Article on the land restoration efforts at the Agastya Foundation in Kuppam
from Businessworld

This article was published in the August 29, 2005 issue of Businessworld magazine in India. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publishers and author.
All material is copyright of the publishers.

Ramji Raghavan ('72) is an alumnus of RVS. He is the Chairman and a Trustee of the Agastya International Foundation. Click here for more.

Sons of the soil
A land restoration effort in Kuppam promises to become a sustainable ecological model for semi-arid regions in south India.
P. Hari
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D. Subramanyam (L) of Agastya Foundation with ecologist Yellappa Reddy in Kuppam
Yellappa Reddy retired from the Karnataka government in 1995, and decided not to work for money anymore. He had a house, a decent pension and limited needs. Reddy was far from idle. He got plenty of offers for work and regularly accepted them too. He is a director of the National Dairy Development Board. He gives lectures and is often paid an honorarium, which he gives away to poor children. "I have reached a stage in life where I am only looking for moral compensation," says Reddy.

Reddy was in the eye of a storm just before his retirement. As the secretary for environment in Karnataka, he had opposed the Cogentrix thermal power project in the Western Ghats. "I could not clear the project just because Deve Gowda asked me to do so," he says. He took voluntary retirement when resistance became impossible, and tried to continue his work on eco-restoration whenever possible. He went out for long walks and watched plastic waste pile up.

Reddy met Ramji Raghavan in 2002. Raghavan had given up a career in banking in the US to teach science to rural children in India (see 'A School In Kuppam', BW, 3 November 2003). He started the Agastya Foundation, which got some barren land near Kuppam from the Andhra Pradesh government. Agastya set up base there; its lab became a major attraction for schools in and around the district. Raghavan one day took Reddy to his campus and showed him some of the trees he had planted. "What do you think?" Raghavan asked him. "It will be a disaster," Reddy replied.

Agastya had planted trees like silver oak, which were not native to the area. "These trees will draw up too much water and destroy everything around them," Reddy observed. Raghavan immediately asked his staff to remove the trees and look for expert advice, an act that impressed Reddy. "It is a rare occasion when I give advice and somebody follows it immediately," said Reddy. "I will help you restore this area." Agastya did not have the money to pay him, but it didn't matter. Reddy set about his task soon after.

Kuppam is a semi-arid district at the junction of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnaataka. It rains there, about 40-60 cm a year. Once in about four years, the amount of rainfall goes up to the national average of 80 cm. The landscape is dotted with hills, large protuberances speckling the earth as far as the eye can see. The hills are bare. You would, however, see the ubiquitous eucalyptus, which the Karnataka forestry department has planted all over the area on the way to Kuppam.

There are those who say that Kuppam was not like this in the recent past. Patel Nanjappa, head of a village near the Agastya campus, talks about the plundering and deforestation fifty years ago to satisfy the fuel needs of the nearby Kolar Gold Fields. Nanjappa says he is 90 years old, but he looks about 80. In either case, he has been a witness to the rapid destruction of Kuppam in the recent past, before and after India's independence.

There is evidence to show that Kuppam was a lush green place only a few hundred years ago. There was abundant rain here that nourished the river Pinakini, which now exists mostly as a narrow sand-bed. This river had been mined intensely for sand, sometimes as deep as 55 feet. The mining revealed the remains of giant trees. In September 2004, a giant tree of the species Myrtacea, buried about 300 years ago, was excavated in near-perfect condition. This discovery suggested that the area was dense with vegetation even about 300 years ago, and that destruction of the forests had led to the decrease in rainfall and degeneration of land.

Ramji Raghavan had been a witness to a major land restoration effort in his Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh. "Before I studied there, it was a barren piece of land. Twenty years after I left, it was declared as a national bird preserve," says Raghavan. The former principal of Rishi Valley, S. Balasundaram, had got the land restored to pristine condition. Raghavan is an admirer of his teacher Balasundaram. He wanted to repeat this story in his foundation's campus as well.

The Agastya campus is atop a small hill. Three years ago - we had seen it at that time - there was brown earth all over the hill, in between a few eucalyptuses and other small trees. There was little noticeable grass. The top soil had been washed away in many places. The soil that remained was hard and dry. The water table in this part of Kuppam was very low; bore-wells were being dug deeper and deeper. The land was dying slowly and painfully; the death pangs were clearly visible. Says Reddy: "It was in a terminal state when I first visited the area, but I knew from experience that it could be restored to its former condition."

Agastya had built a laboratory on top of the hill. The lab now has a telescope, models of the solar system, and a large number of simple but ingenious experiments to demonstrate various aspects of science. Outside is the statue of a cricketer, made and kept in several pieces far apart, but seen as a whole when viewed from a certain angle. Children come here almost everyday and play first in the lab and then outside in the garden. They are given a light lunch before they leave. These days they also visit a life sciences lab slightly away from the main one. This lab was donated by Anji Reddy who has taken a liking to Agastya Foundation and its activities.

Not far away from this hill, Kuppam has been the site of several high tech activities. Ashok Jhunjhunwala of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras set up his wireless telephony system here. Hewlett-Packard created an i-community in the town. Kuppam has also been the site of an experiment with the Israelis, who had built a complex network of underground pipes and used several high technology methods to practise intensive farming. Agastya Foundation did not want high-tech inputs in this land. Yet, it did not know precisely what to do till Raghavan met Yellappa Reddy.

The grass cover in the Agastya campus has grown significantly after an increase in soil moisture

Reddy is no stranger to land restoration. He has a PhD in soil chemistry. He was the chief conservator of forests in Karnataka before he became the environment secretary in the state. Between 1982 and 1987, he restored 50,000 acres of forestland in North Canara district. He repeated the work in Coorg district, while he was the chief conservator there. Compared to these, the area in Agastya was small, over only 100 acres. But he had different plans here.

His earlier jobs in land restoration were just that: execution of the work assigned to him. Here he wanted to do an experiment that would have significance well beyond Kuppam district. He wanted to unravel the intricate ecological webs of nature and create a sustainable model for all semi-arid regions in southern India. Reddy wanted to do things intensely in Kuppam; his aim was to develop a compact capsule of protocols that could be replicated elsewhere, in all semi-arid parts of south India. This was not another rendezvous with high technology. It was high science applied in the simplest of manner.

Raghavan and Reddy live in Bangalore. The Agastya campus is maintained by D. Subramanyam, an engineering college-dropout with no further claims to formal training in high science or high technology. Yet, Subbu knows a thing or two about plants, nature and people. He could take you around the campus and tell you everything about the plants that now thrive there. "This plant is Terminalia arjuna; it is good for the heart." Or "this is called Califolium infolium; it is the abode of Saraswati and its oil is good for paralysis." He could explain the history of the area, its people, and stories of how nature was plundered here. He is at ease with everybody: with Nanjappa, with the villagers, with Reddy and Raghavan, with all the high-profile individuals who are associated with the Agastya Foundation.

Subbu and Reddy noticed a few simple things when they started. It was not as if grass would not grow in this area. It was not allowed to do so. Cattle would graze in the campus regularly, eating whatever they could, and then destroy more grass by trampling on it. The villagers would cut and take away what was left. The first thing the duo did was to put an end to this practice. Cattle were not allowed to graze. The villagers were not allowed to cut the grass till it reached a certain size.

The soil did not have moisture. In the absence of grass, rainwater would flow, taking the topsoil with it. So Subbu and Reddy created check dams - with the help of Jain Irrigation Systems - to restrain the flow. They dug a few trenches to hold more water. The aim was to reduce the surface flow, which takes away the topsoil, and increase the sub-surface flow. These simple interventions increased the moisture content of the soil. They say that even the water levels went up in the nearby bore-wells, but this fact need not worry us for the moment.

The impact of the interventions on the landscape was breathtaking. Grass began to grow quickly, and with it many species of plants that nobody had noticed before. Now brown earth is hardly visible. The campus is filled with plants of all kinds, most of them of high medicinal value. Reddy also planted about 50 'keystone' species at vantage points to increase the chances of succession. These plants were not found in a radius of about 10 kilometres from the Agastya campus.

Balakrishna Gowde from the University of Agricultural Sciences will have an important role to play in developing biodiversity at the Agastya campus

Reddy followed a simple strategy; give nature a chance. Keep intervention to about 10 per cent of the area. Retain the genetic characteristics of the place. He is now phasing out the exotic species like eucalyptus and silver oak. Ecologists call eucalyptus allopatric; they do not let other plants grow in the vicinity. Reddy is replacing the exotic and allopatric species with those known as sympatric, which allow other plants also to flourish around them. In this way, he could maximise the potential of the land. He could also study the intricate ecological web that these plants - and the animals they support - weave around themselves.

Reddy is only two years into his experiment, but several changes are already visible. Many butterflies are seen in campus, some of them not seen anywhere else in the area. Also seen are some exotic birds. There are rabbits, snakes, lizards, spiders - Subbu sometimes hears jackals during midday. There are a few anthills too, an indication of the increasing fertility of the soil. The land is quickly coming back to life.

Now the villagers are allowed to cut the grass everyday to a limited extent. These villagers are an important part of Reddy's strategy. His plan is to develop a sustainable economic model as well. Yet, he does not intend to invest heavily. He will use minimum inputs to gain maximum returns.

The most fascinating thing about Agastya Foundation is the sheer variety of inputs that have gone into its development. The eco-restoration programme is also getting similar inputs from multiple individuals. Most of the restoration work was funded by the Oberoi Foundation (of Alok Oberoi, former partner of Goldman Sachs) and the Jhunjhunwala Foundation (of stock market investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala). Jain Irrigation Systems worked on the trenches and the check dams. There are significant contributions in research as well. Several professors from the University of Agricultural Sciences (UAS) in Bangalore are helping on various aspects of its development. Among them are botanists, entomologists, ornithologists, apiculturists and other experts.

Balakrishna Gowde, professor at the university, had been going to the campus at regular intervals. Gowde maintains a bio-resource park (with the help of the department of biotechnology) about 30 km from Bangalore, and is deeply interested in biodiversity. One of his students will soon start living on the Agastya campus. Gowde has studied the botanical history of the area and is convinced that there were abundant rains and a dense forest in Kuppam district. He and his colleagues plan to work closely with Reddy to restore the area.

Their plans are fairly well laid out. Reddy, the quintessential ecologist, constantly talks about increasing the solar energy conversion into biomass. Currently, only about 10 per cent of the energy absorbed is converted (most of it is reflected); he wants to first increase it to 30 per cent and then, if possible, to as high as 60 per cent. This would mean maintaining several species at several canopy levels; tubers, grass, crawlers, small plants, large trees - Reddy wants to increase the economic value of the place as much as possible.

For example, he is toying with the idea of developing apiculture. N.S. Bhatt, professor and apiculturist at UAS, would help him here. The campus is not ready for the bees, though. It needs a constant supply of flowers as well as periodic bursts of flowering. But Bhatt thinks this state is attainable. The campus has the capacity to maintain 50 bee colonies, each of which could generate 10 kilos of honey in a year.

Grass, food crops, honey, health drinks, medicine, natural dyes... For Reddy the potential of the land is very high. It will take the Agastya campus at least another five years to approach its full potential. It will also become a place where children learn about ecology and the environment. It is the ultimate lab, where all the experiments are done by nature. Yet, for Reddy, this is an experiment that he plans to replicate on a bigger scale elsewhere, if given a chance.

He is talking to officials in the Karnataka government to start a project near Bangalore, on a 14,000-acre forest in Chikaabalapur. Reddy is fascinated by descriptions of forests in the ancient scripts, particularly in Ramayana. "Those were forests that could satisfy every need of a human being," he says. "You can go in there taking nothing with you and live there for as long as you want."

He would use the Agastya experiment to understand the principles and replicate this on a 1,000-acre plot in Chikabalapur, if the government gives him a chance. Reddy is working hard on the structure of this forest. It would have caves, springs, fruit-bearing trees, nuts, medicinal and aromatic plants... You could go and live there for a few weeks and come back rejuvenated. It would be a novel form of eco-tourism.