Hungry sands no more

Neena Bhandari | Updated on November 15, 2017

Her oasis: Aladini Sanwera of Hamir Nada village , near Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, grows enough on her land to feed her family thanks to water brought by the Indira Gandhi Canal Project   -  WFS

Food security eludes landless women like Alarakhi Sanwera.   -  WFS

It took just one canal to bring food security and development to the sandy heart of the Thar desert.

Not long ago, the remote communities in Jaisalmer district, Rajasthan, made a living from a single annual crop of bajra, which was dependent on the mercy of the rain gods. The 48-degree Celsius heat of the harsh summer sun, frequent sandstorms and water scarcity posed a major challenge for survival. Droughts and the spectre of camel and livestock bones strewn on the sand dunes loomed ahead. But the advent of the Indira Gandhi Canal Project (IGCP) in the mid-1980s changed everything. Covering seven districts in the State — Jaisalmer, Barmer, Bikaner, Jodhpur, Churu, Hanumangarh and Sri Ganganagar — the canal transformed the landscape and the lives of its inhabitants.

Assured availability of water for drinking and irrigation turned the once-barren fields of north-west Rajasthan into fertile farms, yielding two crops a year. “Now we harvest wheat, guar, mustard, groundnut, cumin and gram,” says Hasam Khan, Sarpanch of Hamir Nada ki Dhani in Mohangarh panchayat, 75 km from Jaisalmer.

Animal husbandry to farming

In these remote dhanis (hamlets), farming has become the main occupation and source of income. Earlier, the locals would migrate to other States in search of work and return home after months of toil. Today, the villagers employ labour from other parts of Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab. “With consistently good returns from the harvest, workers are being paid one-third of the profits earned. Our people are learning farming skills only now, because for generations we have practised animal husbandry,” explains Khan.

In Hamir Nada, irrigated fields have certainly reaped rich dividends, evident from the improved living standards of the community. Most homes are made of baked bricks, with TV antennas and satellite dishes adorning the roofs. And, for once, food is aplenty.

Says Aladini Sanwera, who used to work in the mines and earn barely enough for two basic meals a day, “With water available for irrigation, our 75- bigha farm has delivered bumper crops in recent years. We have more than enough food for my six married children and their families.”

On her farm, Aladini grows wheat, which fetches about Rs 1,500 a quintal, while chana and mustard are sold at Rs 4,000 and Rs 3,000 a quintal, respectively. She also owns four cows and 15 goats and makes ghee, which is sold at Rs 400 a kg. “Last year, our savings was Rs 20,000,” says the 50-year-old with pride, adjusting her gold nose stud.

Around the corner from her home, children playing in the sand look well-fed. As Meema Sanwera, 25, mother of a seven-year-old boy and a two-year-old girl says, “Since we started receiving water for irrigation, most homes can afford to cook green vegetables, which was markedly absent in our diet earlier. Families now have the money to buy seasonal fruits such as banana, orange and papaya.” Meema has a Masters degree in Sociology from Jaisalmer University and has put her education to good use by working as an anganwadi worker in the dhani.

Education a priority

At the local anganwadi centre, the attendance ranges between 40 and 70 children daily. With livelihood assured, people are making education a priority — It is the first generation attending formal school.

Durga Kanwar, 30, has three boys studying in Mohangarh village, about 10 km from Hamir Nada. Hers is one of the only eight Rajput homes in this dhani. Her father-in-law owns a 10- bigha land divided between her husband and his four brothers. The couple also owns three cows, which daily yield five litres of milk each. After feeding her boys, Durga sells the remaining milk to other villagers at Rs 14 a litre.

Yet, where women like Durga and Aladini have benefited from the canal water, Alarakhi Sanwera, 30, is still struggling. She has six children, all below 10 years, and can only afford two meals comprising bajre ki roti and one seasonal vegetable. “The canal water has not benefited families like ours, who have no land,” she laments.

Villagers in Hamir Nada say only 30 per cent of the land is owned by the local community. The rest was bought over by the urban folk, who had the money to invest when the canal water began flowing into the dhani. “There was a scramble to buy land and while the affluent city residents capitalised on the opportunity, the locals could ill-afford to have a stake in it,” says Khani Sanwera, 27, mother of four kids, visibly unhappy with the outcome.

Khani's family, however, does have a 25- bigha farmland, which yielded a good harvest of guar last year that sold for up to Rs 120 a kg. In addition, she has two cows and two goats.

Families in the Thar desert have managed to nurture healthy livestock because of the indigenous sewan grass that provides nutritive fodder. Next to most homes here, it's common to see cows having an afternoon siesta, while camels crane their necks to forage on the leaves of the local Khejari (Prosopis cineraria) trees.

In Akbar Ali's mud-polished backyard, goats and chicks are running amok. He makes a living from selling five eggs for Rs 10 and chicken for Rs 200-300 (1.5-2 kg) in the Mohangarh village market. Of course, eating a dish or two of meat is a treat reserved for special occasions or festivals in these parts.

For the women of Hamir Nada, the canal water has provided an additional source of joy: the concrete water storage tank that stands tall in the village. Women in the far-flung dhanis may have borne the brunt of water scarcity for centuries, but not anymore. Drinking water can be drawn from the tank, which is within a few km radius of most homes.

The water storage tank was built under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The scheme, which assures 100 days of work, has provided employment to local people for the construction of small and large earthen dams; dhora (a water course for supply to the fields); khadeen (an ingenious construction designed to harvest surface runoff water for agriculture); and for keeping the khala (water channels) clear of sand during summer.

The other side

Of course, the IGCP has not been the magical solution for relieving everyone's misery in these parts. The canal may be a boon for Hamir Nada, but on the other side, in Hadda village, about 30 km from Jaislamer, Sabu Ram Panwar, 80, and his wife, Surma Devi, 70, owners of 20 bigha s of land, are even now completely dependent on the rains for a good harvest. The canal water doesn't reach their village, so they grow wheat when there is good rainfall, otherwise it is bajra.

But some villagers such as Ishwar Ram, 60, have constructed khadeen, which has helped conserve rainwater on his farmland, thereby boosting crop production. He says, “In the past year, I have had a surplus of Rs 26,000 worth of wheat in addition to what was consumed by our family of eight.”

Water harvesting practices have further improved local production and, instead of an uncertain single crop, the terrain has begun yielding even two crops a year, adding to the coffers of these once-impoverished communities.

“When agricultural productivity increases, per capita consumption of food increases too and this in turn improves nutrition among rural folk,” says Tanmay Kumar, MGNREGA Commissioner, Rajasthan.

© Women's Feature Service

Published on March 29, 2012

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