New Internationalist

Desert Storm

Issue 266

Desert storm
Cath Sanders reports from India where the massive Indira Gandhi Canal is changing the
landscape and disrupting the life of the region’s nomadic herders.

Dawn lights up the dun and sage landscape of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert as hundreds of softly tinkling bells echo in the morning half-light. Scores of cattle and goats stream out of the sprawling village of Sui into the dunes, accompanied by men and boys swaddled in thick goatswool shawls insulating them from the freezing winter morning.

Morning chores: milk is a mainstay for villagers in the Rajasthan desert.
photo: CATH SANDERS

Cattle are the mainstay in this area of north-west India. The hardy rathi breed are well-suited to the sparse rainfall and the extremes of desert heat and cold. (The desert’s name is taken from thar, the local word for butter.) The dry land is ill-suited to farming. Traditionally, most people here lived as semi-nomadic pastoralists. And many still do. They plant dryland crops like sorghum, lentils and chickpeas when the monsoon comes in late June. If they are lucky, they have fodder to feed their animals for the rest of the year. In dry years, or when the feed runs out, they migrate with their animals in search of pasture.

But this year the rains have been exceptionally good in western Rajasthan. The domed grain-stores are full and fodder is heaped up all over the village. The animals are fat and there is plenty of milk. Beside me a young woman tethers her cow to a small twisted tree. As her daughter drags away the calf, she washes the cow’s udder and begins rhythmically squeezing milk into an aluminium pail.

I wander past thornbush corrals into a courtyard with honey-coloured walls rounded with smooth mud and cowdung plaster. Megha bai, an older woman, beckons me to sit. She herself rests on a string bed, warming herself in the sun, surrounded by her eight children. ‘We keep animals but we grow crops too when the rains are good – gower, bajri roti and moat [millet and pulses].’

In the woodsmoke-filled room, Megha bai’s daughter-in-law heats flat breads on a clay stove before spreading them with butter from a brass pot.

‘First we let the milk turn to curd and from that we make butter to sell,’ she explains. The churn is a stick split into a whisk and tied to a bedpost with a leather pulley. Chach, the buttermilk left after churning is drunk with heavy millet bread, dripping with butter and a chutney of fiery ground chillies. ‘And not just breakfast,’ says Megha bai. ‘This is what we eat three times a day: bajri roti, ghee and chach.’ The day heats up and women go off to the village well, their sequinned veils glittering like sunlight on water.

This way of life has gone on for centuries in Sui. But soon it may change. In a few years, a branch of the Indira Gandhi Canal will bring irrigation waters to the village. Partly funded by the World Bank, the vast project will cost an estimated $3 billion by the time it is finished. In 30 years, the canal has dramatically transformed 500,000 hectares of the Thar. Just 30 kilometres away farmers stack bulging sacks of peanuts and cotton for market, surrounded by lush fields of mustard and wheat. You would scarcely believe you were in the middle of a desert.

But the pastoralists in Sui worry that new irrigated farmland will eat into their precious common grazing land. Already near the village disputes are beginning over what was once common pasture. Elsewhere herders have been denied land near the canal by authorities. Because they move away for a few months of each year with their animals they are not classed as permanent residents.

Rural development worker Anwar Ali admits that the canal has made it easier for people to get clean water. ‘Previously women had to walk 15 to 20 kilometres to collect 30 litres of water,’ he told me. ‘That’s a week’s supply for a family of 10.’ But, he says, settlers have cornered most of the prime land near the canal elsewhere. ‘So little common pasture now remains that local people have switched from cattle to sheep, which aren’t fussy about fodder.’ Unfortunately, the loss of common pasture land has also led to over-grazing and soil erosion, accelerating the process of desertification. As much as 60 per cent of the Thar is now considered high risk; areas once covered with sparse desert grasses are quickly turning to dunes.

Irrigation is also causing salinization. A layer of hard gypsum under the soil makes much of the desert prone to water-logging. Only a few kilometres from green fields, bleached skeletons of trees stand in water-logged lakes. Critics now suggest up to half the most fertile irrigated land could be destroyed within 20 years.

Bashir Gopera, headman of a hamlet of a dozen households near Sui is apprehensive about the changes happening around him. His whitewashed house overlooks a bare plain where several pastoral migration routes intersect. ‘We had 1000 cattle 20 years ago and then we only migrated during droughts,’ he says. ‘Now we have only 500 cattle but we must migrate every year. All the best grazing land has gone to farming.’

Cath Sanders works with the Leeds Development Education Centre and would like to thank the voluntary organization Urmul Trust in Rajasthan for help with this article.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995


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