The Freshwater Trail

Blind Men And The Desert

The Indian government calls 68% of the Thar a "wasteland," and plans to "better utilize" it. Actions born of this new lexicon threaten to destroy livelihoods and an ecosystem at a time when monsoons are unpredictable

aratirao
Arati Kumar-Rao
Photographer & Journalist

“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”
WERNER HEISENBERG

Driving northwest of Jaisalmer along a road strung taut between swathes of the Thar, I squinted through my sunglasses to keep the white glare of midsummer at bay.

Gobs of rough gravel in meter-high mounds dotted the land as far as my eye could see. An ashen cloud of dust completely obscured the road ahead and occasionally spit out trucks that lumbered and wheezed towards us. White dust clouds spewed off their backs and black smoke clouds billowed out from under them.

We drove into the dust cloud, and into a hellish din that sounded like a thousand vessels being banged all out of sync.At the heart of that cloud – the focus and cause of the noise, the dust, the lorries scurrying to and fro –  was a cement factory.

Those gobs of gravel dotting the landscape now made sense – they were mounds of limestone. Eight million metric tons are scooped out of the Thar each year. Lumbering lorries cart them into four factories where they are processed, and then locomoted out east to the steel plants of Bokaro and Bhilai, Jamshedpur and Rourkela — slag for shining steel cities.

Blinded by that dust cloud, numbed by the activity around me, I finally realised that I was right in the middle of the blind man’s desert. 

Mining the Desert

In a landmark case that ran from 1982-1988, the Supreme Court of India ruled against limestone quarrying in the lower Himalayas.The ugly, dangerous mines hollowing out the Dehradun valley were declared illegal under the Forest Conservation Act, and were shut down. The Supreme Court went a step further and ordered the restoration of the forests in the valley.

Baulked, a technical team under the aegis of the Government of India cast about for an alternate source of limestone. They found what they were looking for in the deserts north of Jaisalmer: high quality, low silica limestone perfectly suited for the burgeoning steel industry. Bonus – the area had no forests the Supreme Court could get concerned about.

Around the same period,  the National Wasteland Development Board was born. It defined “wasteland” thus:

Degraded land which can be brought under vegetative cover, with reasonable effort, and which is currently under utilised and land which is deteriorating for lack of appropriate water and soil management or on account of natural causes. 

Per this definition, 68 per cent of Jaisalmer district was deemed “wasteland.” In 1988, the government began “open-cast mining with a single bench and deep hole blasting” in the Thar, to “better utilize” it.. 

I had seen mines, and a cement factory, on previous trips into the desert. This time, however, it seemed magnified. The convoy of trucks was half a kilometer long. Pale pathways curved away from the road and into the white haze. The polka-dots of mounds stretched farther into the distance, and for far longer, on both sides of this road. The cement factory seemed to have cloned itself. Mining was aggressive, overt, in my face. 

I asked the locals about this. The khann (mines) killed the aagor (catchment), they told me. “Why couldn’t they think, see, ask us before setting up their mines?”

Now their khadeen and beris — traditional food and water sources — had gone dry, making them dependent on the government’s inclement piped water that smelled, and made them sick. “Nahar ka paani,” they said with a grimace. Water of the canal. 

Watering the Sand

The Indira Gandhi Canal snakes all over Jaisalmer district. Watery in some places, choked with sand in others. Swathes of sevan grasslands have been cleared for cultivation based on the canal's promise. But there is no water, and now, no grass and fodder either for the flocks. Shepherds are forced to travel farther in search of fodder. Moreover, the intensely irrigated areas are proving waterlogged and saline, useless for farmers. A triple whammy in the desert grassland commons

“Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) is one of the most gigantic projects in the world aiming to dedesertify and transform desert wasteland into agriculturally productive area.”

Government of Rajasthan 

The tail end of the main canal of the “Nahar,” as the Indira Gandhi canal is known in the western Thar, reached Ramgarh in 1992.

Carting water from the valleys of Punjab, it spread into intermediate canals which then branched into even smaller canals snaking deep into the heart of the Thar. Under Phase II of the IGNP, over 4000 sq kms of desert was to be under irrigated agriculture.

The water never made it that far. And where the water did reach, the result was not quite what the government’s grandiose vision of a green desert promised.

In the main canal near Ramgarh, where there is water, intensive irrigation raised the water table and increased salinity, rendering large “de-desertified areas” waterlogged and useless. Where once native grasses — important sources of fodder for the rich animal husbandry industry of the area — grew, brilliant agamas scuttled, butterflies drank deeply from bright yellow heliotropiums and desert foxes darted on spring-like spindly legs, there was now nothing.

A desert wind howled in mockery over an arid dustbowl. 

Back then, the government sold dreams of irrigation to about 1000 local landless farmers, each getting about six acres. Those farmers stand today on wasted land, holding useless pieces of paper and sinking into deep wells of debt. The government allotted desert land deeper into the Thar to 700 families displaced by the Pong Dam in Himachal Pradesh. The canals don’t even carry water to these areas. One family came out this far, took a look at the land, and left. Landless, hopeless.

The Nahar is a bad word in these areas. It has brought misery in many ways. 

Mosquitoes. No one had heard of them until 1990 when the first epidemic broke out. The nahar waters had stagnated. P. Falciparum, the deadly malarial parasite, thrived. Today, the district that had never known mosquitoes boasts the highest incidence of malaria in Rajasthan. Every family you meet has at least one sufferer – and more recently, dengue has been added to their cornucopia of woe. 

The canal snaked in other pests like the highly invasive bawliya (Prosopis juliflora), which blanketed the land and sucked it dry, and the crop-raiding, khadeen-raiding nilgai and wild boar, neither of which belong in the deep desert. 

In the villages I walked through, I saw stout squat yellow tanks of “nahar ka paani.” I saw women gather around when they got word of water in it (water does not come everyday, but once in three days or so).

They use the water for washing clothes, never for consumption. It stinks, they say, crinkling their noses. Carcasses of animals have been seen floating in the canal, and this same water comes through after rudimentary filtration to the villages. The filters don’t take the smell away. Nor, it seems, the parasites. People have fallen ill from drinking “nahar ka paani.” They prefer their beri — the clean, fresh, reliable, traditional percolation well — that gives water all through the year, come rain or shine. No one ever fell sick from drinking “beri ka paani.”

“De-desertifying” had another devastating effect on the desert. It meant clearing the grassland commons for agriculture. Vast swathes of native grasses like sevan (Lasiurus scindicus) and the endemic phog (Calligonum polygonoides) were razed from the root up, and burned. These plants sustain millions of goat and sheep that are the mainstay of the people of the desert. With waterlogging rendering the land unproductive, the desert was damned twice: losing its native vegetation, and being deprived of any ability to regenerate itself. 

In a supreme irony, the area has now truly become “wasteland” – and the government’s grandiose canal has created the very condition it falsely diagnosed and sought to cure.

I stood at the edge of an offshoot of the main canal. The water was stagnant, thickly green with algae. The smell made me gag. This intermediate canal fed the smaller canals that bored into the deep desert – except there was no water for the canals to carry.

Those small canals now lie dead, throttled by sand. Unmindful of these half-broken, half-buried legacies of the government’s absurd dream, shepherds graze their flocks, grasses thrive, a fox darts along in front of me, and a brisk wind blows sand about willy nilly. 

Farming the Wind

“With a view of diversification activities and to protect environment degradation, RSMML has entered into wind power generation business in 2001. Company owns wind power plants having total installed capacity of 106.3 MW.  Company  has commissioned wind power plants in 9 phases at different locations in the district Jaisalmer of Rajasthan state.”

That note from the Government of Rajasthan enterprise Rajasthan State Mines and Minerals Limited has a footnote:

“Looking to the significant contribution of the project towards sustainable development in India and reductions  in carbon emissions, RSMML got registered its projects with CDM executive board of UNFCCC and  earning revenue by selling CERs/ VCUs.”

An “oran,” in this part of the Thar desert, is a Sacred Grove. A stretch of indigenous trees that no one is allowed to hack a single branch from, or till one square inch of. It belongs to the community, and is protected by the community.

Orans line the road from Jaisalmer to Ramgarh, with long stretches of jaalbordi and kair trees. In some places, these orans are 5 km long and 35 km deep – sparse desert forests of tree after sacred tree.

These orans are unrecorded, Chhattar Singh told me later – and so  the government could do with it as it pleased. It decided to farm here. Dig deep holes, erect huge fans. Reap carbon credits. Farm the wind. 

We were in an area which had the highest number of windmills in this part of the Thar, looking for shepherd Babu Singh. Suddenly, Chattar Singh exclaimed: “Woh dekho giddh maraa hua!” (See, there’s a dead vulture!)

We slammed to a halt. I saw a headless, bodyless wing. Some two meters away lay the rest of the griffon vulture, slashed in two by the churning blades of a Suzlon windmill. 

From there on it was like a bloody game of hopscotch. This windmill clean, the next with blood on its blades, then another clean, then another that sliced a griffon through its gut. So it went – I counted six dead vultures across 15 windmills.

Babu Singh sat with me under the feeble shade of a kair tree and, in the course of our chat, described the disaster with one arm waving round and round, accompanied by ominous words:  “Khaynch leta hai unko” (It sucks [the birds] in).

vulture

Vultures are especially vulnerable to a vortex that a windmill’s whooshing blades creates. Studies have found that more griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) die at the blades of wind farms than any other bird. Scientists think this may be because of the thermals that these birds look to ride on. These air currents conflict with the vortices created by the churning blades. In areas where the windmills are on slopes or on the tops of hills, the birds stand little chance as the lift they get on thermals is not enough to clear the blades. 

This study says that it may not have anything to do with bird abundance (migration season or lean season), only with the placement of windmills. 

I knelt beside the carcass of a once-soaring raptor and looked into its vacant eye-sockets. Above me, like a doom-laden soundtrack, the remorseless blades continued to grind the air in a deafening, monotonous rhythm.

What was wrong with this picture? The placement of the windmills? Their height? Was there a way to save these birds and still collect carbon credits?

There had to be.  

Greening the Dunes

That distant haze of purple is a Forest Department plantation of acacia. It sucks up water in the dunes, drying up wells which are the only sources of water for shepherds in the desert.

“To check the process of desertification through massive Afforestation Programmes in desert and IGNP areas of the State.

To undertake plantations on large scale on available revenue wastelands.”

– Excerpt from the Mandate of the Forest Department of the State of Rajasthan 

I was standing at the bottom of some of the largest dunes in the Thar. Chhattar Singh, my friend, philosopher, and guide in the desert, had just dug down six inches from the top of the dune to reveal moisture in the heart of summer, and made my jaw drop.

He now pointed towards the horizon. There, high over a dune in the distance, I saw the purple haze of the exotic Israeli acacia (Acacia tortillis), planted in droves by the government and the Forest Department to “de-desertify.”

These plantations are part of the government’s afforestation mandate – and they are wreaking havoc on the lives of shepherds. The fast-growing trees tap into the moisture-filled heart of the dunes, leeching away the hidden water in the desert, and drying up beris

All along the nahar and across the desert, the forest department plants trees. Exotic, non-native species, even invasive species.

khejri_spray
The khejri is endemic to these deserts and the people of the Thar find uses for every part of the tree. They also consider it poojaneya (worship-worthy)

If trees did have to be planted for fodder and fuel along the nahar, why not plant native species like the food-giving kair, jaal, bordi?  There is another tree, the khejri (Prosopis cineraria), endemic to the desert and considered poojaneeya (worship-worthy), a tulsi (sacred tree). Its leaves have long been used as fodder for animals, its fruit is a staple in human diet, its wood is used for ploughs and for roof beams and well-pulleys.

With that wealth of choice available, why the government opts to plant water-sucking aliens is beyond comprehension.

Stripping Gypsum

The layer of gypsum under the sand allows water to percolate but not mix with the water table which is often salty. This water that sits above the gypsum layer is lifeblood to the people of the Thar. It allows khadeens to produce food without irrigation and it keeps lakes full for six to eight months a year. The gypsum is what allows a beri to stay full of water, year round.

The secret of the hidden water in the desert is a layer of gypsum, five meters below the desert sands. This layer prevents water from percolating further down and reaching the water table, which is often salty. As a result of the gypsum, rainwater percolates but stays sweet, fresh and available to desert dwellers who know to follow unseen hints and divine the presence of water under sand.

We are the country’s leading producer of natural Gypsum and Selenite producing about 3.0 million tonnes per year. These are mined in the heart of the Thar desert areas where the working conditions are very harsh. The deposits are shallow and scattered over large areas. Most of the land is owned by private cultivators. The farmers gives up his gypsum bearing land to RSMML in return for an assured share of profits. After mining, the Company improves the land condition and returns back to the farmer for cultivation.

Government Of Rajasthan

There can be no rejwani paani after the gypsum has been mined. Shorn of the gypsum layer, there is no backstop to prevent the rain water percolating down to the water table and turning salty. If the water table rises, as it has been doing in areas of extensive irrigation and intensive farming, waterlogging and salinity will follow. No amount of gypsum-infused fertilizers will help replenish the land.

More importantly, traditional water sources like the beri will be destroyed if the gypsum is mined. Destruction of water sources renders the desert dweller dependent on some centralized water supply like “nahar ka paani,” which has been proven to be unreliable and unhealthy. Dependence on an outsider for water is anathema to the people of the deep desert.  

Knifing Through Catchments

Roads like these knife through catchment areas, their height impeding a natural water flow down a gradient to village lakes. Such lakes replenish wells and such interventions lead to a destruction of local water sources.

The natives of this land walk. A lot. Everyday. They know every dip and rise; each gradient is mapped, and the heights marked with intricately carved pillars. The rain, whatever little does fall, strikes this higher land first. This is the catchment, the aagor. It is sacred.

The water rolls down gentle inclines to collect in depressions which serve as oases: khadeens, or lakes. No one sullies these water sources. There are beris in these depressions which will serve communities long after the lakes have evaporated. These are lifelines. These sources are protected, treated with respect, even revered. 

Vital to any of these sources is the high land, the aagor. The catchment. 

 Mining activities are generally located in remote areas. Infrastructure facilities such as link roads, rail connections, power etc., are the basic needs for the development of mining areas. State shall mobilize its resources to provide linkage of roads and power in mining areas. State will also implement the link road projects with the associations of lease holders on the basis of public private partnership (PPP), wherever possible. 

Govt. Of Rajasthan’s Mining Policy 2011

I was on a smooth raised road built by the Border Roads Organization of the Indian Army. A good road. A road you can race on.

Chhattar Singh leaned forward from the back seat of the jeep and whispered. This was an aagor, he said, until the road knifed through. The gradient of the land once carried desert rain into a village lake, but not any more. The height of the road meant the water could no longer flow from east to west towards the lake. As a result, the lake had dried up, and yet another village had gone thirsty. 

“Couldn’t they have made the road flush with the land so the water could flow unimpeded? Is it that hard to see the right way to do things?”

Blind Men & The Desert

As I crisscrossed Jaisalmer district, I found myself continually bumping up against two different worlds. In one lived a people – grounded, observant, wise to the magic and limitations of the desert, and therefore able to survive, even thrive, in a seemingly hostile environment.

In the other lived ‘officialdom’ – a hodge-podge of governments and departments, unaware of the intricacies of the land, intent on imposing their lexicon, their will on an ecosystem they were strangers to.

The situation in the desert reminded of an ancient fable, a cautionary tale, playing out grimly in our time. It was as if the story of the six blind men and the elephant had come to life here.

One touched the limestone and thought, ah, a resource to be mined. Another felt the wind that sweeps the desert into dune and valley and thought, a chance to earn carbon brownie points. A third felt no water on the surface and imagined a green world of intricate canals and thriving agriculture, a fourth dreamt of large stands of acacia on blowing dunes shorn of trees…

Each touched an element of the desert at some opportunistic point and fashioned his worldview accordingly; none assimilated the delicate entirety of the desert and therefore, none appreciated how an intervention here could ruin an integral dynamic elsewhere.

Each believed in his own interpretation of the desert, and forced the land to conform to his particular view.

In the fable, as the blind men come to blows over their individual interpretations, a sighted man comes along and tells them of the living, breathing, highly evolved creature they could not comprehend in the whole – and the blind men listen with awe and a sense of growing awareness of their own limited knowledge.

In the here and now of the desert, the fable however has a grim denouement. There are the sighted, the viscerally aware, like my friend Chattar Singh, or Babu Singh, or any number of people who walk this land – and they speak eloquently, with keen observations, of the totality of a desert far greater, far more complex and inter-dependent, than its individual parts.

They speak well, these people of the desert, mining their wisdom from lived, shared experience – but those others, the blind men of the desert, they come with their own lexicon, and they rarely listen. And thus they destroy what they won’t trouble to understand.

There is, I feared, no blindness so total, so willful, so destructive, as the blindness of those who refuse to see.

Stories of Desert Wisdom:

Miracle of Sky River: The people of the Thar desert recall an old way of feeding thousands of people with just 100 mm of harvested rain. They use no further irrigation. This story unfolds over a year and recounts history through contemporary lives lived gently

The Memory Of Wells: Traditional desert dwellers, semi-nomadic shepherds, call upon ancient wisdom to divine water in the deep Thar desert of Rajasthan. This is a story about people who remember where the wells live

Forty Names of Clouds: The deep Thar desert sees only forty cloudy days. Yet, the shepherds have as many different names for clouds. Does the essence of thriving in this hostile clime begin with an evocative lexis of the land?

A Landscape Glossary : When we lose an evocative lexicon of the land, when we forget, we lose what Barry Lopez calls the “voice of memory over the land.” This is an attempt to keep that lexicon alive. Do contribute, and help it grow!

11 thoughts on “Blind Men And The Desert”

  1. Very evocative of the follies that have occurred time and time again all across this land, what from a local’s perspective can be read as unsolicited change. Reading this piece in entirety methinks – just out of frustration and remorse, that along with your excellent photo-documentation and writing, would a movie with this story unfolding perhaps also have added impact to a larger audience?

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      July 6, 2015

      Thank you for writing in, Manish. Means a lot.
      I smiled at reading your suggestion of a film. It is something on my mind, something for the near future.

  2. Jaya Ghosh
    July 7, 2015

    Excellent article.

  3. Excellent piece. Perhaps someone could investigate the private parties who profited from these massive projects. But that maybe politically explosive.

  4. Sachin killawala
    July 7, 2015

    What a brilliant analysis. Thank you for taking the time to research this topic. The time is not too far where stuff like this is mainstream.. Hopefully not too late..

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      July 14, 2015

      Thanks, Sachin, there are people working tirelessly to increase awareness of these ecosystems. So yes, hopefully, not too late.

  5. Prakash K Ray
    July 7, 2015

    Emphatic. Splendid. Bests to Arati and Peepli Team.

  6. Gaurav Garg
    July 13, 2015

    Fantastic read Arati. So evocative and well written.

  7. Chander Kolhi
    October 8, 2015

    Great effort. Such a wonderful article; picture have given an additional glory to it. There is a need to make the same story for Tharparkar, Sindh in Pakistan. Lifestyle of Thari people and their culture also needs attention.