Rajasthan's tragedy

Print edition : May 13, 2000

The drought that continues for the third successive year has created near-famine conditions in the State.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI recently in Jodhpur, Jaisalmer & Barmer

SPEAKING of rural Rajasthan, an observer once remarked that the poor in the village would face hardships with a smile and seldom give themselves up. It is probably this will to live at any cost that enables them to survive this cruel summer even in the a bsence of credible and sustainable support mechanisms. Folk songs on drought and famine, therefore, are not uncommon in some parts of the State.

People in the worst-affected areas of Barmer and Jaisalmer districts and parts of Jodhpur district said that this third consecutive year of drought had been the worst drought year in many years. Normally they call a famine Akaal; the conditions th is time are described as Trikaal, which denotes the shortage of three things - water, fodder and grain. "Paani nahin, chaara nahin, dhaan nahin", is what sums up the situation.

Virtually the entire State has been affected, with 26 of its 32 districts coming under drought and near-famine conditions. According to figures released by the State Government, 23,409 villages have been affected, more than 75 per cent of the crops in 1, 805 villages have suffered damage, and 261.79 lakh people have had to face severe drought conditions. About 50 per cent of the affected population belong to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. A substantial percentage of the sufferers have bee n small and marginal farmers or landless agricultural workers. Cattle have perished in large numbers; a cattle population of 3.45 crores has been affected by drought, according to government statistics.

Under punishing heat, women employed in a relief work dig a dry lake bed in Rajasthan while cattle forage the dry lands.-GOPAL SUNGER

Barmer district, according to official figures, has suffered the most in terms of sown area, total affected area and the cattle population affected. Among the other severely affected districts in the Marwar belt are Jodhpur, Nagaur and Pali. In the Mewar region, Udaipur and Banswara districts have been severely hit. Sikar, Jaipur and Jhunjhunu figure among the affected areas in the Shekhawati and Hadothi regions. The districts where more than 10 lakh head of cattle have perished are Barmer, Jodhpur, Pal i, Udaipur, Nagaur, Churu, Bikaner, Sikar, Jaisalmer (South Jaisalmer in particular), Jhunjhunu, Bhilwara, Dungarpur and Rajsamand. While western Rajasthan, characterised by arid and semi-arid topography, has a predominantly pastoral economy with negligi ble landholdings, the other regions combine pastoral activity with some agricultural operations. Livestock are an important source of sustenance for farmers, especially in low-rainfall areas where crop yields too are low. Water conservation is also diffi cult in the deep desert areas. The irrigated areas of northern Rajasthan, which have benefited from the Indira Gandhi Canal, and areas such as northern Jaisalmer where the canal water has been made available in recent times, have partially escaped the ef fects of the drought. Moreover, the cyclone that hit Kandla brought resulted in some rain to northern and western Jaisalmer. Sevan grass (Lasiurus sindicus), which grows in this area, therefore survived but large tracts of it was cleared for farming in northern Jaisalmer. Pokhran and other towns in western Rajasthan do not have enough water and people have had to buy water brought in tankers, often at exorbitant prices.

All along the route from Jaipur to Jodhpur, from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, from Jaisalmer to Barmer (through border villages) and from Barmer to Jodhpur (a road away from the highway) this correspondent saw evidence of colossal destruction of cattle. The fai lure of Sevanin these parts has virtually starved livestock. Sevan, which grows up to seven feet, needs very little water; a single spell of rain is enough to sustain it for two years.

Bhavi lies on the Jaipur-Jodhpur route. Somewhere near the village, people were digging a pond (naadi) as part of the drought relief programme. The workers came from different castes, but mostly belonged to backward or Scheduled Castes or tribal c ommunities. They were landless, and said that if they had jameen (land), they would have managed somehow. They had worked for seven days and were unsure of getting more work. The men among them told this correspondent that if work did not come, th ey would be forced to seek employment in Jodhpur. The women and children would stay back.

On the same route, villagers from Ajmer and Bhilwara were digging trenches for telephone cables. "This is the first time we have come this far to work," said Ram Chander from a village in Bhilwara district. "We have never experienced such a terrible shor tage of food, fodder and water, '' he said.

Drought relief work was not a regular feature in many villages. Even in villages where some relief activity was on, the benefit went to a few. In Poonia Ki Piao panchayat, no relief work was done in a cluster of five villages. Compared to last year, more people had left their homes in search of work to Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab or even Mumbai. "Ab to ghar chodna zaroori ho gaya" (It has become imperative to leave our homes now), said Babu Lal, a farmer. More than 70 per cent of the cattle had died in the five villages. Because of poor rains last year, the bajra crop failed. People subsisted on stocks from the previous year. "We are entirely dependent on rain here", said Pota Ram, another resident of Poonia Ki Piao. The residents re called that in 1978, similar or even worse conditions prevailed and that there were famine-related deaths. Thanks to a general improvement in transportation facilities, human casualties could so far be averted this year, they said.

While villages along the road, especially along the main roads connecting district headquarters, did seem to have some water facility, the majority of them had to do with brackish water. In hardly any village people appeared satisfied with the water supp ly. The lurking fear was that the available water sources might not last until the monsoon. Water is brought in tankers through private efforts.

People living in dhanis (minor habitations) away from the road generally bear the brunt of the shortage. They not only have limited access to the main village water source but also pay for carting the water from tankers. Rural indebtedness appeare d to have gone up considerably. At Lawan panchayat in Jaisalmer district, there was no drinking water in the dhanis. At least half its population lived in the dhanis. The dhani residents, local people said, did not have money to pay for the tractors carrying water. "We give them money on interest," said the better-off among them. They said that drought relief work had started, but it was hardly adequate as it covered only 250 workers. At least double that number were in need of som e source of income. Water levels in the open wells, they said, had gone down to 20 feet. Tubewells in the village had dragged them further down, they said.

The livestock had not taken to the alternative wheat fodder obtained from Haryana and Punjab. Used to fodder obtained from the bajra crop, the animals ate it reluctantly. The residents said that a good number of people had taken their cattle on trucks to Punjab and Haryana for grazing. At Bhadriya village, also in Jaisalmer district, wheat fodder was sold at Rs. 40 for 100 kg, a rate found unaffordable by the rural poor. "What do you think the poor villager will buy? Food for his children or for his cat tle?" asked one person. No relief work had started in that village. People complained that even if some work was done, the contractor appropriated half of what was due to the workers.

Ladhu Singh Chauhan, an employee of the Sheep and Wool Department posted at nearby Lathi village confirmed the deaths of many sheep. He said that they died of some disease linked to malnourishedment. "It is because of hunger that the disease is spreading ," said Chauhan. At Sanwala and Jawandh villages, where hundreds of animal deaths were reported, there were no government fodder depots. At Jawandh, people had left for Gujarat as the relief work provided employment to only 40 persons. On the same route, a truck from Devikot in Jaisalmer on its way to Ajmer carried dried carcasses. The driver said the animals had died over the last two months.

At a water tank in Phulia village in Jaisalmer district.-V.V. KRISHNAN

People in Barmer and on the border route from Jaisalmer to Barmer were the worst affected. From Harsani village in Barmer, people had left, for the first time, for Jaisalmer with their livestock in search of food and fodder.

At Sipla village, people said that no one had visited them except tourists, who took pictures of their livestock. At Phulia, a desert village in Jaisalmer district, the devastation was indescribable. Dead cattle lay among the frail members of their commu nity. A cow had given birth to a calf two days ago. Neither would survive, said the residents.

A disease too had consumed many of the livestock. In the last two months, the village lost 700 cows apart from hundreds of sheep and goat. "You will go mad if you look at the carcasses," said Abhay Singh. He said that if it did not rain in the next 10 da ys, the rest of the livestock would go down too. Those who had money had arranged for fodder but the poor had given up on their livestock. No fodder depot was in the vicinity, and relief work, if any, was at a good distance away from the dhanis. T he story was the same at Miajlar, where "disease and hunger" had taken a heavy toll of livestock.

Jaisinder Station is a desert village in Barmer district, on the Pakistan border. A government fodder depot had been opened there, but cattle were denied fodder as a strange administrative decision was in force. People from at least 12 adjoining villages had gathered there hoping to get fodder. They had been told that only abandoned cattle would be given free fodder, which meant that they had to leave their livestock there. The Jaisinder Station panchayat would then claim ownership of the cattle. Eviden tly, people were loath to abandon their cattle. Many had come to the "free fodder depot" from places as far as 50 km away. Even the panchayat members found the order of the Block Development Officer unfair.

Even more distressing was the fact that the administration refused to see the situation as anything different. In its assessment, people had historically migrated out, and pastoral communities were used to this kind of life, characterised by hunger and t hirst. "Do not people die?" asked A.K. Hemkar, the District Magistrate of Barmer, when asked about the extent of loss of livestock. Hemkar told Frontline that all 1,889 villages in Barmer district had been affected. There were 328 fodder depots in the district, where fodder was distributed at the rate of 60 paise a kg. Free fodder was made available to Below Poverty Line families. Unfortunately, nowhere did people mention that fodder was available at these rates. Actually, the prices were above R s.2 a kg. Hemkar said that the administration did not have the wherewithal to provide fodder for all the livestock. "Cattle deaths have occurred but it is not a disaster. Every year they die, this time it is a little more," he said.

On the Jodhpur-Barmer road, 30 km from Barmer town, is Madpura Berwala village. The local people had taken the initiative to collect money to set up shelters and buy fodder for the livestock. The majority of the population lived in dhanis and ther e was no drinking water available. A tank or houdi constructed by the government was empty. Kosha Ram, a resident, said that if the government intervened even now by giving the promised Rs. 10 per head of cattle to such village initiatives, a large numbe r of them could be saved from death.

Hindu Singh Soda, a social activist in Jodhpur, said that the government intervened only at the time of drought. He said his experience was that there was no follow-up work after a drought period. Soda, who has some experience of working among migrant po pulations, especially among people who came from across the border, said that in western Rajasthan people migrated for two reasons: to earn a living and to save their livestock. He said that migration patterns had also changed. Earlier their destinations used to be Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, but now they went to Punjab and Haryana as well. Soda said that as a long-term measure the Government should examine why rich sources of underground water, in Sirohi and Pali for instance, had completely dried up. He said that water scarcity was very severe in Chohtan tehsil.

Pratap Narain, Director, Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Jodhpur, told Frontline that intervention had to be on a permanent basis. CAZRI was developing technology to check desertification and had come up with several alternatives, he said. However, it had its limitations as a research-oriented body. The severest drought of the century was in 1987, and this year was almost as bad as that period, said Narain.

Giving an overall picture, he said that the rains in the western parts of the State had averaged around 360 mm but last year it was much less, at 217 mm. In Jaisalmer district, it was as low as 158 mm. In this context, the animal-man ratio had gone up, he said. Tubewell irrigation was more and more prevalent as the government had given subsidies for tubewells. As a consequence, groundwater levels had gone down. According to figures available from an April 1999 report of the State Ground Water Board, in 41 of the 236 blocks groundwater had been over-exploited, in 26 the situation was critical, and in 34 it was semi-critical. Narain said that as the soils were sandy and rocky, water could not be held beyond a depth of some metres. The groundwater rechar ge from rainfall in some of the western districts was, therefore, much low and even negligible, the Water Board report said.

At Cipla village in Jaisalmer, women trudge long distances to fetch water.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Cropping patterns had also changed, Narain said. There had been over-cultivation of land and more water-intensive crops like mustard, wheat and castor were being grown. About the present crisis, the CAZRI Director felt that the fodder quality should be i mproved by adding some urea or leguminous fodder to restore the animals' health. The Institute was prepared to play an advisory role regarding the cleaning and improving of the naadis. A contingency plan should be evolved to give crop options to t he farmers.

Water and food remain beyond the reach of many people in the State. The Water Board report stated that in many villages the water was not of drinking quality. The dhanis had not been covered so far. Among the various policy measures to augment the groundwater resource, it recommended that large quantities of water lost through precipitation and evaporation be conserved through artificial means.

Tackling a problem like drought requires a much greater effort at the Central level as well.

In the war of attrition between the State and the Central governments, the drought victims are put to all sorts of hardship. While the State puts the onus on the Centre, the Centre pleads an empty treasury and a high fiscal deficit.

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