BSF vs Heritage: The battle for the Rann of Kutch
A proposed roadway presents a triple-jeopardy to this unique natural and cultural heritage: the breeding grounds of flamingoes and Indian wild asses, a unique mangrove and the Harappan site of Dholavira.
In 1965, the armies of India and Pakistan confronted each other across the inhospitable Rann of Kutch. Currently, the border cuts across the northern periphery of the Great Rann and India’s Border Security Force (BSF) maintains outposts along its length. Now, there is a new threat to this Indian territory and it is posed by our own nationals. A proposed roadway presents a triple-jeopardy to this unique natural and cultural heritage: the breeding grounds of flamingoes and Indian wild asses, a unique mangrove and the Harappan site of Dholavira.
The proposal submitted by the Gujarat State Public Works Department (GSPWD) is to come up for approval in mid-October. An expert assessment that cautions against this road to disaster will also be tabled during the meeting of the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife, chaired by Union Minister of State of Environment and Forests, Jayanthi Natarajan.
The Rann (Hindi for ‘salt marsh’) of Kutch is a vast flat desert during the seven-month dry season and a slushy floodplain for the remaining five monsoonal months. Its barren vista may look like an inhospitable wasteland but in reality, teems with life.
Just north of the proposed road within the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary is the famous ‘Flamingo City,’ locally known as Hanj Bet (Kutchhi for ‘Flamingo Island’). Every year, thousands of greater and lesser flamingoes touch down at this one spot, forming the largest congregation in the subcontinent, to raise their broods. They nest nowhere else in South Asia. Like the mass nesting of sea turtles on the Orissa coast, this ‘aerial arribada’ is one of Nature’s most spectacular phenomena and one of the reasons for the creation of the Kutch Desert Wildlife Sanctuary.
In 1893, Maharao Shri Khengarji of Kutch reported this natural extravaganza for the first time. In April 1945, Dr. Salim Ali estimated half a million of these pink birds made up the congregation. It is unknown why generations of flamingoes have chosen this one spot when they could go anywhere on the 10,000 sq km Rann.
The elevated road will traverse Tangdi Bet, the main refuge of the last remaining herd of the wild ass in the Great Rann. Once found from southern Iran, across Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Sindh and western India, this unique equine is now found only in Gujarat and a small adjoining area in Rajasthan.
South of the proposed road is the most unusual mangrove system in the world, the 7000 sq m sacred forest of Shravan Kavadia. Located more than 100 km inland from the sea and completely landlocked, these Avicennia trees are enormous in stature, extraordinary for mangroves anywhere.
Further up, the road will pass through a tiny, but critical sliver of land that connects the Little Rann with the Great Rann. The former is already cut off from the Gulf of Kutch by two highway bridges, a railway line and a water pipeline. Local fishermen are complaining of reduced crustacean catch as a result of these obstructions. To add to their woes, the alignment of the new road will sever the water inflow from the Great Rann with unforeseen implications for the fishing industry.
There is a dynamic flow of water through the Great Rann. Freshwater flows from Pakistan and Rajasthan in the north and from Kutch in the south, while sea water floods in underground. The rich soup of nutrients from land and sea allows numerous micro-organisms to thrive, providing prawns and fish for humans, crustaceans for flamingoes and fish for water birds like pelicans.
What happens when you put a concrete structure such as this elevated road that blocks water movement above and below the surface? The foundation is 3 m deep and the road 1.5 to 3 m above ground in most places. While it’s true that 2 m by 2 m culverts will be provided at 500 m intervals, are they adequate to maintain the existing water flow? A full assessment of hydrology hasn’t been done and therefore, the size and location of the culverts are arbitrarily designed. If the movement of water is impeded, it is likely the resulting imbalance will make conditions for life untenable. This could devastate the entire ecosystem - flamingoes may forsake their nesting site, mangroves disappear and people’s livelihoods destroyed.
The proposed road will also cut through fossil beds of the Jurassic and Cretaceous Ages. Dinosaurs, prehistoric crocodiles and whales have been unearthed so far as have trees, ammonites, and other long-dead marine creatures. These beds haven’t been fully excavated and many other ancient treasures are believed to lie beneath the earth.
Further up the road is one of the largest and most prominent archaeological locations in India, Dholavira. It is the fifth largest site of the Indus Valley Civilization in the subcontinent and even older than the more famous port city of Lothal. Considering the historical importance of this area, surprisingly, no clearance from the Ministry of Culture has been obtained.
The stated purpose of this road is to provide increased access to the BSF. But it already has a road running parallel to the fenced international border. This new road is at least 30 to 40 km inland, no real use to the BSF. Besides, it is the Border Roads Organization that is tasked with building frontier roads for defense purposes. This real intention of the GSPWD in building the road appears to be to promote tourism under the guise of facilitating military movement.
Do we need a road at such a high ecological, social and cultural cost just to service the tourism industry for five months of the year? With so much saline water moving around the road’s foundation, will it remain useable in a few years time? Or is it likely to sink and become impassable?
There is no information on where the materials needed to elevate the road – boulders, stone chips and earth – are going to be extracted. If the Sanctuary is going to be dug up, the ecosystem will pay an even higher price. Ironically, the very sites that the state wishes to promote to tourists will be destroyed by this development.
The spectacular natural phenomena of ‘Flamingo City’, Shravan Kavadia - the most unique mangrove in the world, Dholavira - one of the largest sites of one of the oldest civilizations, and fisher people’s sustenance are all at stake. Safeguarding these natural and cultural heritages, and the livelihood security of its people should be a matter of as much pride for Gujarat as the lions of Gir.
It is hoped that the Committee keeps these considerations in mind while it deliberates on the future of this unique saline marsh. In this case, discretion is really the better part of valour.