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.
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."
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.
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.
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.