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Where you are is what you are

WEALTH OF THE NATION SERIES Conceived by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain . Centre for Science and Environmen

By Tapan K Bose
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

A hostile environment the Thar (Credit: Ganesh Pangare / CSE)IN PRESENTING the two films - Thar: Secrets of the Desert and The Village Republic - Anil Agarwal defines the basic concept of the series as studies in the organic relationship between ecology -and culture *. There is a direct link between the cultural and ecological diversity of India. In each of these ecological regions, different cultures have emerged out of the direct interaction of the people with their environment.

Anil argues that centuries of interaction between the people and environment has resulted in the creation of social values and cultures. Cultures have laid down the norms for social behaviour, shaped technologies, invented tools for production and set limits for the extraction of nature's resources. A study of these cultures shows that its adherents were able to make the maximum use of natural resources without endangering the process of environmental regeneration.

The second argument put forward through this series highlights the present energy crisis as being root cause of mass poverty in rural areas. The problem can be resolved if village communities are allowed to gain total control over the resources of their areas. According to Anil, it is the wrong choice of technology and bureaucratic management which are primarily responsible for alienating the ordinary people from the so-called process of development. The bureaucracy has presented hurdles to the people's efforts at solving the energy crisis. The people have been denied an opportunity to choose the technology and the processes of development, something that has had an impact on their environment.

The two videos under review illustrate these arguments through case studies and present a model for development based on sustainable technology and people's management. Thar: Secrets of the Desert is about the inanagement of rainwater by the people of the Thar desert, while The Village Republic presents the success stories of sustainable development in certain villages of the country which include Suhomanjari in Haryana, Seed in Rajasthan, Ralegaon Siddhi in Maharashtra and several villages located in the Panchgani hills of Baripada district in Orissa.

The Thar desert - which covers about 250,000 square km - is spread across Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. it is a hostile wasteland of sandy desert and barren rocks which receives approximately 38 cm of rainfall in a year. Yet, it was once the cradle of a prosperous and unique civilisation. The Thar is the world's most densely populated desert. Its inhabitants have Wlt many beautiful cities. Legends of their wealth and prosperity traveled far and wide, attracting traders and inv4ders. It has been pointed out that there is the need to learn lessons from the people of Thar. How did they survive in such a hostile environment with so little water, and amass so much of wealth and power? The answer to this question might bring about the process of sustainable development in other regions of India.

This film tells us all. It takes us to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan which had a highly evolved system of water collection, created to harvest and store rainwater. The fort city had a cluster of human-made lakes which were located in areas where the runoff from the rainwater would naturally collect. Wells were dug on the beds of these lakes so that when they dried-up, water could be drawn from them.

The video shows the construction of a series of bunds and drainage channels to prevent siltation. Seepage from the bunds and the lakes was drained out through a network of dug wells, nadis (rivers), talabs (ponds) and bawaris (step wells). Some of these wells were maintained by the people themselves. An old resident ofJaisalmer said that under the orders of the ruler, the business community was entrusted with the responsibility of supplying drinking water to cattle, the workers and the brahmins. Strict social norms governed the utilisation of water. Separate places were set aside for bathing and watering animals.

Jodhpur in Rajasthan also boasted of an intricate system of 150 surface lakes and canals, which were built for harvesting rainwater 800 years ago. In the rural areas rainwater was harvested and stored in nadis. The catchment area of the nadis was maintained by the villagers. Construction was not permitted in these areas. From the video it is apparent that there were vast expanses of common land which were used for growing fodder in the past. The people also knew how to utilise the vegetation of the. desert. For example, the khejari tree provided fodder, fuelwood and fertiliser.

Such an intricate system of community management of rainfall made it possible to sustain a substantial population and meet the needs of agriculture and animal husbandry. Agriculture being difficult, the emphasis was more on animal husbandry. Nomadic cattle breeders traveled through the desert with thousands of cows. The film reveals that these nomads knew a lot about the desert and the areas meant for grazing. Although the desert was unable to sustain agricultural crops, it provided rich pastures of grass and nutritious desert vegetation. The cattle of the Thar were renowned for the quality of milk they yielded and the ghee (clarified butter) made from their milk. Ghee was plentiful in the Thar. Till recently, vegetable oil for cooking was unheard of in the desert.

This finely evolved equilibrium between the people and their environment was destabilised, ironically by the laying of the Rajasthan canal. The canal has brought about a shift in the activities of the people. Animal husbandry was replaced by agriculture and their pastures became farmlands. The cost of agriculture increased as there was a greater dependence on chemical fertilisers. Moreover, the excess water released from the canal produced waterlogging and soil salinity.

Today, among the farmers who live within the command area of the canal, only 25 per cent have been able to pursue agricultural activities. Large tracts of lands have been converted into fisheries. As an old inhabitant of Ganganagar wryly observes, "Earlier you died of thirst, now you are more likely to drown." Within 40 years of the greening of the desert, the environment of the Thar has been degraded to such an extent that the people have been compelled to migrate to cities. The video depicts the disregard shown by new technologies and concepts like the Rajasthan canal for the traditional systems of knowledge possessed by the people of Thar. It also captures the destruction of the environment and the change in social structure of the community, these have brou ht about. The traditiona system of water management had instilled a sense of community responsibility and participation. But now, community interdependence has given way to a fragmented society driven by individual needs.

The Village Republic graphically demonstrates the link between modern technology and bureaucratisation. The people of Seed village in Rajasthan wanted to participate in the programme of gramdan (voluntary labour) but the enacting of a law has given the Rajasthan government complete charge of all resources of the villages under the gramdan scheme. It took the villagers of Seed almost two decades to convince the bureaucracy that their gram sabha should be empowered under the gramdan scheme.

The video shows that development can be achieved without dependence on government grants or external aid. The residents of Ralegaon Siddhi village in Maharashtra have built a water reservoir through voluntary labour. In Sukhomanjari, Haryana, the problem of soil erosion has been solved through people's efforts. Recognising that goats caused serious damage to grasslands, the people of Sukhomanjari voluntarily switched to managing other types of domestic cattle.

Both the video films are well-made and captivating. Sanjeev Shah's film captures some beautiful images of the Thar desert and its environs. Christopher Rego's video is more traditional in its presentation. However, it makes an important contribution by suggesting an alternative model of development based on people's participation. Both the films need wide distribution.

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