlled by none. The prevailing view of looking at grasslands as a single use should be replaced by looking them for multiple uses, incorporating sustainable use, ecosystem functions and biodiversity conservation.

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