India is endowed with some of the mighty river systems of the world. Amongst these the Ganges system which has the Ganga and The Yamuna as the major tributaries has the unique fertile plains (Doab) between the two rivers. We have been reading about the geological past of these rivers in this column. Let us take a look at how the plains between these rivers were plundered in the recent past.
Natural catastrophes like earthquake, landslide and flood can cause lasting ecological imbalances. Nature has its own way of resurrection and the damage is set right over a period of time. It is the human interference in the natural processes that the Mother Nature is not able to cope up. The Eco-system of the Doab was greatly influenced by the ever-demanding British rule from mid eighteenth century onwards.
To visualize the damage, it is essential to know what ecology means. Ecology may be defined as the relationship between living organisms and their environment. In reality it is not merely bilateral but a multilateral, interactive arrangement. The race for the so-called 'development' or the ruler's greed/need for money can cause irreversible damage to the Eco-system. European expansionism is a classic example of such damages in our country. During the course of their 'trade' and capture forays the Europeans wittingly or unwittingly brought/imported new species of animals, viruses, bacteria and flora. The consequences of these 'alien' fauna and flora were tragic for the autochthonous ones. In addition, the direct attack on the ecology was the worst form of permanent damage.
The East India Company enhanced its activities leading to the British territorial rule in India. The British found that this was the land best suited for raising cash crops, i.e. cotton, sugarcane and indigo. Naturally Doab was their first choice. The rivers Ganga and Yamuna upon entering the plain flow parallel to each other for about 500 Km. The fertile land approximately 80 to 120 Km wide separates the two Rivers. This land is termed as the Doab. Yet another classic example of a famous Doab is Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers.
The Ganga-Yamuna Doab was endowed with thick forests. The advent of Mughals initiated the process of deforestation. However, the central and the lower Doab, i.e. part of the country between Bulandshahar to beyond Kanpur, continued to be a lush green forest until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The forest belt was about 200 Km long and 30 Km wide. In the districts of Aligarh, Etah, Mainpuri and Kanpur it was so dense that humans dared not venture in. Mostly it was a Dhak forest that hosted a variety of fauna and flora. Historical records indicate that the forest was so thick that Alexander's forces during his military expeditions to India refused to enter the Ganga plains.
The economic compulsions of the British were too many. In order to hold the new territories they needed money. Food grains were required for feeding the British troupes and export of cotton and indigo was essential for the rulers to sustain their economy. It was but natural that the forests were rapidly cleared to augment the farmland. The British also needed to chop trees to make boats and steamers. They needed wooden sleepers to lay rail tracks in the country not for carrying the natives but for hauling the agricultural produce from mainland to the coasts and to ship it back home.
When we talk of environment we talk of the mega-environment which sustains all of us. We forget about the micro-environment which is the back-bone of the ecosystem. In an ecosystem, vegetation, water recharge and climatic conditions are interdependent. Removal of forest cover immediately destroys the bacteria and the insects thriving in the root zone of the trees. The presence of these keeps the soil moist. Forests influence the precipitation and are also the sinks of Carbon dioxide. Studies have revealed that the precipitation rises by about 20% in the densely forested areas.
The growth of trees and shrubs etc. keeps the ground spongy. In other words it aids rainwater to seep in. Absence of vegetation causes channels to be formed on the surface and the result is rainwater run off. Vegetation of any type keeps the erosion under check. Soil erosion brings down the fertility. Once removed it takes about 1000 years for the soil to be formed again.
The worst impact of soil erosion is in the form of dust storms. The particles of suspended dust form a blanket over the ground in the atmosphere. They prevent the atmospheric instability essential to induce rains. Thus despite increased humidity; the conditions to trigger rain are withheld by the blanket of dust. Such haze is now a big headache for the travelers, in the winters. Flights and rail services go haywire.
According to Michael Mann, the noted environment historian, as a consequence of massive deforestation, the summer temperatures of Doab started to soar from 1820 onwards. People started using Pankhas (hand driven fans), which were earlier, considered unnecessary, from 1850 onwards in the army barracks and from 1851 in the homes as well. Donald Butler, a contemporary observer attributed deforestation as the root cause of rise in temperatures and increased hot winds (Lu).
Vast Usar (alkaline) tracts developed in Etah and Mainpuri districts in the Chambal valley. The Chambal and its tributaries are unique because they flow northwards, whereas majority of the Himalayan rivers flow towards the south. This is because Chambal is an ancient River system which has been draining towards north even before the Himalayas came up. As a consequence of the rise of the Himalayas a depression or 'foredeep' was formed just south of the Himalayas and that made the Chambal and its tributaries flow rapidly into that. Later after the Ganga system had developed, the Chambal joined that. As such even today it is a fast, north flowing river. Fast flowing river cut deep channel and enhanced bank erosion. And to cap it all the hacking of the forests of the Chambal'Yamuna Doab aggravated the erosion. Finally ravine formation made the area worthless for agriculture and today it faces a social crisis. Without any occupation residents take to guns and the menace continues.
What happened in the past can be attributed to the shortsightedness of the British rulers. In their need and greed for more revenue vast farmlands were carved out of the forests. Scientific knowledge was primitive and the rulers had their own priorities. In a democratic rule it is imperative that people realize the significance of forests and start plantation now. The benefits will be no doubt enjoyed by the future generations.