On August 3, 2021, a flood washed over several villages in the Bundelkhand region of central India. It is speculated that this flood was caused by the unprecedented rainfall coupled with the mismanagement of the dams on the Sindh river, a tributary of the Yamuna river, flowing through Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Fast forward to about seven months later, March 2022. Across from the flood-wrecked farms in the village Suda in Madhya Pradesh, the Sindh looks shallower and braided.

A few Sahariya adivasi families that live in this region, dig out a wild river sedge from the Sindh river bed. Locally known as gondra (Cyperus spp), this large genus of sedges, is distributed across tropical and temperate regions. Gondra is a medicinal plant that is used in Ayurvedic cures in dry or powdered form. The essential oil (0.5-0.9%) from the tuber is used in perfumery, soap making and in insect repellents. The raw material that remains after extracting the oil is used for making the body of incense sticks.

The river sedge called ‘gondra’. Its roots are used in manufacturing perfume, Aryurvedic medicine, essential oils and incense sticks. Credit: Poorva Goel

The Sahariya adivasi community harvests, treats and sells the gondra roots to contractors in different parts of the country. The contractors package the roots and sell them further along the chain to manufacturers.

Sahariyas living by the Sindh said that the roots are ideally collected from December to January over a period of 12-15 days. First, they dig the sedge out along with its root using sharp tools. The roots collected are almost as thick as a finger, they explain. A portion of root is left underground to regenerate into a new plant in the following monsoon. They rinse it in the river to free it from mud and spread it on the ground to dry. After drying overnight, the weed is burnt until only the roots are left. The burning process is aided by a type of dry grass that they call rukhaiya. The dehydrated gondra roots are then loaded onto a rented vehicle and shipped to an incense factory in Shivpuri in northern Madhya Pradesh.

“The sedge is found and harvested only along rivers or waterbodies in states of the country that have an Adivasi population, such as Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Maharashtra,” said Rajeev Sharma, a wholesale trader from Madhya Pradesh. According to him a tonne of gondra makes 10 kilograms of essential oil and the essential oil sells at Rs 25,000-30,000 per kilogram.

Without any shade, members of the Sahariya adivasi community take a break from work collecting the gondra plant in Sindh’s shallow river bed. All members of the community chip in the labour-intensive activity immersing themselves in ankle-to-waist-deep water to gather the plant and make ends meet, irrespective of age. Credit: Poorva Goel
Gondra roots being collected after the plants were burnt overnight. The dehydrated roots are then loaded onto a rented vehicle and shipped to an incense factory in northern Madhya Pradesh. Credit: Poorva Goel

Community and livelihood

The Sahariya adivasis belong to a ‘sensitive’ status community that is subject to extreme poverty and malnutrition. The community owns little or no agricultural land and largely depends on gathering and selling non-timber forest products, rearing chickens and working as agricultural labourers.

Gondra is one of the non-timber forest products that the Sahariya adivasis rely on for their subsistence during those seasons when not much daily wage work is available.

The Sahariya population was 614,958 in the 2011 Census. While the Suda village has a mixed minority population of Adivasis and Muslims, the Sahariyas were not domiciled here. Originally forest dwellers, this group of Sahariya adivasis are based in Silarpur a village near Sindh’s tributary, the Mahuar river, about 45 kilometres from Suda. They work as daily wage labourers in agricultural fields in and around Silarpur and camp out near different villages by the Sindh riverbank during the gondra season, to harvest and sell them.

Shakkar Bai gathers gondra despite an impairment in her legs. Her health condition was an added challenge as she ekes out a living for herself and her family. She told Mongabay-India, “If I slip and fall, it is difficult for me to get up. Only if there were more sources of income in the village, we would not be forced to work in these conditions.” Credit: Poorva Goel

Impact of floods

Both Silarpur and Suda were hit by the 2021 flash flood and this pushed the local communities further into poverty. Residents reported that in the dead of the night, Sindh swept away their homes, fields and livestock along its course.

The past-rainfall patterns suggest that the monthly average rain for August in that region didn’t change in 2021. However, the amount of rainfall, that would usually be spread across the month, was received together in a few days leading up to this event.

“Most dams have an operating rule based on long-term average rainfall trends. However, due to climate change, the current rainfall patterns are deviating from what used to be the average, and dam management may be struggling to adapt to changing climate anomalies,” said Shishir Rao, an ecologist.

“A classic sign of climate change, particularly in many parts of the Indian subcontinent, is the shortening of the number of rainy days in a year but increasing intensity of rainfall. The rainfall that used to be spread out over several months is now concentrated in a few days. So, fewer rainy days but more rain during those days. This coupled with changing land-use – where the built-up area has increased and forest cover has reduced – prevents the rainwater from infiltrating into the soil and entering groundwater pathways. Instead, it causes the rainwater to flow over land and reach the river quickly, causing flash floods,” Rao added.

Farmland affected by floods in Suda, a village in Madhya Pradesh. The flood debris has rendered farmlands uncultivable in several villages. Photo by Poorva Goel.

Many residents allege that it was the poor management of dams that had worsened the flood situation downstream of the dam. They state that the water from the dam was released suddenly without warning, leaving no time for people to respond.

The Sahariya adivasis experienced a huge change in their livelihoods post-flooding. Although the gondra is a flood-resistant species, and it was unlikely that its habitat had been negatively impacted by the floods, the flood did affect the Sahariyas’ access to the sedge. The Sahariya adivasis are only able to dig out the roots of the sedge when the river is shallower. In the season following the floods, the water levels remained higher than usual. Due to this, fewer stretches of the river were shallow enough for them to harvest the sedge. Affected by the loss in income, some members of the community resorted to harvesting potatoes as daily wage workers.

Roasted gondra roots gathered in ‘potariyas’ or bundles to be carried back to the camp. Sahariyas rely on gondra for subsistence. Photo by Poorva Goel.

As climate change intensifies the weather events, indigenous people and marginalised communities, dependent on natural resources, such as the Sahariyas, are disproportionately impacted. Indigenous people and other marginalised communities are disproportionately impacted by changes in climate.

“Adivasis, tribal communities and other traditional forest dwelling communities have been adversely affected by the impacts of climate crisis. The frequent and uncertain rainfalls, floods, cyclone and more have devastating impacts on their livelihoods and major source of income such as non-timber forest products. This is further pushing them to margins and making them vulnerable to impacts of climate crisis. It’s crucial and need of the hour that these communities are prioritised in the climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience policies and make them an integral part of decision and policy making process,” Archana Soreng, Khadia Tribe, former Member of United Nations Secretary General’s Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change, told Mongabay-India.

A woman separates the blackened roots from the ashes after the plant was dried and burnt overnight until only the roots were left. Credit: Poorva Goel

This article first appeared on Mongabay.