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The humble root that can prevent soil erosion

Subha J Rao
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Interview Bio-engineering volunteer Shantanoo Bhattacharyya speaks to SUBHA J RAO about how the humble vetiver can halt Nature’s fury

Vetiver plants have prevented soil erosion, strengthened river banks and stabilised hills slopes in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Orissa.- Photo: M. Periasamy
Vetiver plants have prevented soil erosion, strengthened river banks and stabilised hills slopes in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Orissa.- Photo: M. Periasamy

In July 2008, Shantanoo Bhattacharyya was erecting a Bailey bridge in flood-ravaged Lakhimpur, Assam. Walking back to his quarters that night, the executive engineer with the Public Works Department was stopped by a retired school teacher. “Every year, you come to help during the floods. Why can’t you create a system that can be replicated by the common people?” he asked.

That question changed Shantanoo’s life. He realised that all the technology used to help people during calamities was proprietary. And, as a result, very expensive. “We provided people readymade solutions, but never transferred the knowledge,” says this bio-engineering volunteer who was in town to take part in the Indian Roads Congress.

He read up on the Internet for flood prevention solutions and chanced upon the name vetiver — a hardy, native Indian grass known for its extensive root system. In 2009, armed with enough material about vetiver, he tried using it to prevent erosion and flooding along the Kolong and Pagla (‘mad’ river — called so because it is unpredictable and prone to flash floods) rivers in Assam. It was a colossal failure. That’s when the need for a customised solution, based on topography, struck him. “Failure and poverty are great teachers,” he says.

So, Shantanoo went back to reading and research. He saw the limitations of the methods he used. “No tool is magic. It works in certain cases, and does not in others.” He applied the vetiver system on NH 39 (the Nagaland stretch) and NH 40 (Guwahati-Shillong) in partnership with other organisations. The root worked its magic.

In just three years, he has used millions of vetiver plants to prevent soil erosion, strengthen river banks and stabilise hills slopes in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim and Orissa. In Orissa, he worked with the Tatas to tackle mine overburden (waste from mining that is piled up, sometimes as high as 100 metres.) “They look like scars on the hills. We used cow dung and panchagavya, sourced from Coimbatore, to raise the vetiver. Now, the piles are stable and green. And, many companies nearby have stared using vetiver in their mines too,” he says.

Today, Shanthanoo is sought after by many countries, including Vietnam and Nepal, to help them combat Nature’s fury using natural methods. “You could call it bio-engineering. We use a green tool in combination with new-age technology. These systems have been around since ages. We just need to tap into that native knowledge and prove their use, scientifically,” he says.

He continues to work extensively in the North East. “The region receives heavy rainfall and has a high precipitation rate. Cloud bursts are common. Then, there are the rain cuts, where the water cuts a swathe through the slopes. They drag everything down.” Among his success stories using vetiver are strengthening the high embankment in Majuli (the largest river island in the world), and a 500-metre stretch of the Brahmaputra, said to be the most difficult river to tame.

Elsewhere, the vetiver expert has almost replaced boulder pitching with vetiver. “It boils down to knowing where vetiver will work by itself and where you need to use it with modern methods. If we are judicious in using vetiver, it will benefit all.”

Shanthanoo is a vital part of the World Vetiver Network that shares information on this grass. He is also working to create simple systems that can be followed by all. “A protocol ensures anyone can benefit from vetiver.” He’s also coming up with a manual on river bank protection.

These systems have been around since ages. We just need to tap into that native knowledge and prove their use, scientifically

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