In 1999, Dhananjay Newadkar suffered a near-death accident. Newadkar, then in his 30s, worked as a pathologist in Maharashtra state’s Dhule district, far away from his native village Lamkani. But, lying on the hospital bed as he recovered, he found himself included in discussions between his friends and family about the worsening water problem and the deteriorating land conditions in his native village.
Upon recovering, Newadkar set out to do what he now conceives as his “duty or responsibility” —recovering his village Lamkani. Through a nature conservation initiative, he managed to bring water back to Lamkani and increase the village’s climate resilience.
In the last 20 years, Newadkar has created a generation of local citizens that are environmentally sensitive and are actively involved in the conservation process. Newadkar says that every villager has become a stakeholder in conservation efforts, which shows that “it is possible to overcome drought and make villages climate resilient.” But, Newadkar, also believes that there is a long way to go to sustain this momentum.
In the first half of the 20th century, Lamkani was known for its grasslands and rich agricultural production. But this changed after a series of droughts struck the region in the 1970s. To turn this situation around, Newadkar and other villagers of Lamkani initiated watershed development and grassland conservation efforts in the early 2000s.
Thanks to these interventions, conditions began to improve. The combination of water percolation, water retention and rotational grazing helped to restore the grasslands and increase the groundwater table by 10 to 15 feet, allowing the village to break their dependence on water tankers—large trucks that sell water upon demand. This also resulted in distress migration reducing considerably in Lamkani.
“It took 10 years to yield these results. Now, biodiversity has flourished in the village and livelihoods have improved for residents,” says Newadkar.
Across India, grasslands are highly degraded and mismanaged ecosystems. Yet, grasslands, like forests, are important carbon sinks and their health is crucial for carbon sequestration. They also help in tackling biodiversity loss and in climate change adaptation. Newadkar’s initiative is an important example of how degraded grasslands can be transformed into a healthy ecosystem by community-led conservation efforts and effective leadership.
Restoring water and grasslands
As he recalls, Newadkar started with “very little idea” of how he could conserve water and grasslands of his village. Around the same time, two villages in Maharashtra—Ralegan Siddhi and Hiware Bazar— had gained recognition for developing sustainable village models by water conservation and harvesting.
“I started meeting with relevant people [from these villages] to understand the different techniques they adopted in their model,” Newadkar recollects. He came back with the idea of using Govardhan Hill, a hillock near his village for the watershed management project.
When Newadkar approached different government agencies for funds, he was refused as the village population was higher than the funding criteria that the agencies asked for. That’s when Navedkar and others turned to Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme, a scheme that provides guaranteed employment to villagers to ensure a minimum level of subsistence. With funds channeled through this, the community built concrete barrages, trenches and loose boulder structures to arrest the water on the slopes of the hillocks.
While working on watershed management techniques, Newadkar realized that such a project will not sustain if they don’t revive the grasslands of the village. “Heavy rainfall would lead to soil erosion, giving very little time for water to percolate in the soil. But with grasslands, we could arrest the water and prevent soil runoff,” Newadkar says. The village had over 400 hectares of land under grasslands. But these had died because of drought and overgrazing.
Newadkar and the villagers came up with rotational grazing, which meant that every year, a different 50-hectare patch of the grassland would be off limits for grazing. Such rotation ensured that grass in the demarcated area had the time to regenerate.
“Within ten years, Lamkani’s degraded grasslands went back to its original state of savanna grasslands, which are mix of shrubs and trees,” says Ketaki Ghate, an ecologist and founder of Oikos for Ecological Services, a consultancy working in the field of ecological restoration, biodiversity conservation, and nature education. “The improved quality of grasslands also helped percolate rainwater, as they acted as a sponge, increasing the availability of water in the village.”
But, implementing the project was not as easy as Newadkar had envisioned it.
Barriers to Greener Pastures
Newadkar believed folk music and art to be a great way of creating awareness and a sense of responsibility among villagers. He reached out to tamasha artists (folk artists from Maharashtra) and Kirtankars (performers of devotional calls and response chants) to put out performances that talk about the importance of conserving and protecting nature.
Newadkar and his team of villagers also enforced some rules —such as rotational grazing— but slowly. “We knew that if we enforce rules overnight, people will not take it seriously,” Newadkar says. “Additionally, we had to take into consideration all the families that depended on the grasslands for grazing their cattle.”
To encourage the villagers to follow rules, the village decided to waive the traditional compensation fee paid to village assembly for grazing. “With this people started understanding the importance of what we were trying to achieve and started co-operating in our projects,” added Newadkar.
Fruits of the Toil
By 2007-08, the water situation in Lamkani village had improved considerably. Earlier, the residents had to depend on water-tankers from cities, but within these years the village became water-sufficient. Groundwater became available at 10-15 feet, Newadkar informs.
Community protected grasslands—like that of Lakmani—tend to result in a good composition of palatable grasses, as a study of Western Ghats in India conducted by Pune-based Agharkar Research Institute found.
“Palatable grasses are those that are naturally suitable to the environment, are of superior quality, and palatable to cattle who depend on it,” Ghate says. Over the years, around 400 hectares of grassland in the village were restored. Native species of grasses that grow in ecologically improved areas started growing back. This acted as better quality fodder for the cattle to graze on. This directly boosted the dairy production of the region since 2011. Lamkani now supplies over 3,000 liters of milk to different parts of the Dhule district. “The economy improved, as a result,” Ghate added.
“Since the quality of grasslands improved, the village started attracting different animals and bird species. So the ecosystem improved,” adds Ghate. Newadkar also confirms this experience. “Since 2010, grasslands have become a biodiversity hotspot in the village,” he says.
Since 2010, Newadkar’s work in the village has also helped sustain changing rain patterns. But the work hasn’t stopped there. The villagers have continued to practice the rotational system to prevent overgrazing on grasslands. Keeping up with the times, they have also created a WhatsApp group to keep informed about incidents of fires on grasslands, and to take action to control fires, such as setting up fire lines.
“Our only task now is to keep the work sustained,” Newadkar says.