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Indian peasants have long used Vetiver grass
For soil conservation in rainfed agriculture, the World Bank is promoting the replacement of traditional
earthen bunds by Vetiveria zizanioides grass. Some observers in India are sceptical and most are under the
impression that it is not known to Indian farmers. Subramanya and Ranganatha Sastry found that this was
not the case.
S. Subramanya and K.N. Ranganatha Sastry
As implementing officers of the khus-based vegetative barrier system for soil conservation, we were also
sceptical at first, as the technology has not been tested by researchers. Some questions which arise are: Can
the grass adapt to our conditions? What if it spreads like a weed? What if it gets diseased? What if it is
browsed? Can it endure for many years? A glance through the flora of South India (Gamble, 1928;
Sambasiva Rao, 1964) revealed that V. zizanioides grows wild in many parts of Karnataka State. The only
economic uses stated were extraction of perfumery oil from the roots and using the leaves as fodder. The
claim has been made that this plant was never used in India for soil conservation (Anon., 1988). In July
1988, we happened to find farmers in some villages of Gundlupet Taluka of Mysore District using V.
zizanioides (khus) grass for soil conservation. Inquiries revealed that Vetiver vegetative bunds had already
been farmer practice for decades. This evidence erased most of our doubts about the capabilities of the plant
and made us think there might be more farmers practising this system independently as part of the natural
innovative process. We then toured the State, visiting farmers, and made the following findings.
Independent selection
The local names of the plant differ widely between districts, suggesting its independent adoption. The
farmers in Maddur, Channagiri, Halalkere, Tumkur and Kadur appear to have innovated on their own,
seeking ways of conserving their soils, and eventually selected V. zizanioides. As one example: the plant is
called "ramancha" by farmers using it in villages of Gundlupet Taluka of Mysore District. Even the oldest
farmers (over 80 years) say they used it in their fields since they were young, just as their fathers did. Where
irrigation and intensive land shaping were adopted, khus appeared less important for soil and water
conservation but it is still used in the drylands. It has been planted in all vulnerable areas where rills and
gullies would otherwise have formed. Even on al most flat fields, some farmers plant khus to mark boundary
lines, as it is a perennial plant. These lines have remained for several decades. The farmers also use khus to
protect waste-weirs and to stabilize drop structures. The farmers regard the fodder value of khus as an
additional merit. They said that 3-4 cuttings can be obtained at an interval of 45 days, mainly during and
shortly after the monsoon, yielding enough green fodder for two animals for 6 months in a year.
Farmers' practices
The farmers have developed their own ways of multiplying and propagating khus. On sloped land, they form
small section bunds across the slope and plant 2-3 slips per rill 20-30 cm apart on the upstream side. In flat
fields, the slips are simply planted in the plough furrow. In either case, they chop off the top of the plant and
avoid planting inflorescence axles. Khus establishes well if planted after the first monsoon shower. Even
without irrigation, the lines form hedges in about a year. The slips for further planting are taken from 3-year-
old bunds. When waste-weirs or drop structures are to be treated, even clumps of khus are taken and placed
at appropriate locations. During field visits, we noticed a sole case of diseased khus. The plants had been
affected by Ustilago raysiae, a smut disease without serious consequence. None of the farmers regarded khus
as a weed or as a host for pests and diseases. A few farmers in Tumkur District said that growing khus
prevented the occurrence of striga, a root parasite. Khus has long been used by Indian farmers, but most
scientists are still unaware of this. The indigenous knowledge of Indian farmers has not been appreciated.
The knowledge they have gained in dealing with khus-based soil conservation systems needs to be
documented and the other uses of khus, e.g. for fodder, should be studied.
S. Subramanya
Gavt. af Karnataka
Vidhanasaudha Building

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Bangalare 560 001
K. N. Ranganatha Sastry
Visvesvaraya Centre
Dr. Ambedkar Raad
Bangalare 560 001