Thar’s Prophecy

Published: October 3, 2009 - 13:36 Updated: July 27, 2015 - 16:21

Thirsty saplings struggling to survive, stunted growth of crops, abandoned fields, dried up ponds: in the desert these are telling signs of prolonged scarcity and a winter of misery that is in the offing

Rahul Ghai Bikaner

A cavernous layer of looming drought reveals itself when you leave Bikaner towards the remote interiors of the Indira Gandhi Canal project in the district. The sublime yet brittle formations of clouds set the stage for gloomy prophecies about times to come. After crossing the main canal nearby Pugal one enters what would perhaps qualify as one of the worst patches of human settlement, deficient in water and endowed with extremely poor sandy soils. The canal network dried up, clogged with sand, buried underneath it, as if it had never existed before. The landscape haughtily celebrates the triumph of the pre-canal geography of the vast chain of imposing sand dunes. Human intervention - with its grand, pretentious design of remodelling and greening the infinite Thar desert - seems trivial and grossly misplaced.

The signs of fleeting, erratic rains could be seen vividly inscribed on the face of the desert.  Different hues of sand, dramatic play of the scorching sun illuminating the moist patches on dry surfaces of the dunes. Thirsty saplings struggling to survive, stunted growth of crops, abandoned fields, dried up ponds: these are telling signs of prolonged scarcity and a winter of misery that is in the offing.        

Every year during these months unfolding of daily events become dramatic in the otherwise monotonous routines of the desert. Cloud gazing becomes the obsessive and impulsive engagement of all - men, women and children alike. Everyone watches with keen interest the white tufts of clouds, floating in the vast blue sky whose imposing horizons merge with the sea of sand. In no time the sun gets stronger and the sand is blazing hot. Slowly the tufts congregate and the formations assume a faint hue of brown that darkens over time. Evening sets in, and the harsh sunlight mellows down into cool soothing light.    

At Naju Khan's dhani in Bijeri in Kolayat tehsil of Bikaner district, we sit in the moonlit night watching keenly the dramatic play of clouds, dark brown with possibilities of life giving water, a regal light and sound show of lightning with sharp streaks of silver surrounded by an orange glow. And yet, the wind moved them away. Dinu Khan exclaimed with despair, "It will not rain here again, it will rain somewhere else, maybe in Bikaner." Yes, rains have slipped us yet again in this desert state.

When clouds play truant they are telling signs of another story: of anguish, collective despair. The marusthali dotted with sandy deserts and marshes, has been a stalking ground of droughts and famines. Naju Khan sings the couplet about the omnipresent expanse and presence of drought in the Thar:

Pag pugal dhad kotda
udaraj  bikaner phirto ghirto jodhpur, thavo jaisalmer...
(Feet in Pugal, neck in Kotda (Barmer) 
stomach in Bikaner, a frequent visitor to Jodhpur, permanently resides in Jaisalmer...)

In the new folklore invented by the pseudo-agrarian context of the Indira Gandhi canal command area the spectre of drought has metamorphosed into a demon with expanded evil powers, of corruption and rapacious greed which devours everything. Laxman Singh Soda from Bandhlai tells how the brick kilns and gypsum mines guzzle up hundreds of quintals of fodder that is the lifeline of cattle. Prices have doubled from Rs 1,500 for a thousand bricks; now you have to pay Rs 3,000 for the same number. Gemi Bai says in her characteristic robust voice: "There is no firewood left, first the canal area took all the trees, and now all the phog and other bushes have also disappeared."

More and more people want brick houses. Bricks are in great demand everywhere, even in the State-sponsored schemes like NREGA, where every sarpanch in the area has developed a special fascination for brick-laden tracks and roads. 

'Why are you fighting with each other?' A stock phrase would catch a typical morning scene in the stage-two canal area settlement. They are bothered about job cards and how they can be included in the muster rolls that are soon to be unveiled by the government. Jodh Singh and Binjar Singh, two elders who can barely see, are also in the fray for job cards. Here, finding means to fight hunger and destitution is everybody's preoccupation.

These speculative gestures slowly engulf the daily routine in a context when the bazaar of manipulations heat up, nefarious deals that transact survival get struck. "Let us make the job cards. Some people are still left. There must be a reason why you people got left out," declares Guman Singh Soda in his sobering voice. Talking about Bandhali and the adjoining villages of Bhaluri, Dandkalan, Bijeri, he stresses on the need for checking the whole process of issuing job cards. Many people have not got it while there are others who have as many as three to four job cards. To ensure that every needy person is included in the list - of job cards or muster rolls - is a daunting task since the structures of nepotism, corruption and profit maximisation are deeply rooted in the very substratum of Thar.

There is little doubt that the failure of monsoons has a role to play in precipitating 'drought' but changes in government policies and availability of livelihood opportunities for rural communities play an important role in exacerbating its impact. Gorakh Singh explains how a majority of those who have worked in NREGA have not got their payments for over three months. "The job card is a time pass, it makes us creditworthy, the village bania (money-lender) gives us credit easily," says Aduram of Bhaluri where many have not been paid for more than four months. In the name of providing people with employment what the government is finally giving them is an option of State-sponsored indebtedness. 

The chief engineer of the canal project sends a press release that there is no water for irrigation. Agriculture experts eruditely advise on using the stunted crop as green fodder only. That water, let out only once in a fortnight, is to be only used for drinking; this is enforceable by law and monitored by the police. Declaration of drought in the canal areas has questioned the pompous assumption, originating in colonial times, about the role of perennial irrigation schemes in liberating parched regions and communities from 'drought'. Still, to keep the lure of water-intensive agriculture alive, the canal authorities are thinking of constructing only cemented ponds and water channels as one of the hot favourites in the menu of drought relief.  

For most villagers, the spectacle of foretelling drought culminates in the state government asking for assistance from the Central Calamity Relief Fund; this means a hefty sum of money. It invokes emotional statistical display to justify its demand - third worst scarcity in 28 years out of which 26 were drought years anyway, 100 per cent drought in almost all the villages. This completes the chain of events that is repeated every year with its own share of the multiple farce and tragedies. The final salvo to inaugurate the infamous politics of drought relief has been fired.
This official response is a part of a ritual that rehearses itself everywhere with remarkable duplicity bringing in occasions for 'profit maximisation' (associated with corruption, hoarding, wage exploitation etc,) by the well-entrenched nexus of rural elites-contractors-bureaucrats and politicians. Surely, an exorbitant price for averting starvation deaths and prolonged human suffering using piecemeal employment-generation works and distribution of sub-standard, rotting foodgrains in the land of parched earth and dried up, dying and dead water sources.

Drought, especially the widespread and lasting destitution it causes, has much to do with long-term processes triggered by changing development policies, nature of the State and forces of the market -- especially after economic liberalisation. Maybe it is this drought of the mind, of perspectives, that is a permanent, solidified veil, a lethal and heady mix of anti-poor policies that sanctions the rapacious plunder of fragile ecology and human dignity. This is the paradox that needs to be prefigured instead of simply getting befuddled by cloud-gazing, hoodwinked by piecemeal responses of an insensitive power apparatus - without efficiency, vision or compassion.

Thirsty saplings struggling to survive, stunted growth of crops, abandoned fields, dried up ponds: in the desert these are telling signs of prolonged scarcity and a winter of misery that is in the offing Rahul Ghai Bikaner

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