New Delhi, September 18: Ecosystem doesn’t mean only 'forest’. The land, which superficially looks ‘barren’ can be a differently characterized ecosystem. India is a beautiful camouflage of various ecosystems such as forests, rivers, wetlands, coasts, grasslands, etc. One such unique ecosystem is ‘lateritic plateaus’.
Lateritic plateaus comprise a significant portion of the total land area of India, particularly of Western Ghats. These plateaus, which, from a layman’s eye look too ugly in dry season, catch our eyes in rainy season when they wear extremely beautiful cover of wild flowers. It’s a seasonally changing ecosystem. Several types of herbs and grasses, which are dormant during the dry season, peep out of the rock when the rain meets earth. To be precise, plateaus can be called as ‘outcrop ecosystems’. Rock, small caves, small ponds ephemeral herbs, insects, reptiles and other flora and fauna create this spectacular ecosystem.
This wonderful ecosystem makes us look down to earth. One will surely get mad by looking at the beauty of the flora on the plateaus in rainy season. Flowers like Senecio grahami, utricularia reticulata, Rhamphicarpa longiflora, Eriocaulon, drosera indica, Camptorhiza indica, Neanotis foetida, Celocia argentea, Murdannia semiteres, indigofera dalzellii, Striga generioids, Exacum pumilium, Euforbia, Smithia sensitive, etc. paint the black hard rocks with beautiful colours. They feed and harbor several insect species. The life of these plants is only of four-five months i.e. only during rainy season. The plants disperse their seeds which remain on plateaus during the whole dry season and germinate in the net rainy season. Therefore, these plants come under the category of ‘ephemeral’ plants.
There is a bit difference between ‘grassland ecosystem’ and this ‘outcrop ecosystem’. Grasslands are those landscapes where grass species are dominant while on plateaus, mostly herbs exist as dominant species along with small proportion of grasses. Secondly, in grasslands, soil layer is thicker than that on plateaus as plateaus are formed of hard rock. Comparatively thicker soil layer favours the growth of grasses whereas rocky plateaus favour the growth of different kind of species, as the names mentioned above.
There is a debate between environmentalists whether the plateaus indicate ‘climax ecosystem’ or ‘degraded ecosystem’. According to some environmentalists, forest is a climax ecosystem and grasslands and plateaus (with reference to India) are the degraded ecosystem because they have been formed due continuous human interference since in the form of cattle grazing, fires, tree-cutting, etc. However, environmentalists have now agreed that as human being and livestock exists on this planet since thousands of years, we can’t think of nature by excluding them. So, in case of plateaus, instead of completely protecting them from human interference, it is advisable to consider them as ‘socio-ecological landscapes’. Hence, for the protection of this unique ecosystem, allowing the traditional practices such as grazing is equally important as disallowing industrial interference such as mining, construction, etc. Observations by local people and researchers have found that limited cattle grazing on lateritic plateaus controls the growth of grass and favours the diversity of herbs which otherwise be hampered due to uncontrolled growth of grass. Hence, is it right to call them as ‘wastelands’?
Like other ecosystems, lateritic plateaus also provide many ecosystem services to human being (for which we don’t have to ‘pay’). Much of water is stored in hardy rocks of plateaus which recharges the groundwater. Flora on plateaus creates the base of foodchain, it feeds and harbours many insect species which play a big role in pollination. Plateaus supply fodder to cattle in nearby area as they produce various types of grasses. Due to fantastic beauty of wild flowers, plateaus are also important from the tourism point of view.
Some dedicated private initiatives like ‘Rock Outcrop of India’ are starving for conservation of plateaus with the active participation of local people. However, much more efforts are expected from the government. One very important thing is that we need to remove the tag of ‘wastelands’ which we have given to the plateaus. Changing the negative perspective towards such landscapes is the need of the hour!