Desert fantasies: Why the gloom of doom haunts

As techno bureaucrats and rich kulaks get ready with their toasts to the rhetoric of irrigated farming, the 'idea of the Indira Gandhi canal' rolling on the chest of Thar, rehearses a tragedy
Rahul Ghai Bikaner

As the first decade of the 21st century enters its last chapter amid apocalyptic climate change pronouncements of doomsday for the Gaia, the metropolis and cityscapes prepare for yet another new year celebration. All night parties and midnight balls are round the corner. Bikaner, the medieval township located in the interiors of the undulating Thar desert, too, gears up for the new year bash, with all the glitter of the new, swanky showrooms of major labels and upcoming shopping malls.

They all promise an illusion of successful transition to modern tastes away from seasoned Bikaneri bhujias, sweets and the rustic market lanes of Kot Gate, Station Road and KEM road. The bewitching displays laden with desires and fantasies are an open invitation for a hedonistic plunge nurtured by complacency syndromes of all is well and business as usual that keeps the middle classes apathetic, atomised, snugly locked up in their ivory castles.

Compare this phantasmagoria of opulence with the grim realities of the Indira Gandhi Nahar Pariyojna (IGNP) canal command area where settlers battle with one of the worst droughts of the century and get ready to cope up with the long winter of inevitable misery and destitution that is certainly in the offing.

Conceived by the genius civil engineer, Kanwar Sain, in 1948, and ideologically propped up by Jawaharlal Nehru as the 'kingpin' of State planning for developing the desert, the IGNP was started in the 1960s and more than Rs 3,200 million has already been spent on the canal network till 2008.

The 445 km long-lined main canal with its nine branches, seven lift schemes and a network of more than 8,500 sq km of canal network, makes it the largest multi-purpose canal project in the world. In addition to irrigating around 9.6 lakh hectares of land, the IGNP is meant to provide drinking water to 3,461 villages and 29 towns in nine districts of western Rajasthan.

That these staggering costs and awesome statistics have produced a unique and unparalleled 'development spectacle' is without doubt. The most ambitious opening of the Thar since Independence, settlers were brought in from various places to populate a desert that had a population density of barely 6 people per sq km to more than 25 persons per sq km. The State has been unabashed in pursuing a skewed paradigm that sliced the desert commons into individual farm plots in which the pristine and organic desert land was subjected to high inputs of water, fertilisers and pesticides in an effort to script a green revolution of the Punjab type. 

This pretentious conquest of nature has not been without its perils and pitfalls. A reality check would reveal how much of a parody this much hyped up green revolution zeal has been reduced to. Drought, the scourge of the Thar, has not spared it. So whatever happened to this hugely expensive and self-destructive pipedream?

During the severe drought of 2000, the government hesitatingly had to declare the IGNP canal command area as affected. Since then, a process of de-peasantisation has occurred with unseen rapidity. This has not only swelled the numbers of the agricultural poor but also contributed to further alienation of land that has become a commodity for credit.

The production of kharif crop has been really low in the last three to four years. The myth of irrigated farming was somehow assuaged by an average winter crop all these years. The gruelling water woes this year have plunged the command area to an all time low with no kharif crop and a feeble rabi crop. There were last-minute efforts of the government to salvage it by giving a rationed quota of three 'water turns' only, as compared to six or eight that the farmers had been getting earlier.

The tentacles of rumours about the worsening water crisis are fast spreading, sending bone-chilling shivers among the farmers who see no option other than plunging into localised water wars and bloody protests. The drudgery is compounded by an acute scarcity of fodder and a compounding fuelwood crisis that are telling signs of a future of despair.

It is already two months since the government declared drought and promised to open drought relief works. Apart from sporadic sanctions of fodder depots, the Rajasthan government or the Centre has not done anything concrete, except buying time and spreading confusion with its potent mix of NREGS that has given a new lease of life to State-sponsored indebtedness and corruption. The new fascination for bricks and pucca work under NREGS reaffirms the worn out logic of creating infrastructural assets as 'modern conquest' - creating more exclusion and facilitating the onslaught on the fragile Thar biosphere. 

The 'socialist' gestures of the Nehruvian legacy of giving land to the landless who would diligently work to settle the desert seem like a faint echo from the past, a fuzzy basket of jettisoned promises. Instead, the State has played to hilt the 'peasant instinct to colonise the land', churning out recipes for high input intensive farming and the growth of a full blown land market that has an ugly underbelly populated by a greedy land mafia.

The peculiar credit and speculation-oriented cash economy of the command area has precipitated increasing debt burden on the farmers. As the stacks of Kisan Credit Cards in the local banks would testify, increasingly, majority of farmers are being seduced to pawn their lands for repaying already accumulated debts of the bania to meet daily costs of survival in these bleak times.

Many of the ordinary allotees have been flattened into agricultural labour at the cost of a few who have made it to the middle or big ranks of the peasantry. And given the pseudo cash economy of the command area, they survive through a variety of wage and labour-sharing arrangements, some bordering dangerously close to the infinite cycle of sub-human feudal practices of servitude and bondage.

As the techno bureaucrats and rich kulaks in Rajasthan, the de facto owners of the new canal fiefdom, get ready with their toasts for new year resolutions to renew their rhetoric of irrigated farming, the serpentine labyrinth of the 'idea of the canal' rolling on the chest of Thar, ceaselessly, rehearses a tragedy. It exposes the farcical claims of a post-colonial State with its failed formula of development. Indeed, 2010 arrives with a sense of gloom and doom in the Indira Gandhi canal command area. It's a kind of despair that the Gregorian calendar will not understand.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2010

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