Resilience is a laudable quality but it needs to change to incorporate the growing livelihood problems in the Thar.
As kids we all loved the bottom heavy toy which bounced back to shape even after we pushed it. It was resistance to our external pressures. That was a quality we all celebrated and loved.
This resistance or what we term resilience, especially when witnessed in living beings has metamorphosedinto endangering feature for the ones who are in the thick of it. Resilience is the ability to bounce back to your original shape if you are disturbed in any way; however, as Anne Edwards and Apostol Apostolov put it, the idea of resilience needs to be expanded to incorporatereshaping the social conditions of development. In simple words, just bouncing back is not going to help anymore.
Resiliencehas developed as a way of life for the people in Rajasthan who battlea myriad of odds consisting of environmental odds such as arid soil, saline water and a very short rainfallseason resulting in an annual rainfall of just 25cm, political odds which make sure that policy doesn’t address issues of the people and their problems and odds of modern developmentsuch as mining and industries which are polluting and deteriorating the alreadyscarce resources of the region. There are various ways through which they make sure that their basic survival need – that of livelihood is met.
Agriculture in Rajasthan is basically rain fed and thus takes place for only 3-4 months in a year.Tube-wells are not used for agriculture because the ground water is saline and thus not useful for agriculture, although there are some parts of Rajasthan which have sweet water.There are different practices for agriculture that were followed by villagers across the area from Salawas to Gagadi that we visited in Rajasthan.
The Bishnois irrigate their land with the help of rain water.They use the water fromIndira Gandhi Canal mainly for drinking purposes which comesfor only 7 hours in every 3 days and isstored in taankas for future use. Because the agriculture is rain fed they produce only such crops that can be grown withless water such as Bajra, Jawar, Gowar, Moong and Moth.
The fertility of the soil was maintained by the Khejri tree, the leguminous nature of the plant ensures that Nitrogen in the soil is retained, making the soil fertile and extremely conducive for agriculture. According to Beni Ram Beniwal, a resident of the village, it is the biggest sin in their tradition to cut a live Khejri Tree or for that matter harm any living creature, as their God, Jambheshwar Maharaj has placed such a person at the highest level of all sinners.According to him, if under any circumstances, a person has to cut a green Khejri, he has to plant two new saplings in its place and donate grain and food in the community to compensate for the loss.
Villages like Fallodi in Rajasthan received irrigation water from the Indira Gandhi Canal at the cost of Rs 1000 for an hour of water every three days distributed through an18 inch by 18 inch pipe. Places like Fallodi which receive such water have a system of agriculture in place and had a dedicated market or a mandi where the villagers sold their grain. According to Chena Ram, a villager who belonged to Fallodi, the people indulged in speculative prices in the mandi and thus modified the prices as they wanted. In a place which barely can produce for its own subsistence, thisis a welcome change.
Other places, like Gagadi and Jelu are some of the few places in Rajasthan which have sweet and not saline ground water.These places make use of tube-wells for agriculture. Villages belonging to low caste people, who could not afford individualtube-wells,have come up with the idea of ‘communitytube-well’ where one tube-well is shared between two to three families through an intricate system of channels in the fields.
With the help of funding from Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti(GRAVIS)an NGO which works with the farmers of the region, thesesystems have boosted the agriculture of this place. Here people even grow cash crops now such as cotton, cumin; wheat and castorand are able to have sustainable agriculture all through out the year.
The villagers told us that the tube-wells were maintained by everyone together and a nearby mechanic took care of the technical difficulties that arose in it from time to time. The community tube-wells added another odd to the existing lot that the people showed their resilience to – that of societal odds and came out a winner in the end.
Livestock, mostly goats, cows and oxes become an important source of livelihood for people in an around Jodhpur because of the scarcity of food. Livestock is a means of food securitywhen the options are limited. People sell milk from the goats and the cows and also use it for personal consumption.The biggest problem for livestock rearing is the sparse forest cover of the region which makes it very difficult to find pastures for the cattle. Perhaps for this reason, the Bishnois in Salawas convert their private lands into common lands in the dry season and let their cattle graze on it. As an unintended advantage, the droppings make for a rich source of manure.
It is mostly the women and the children who take the responsibility of grazing the cattle and of its general up keep. The children in Gagadi informed us that the cattle are used for meat when they no longer can produce milk.
NGOs in this area, for example GRAVIS, work with the people and train the veterinarians and also in breeding to improve the life and quality of produce of the cattle.However, most of the people were unaware of this knowledge and relied on their traditional ways to rear and use cattle produce. In the Gagadi Village, children could be seen taking the goats for grazing which was a part of their many daily morning activities.
In Salawas village, the Muslim community is known for its Clay pottery which keeps water cooler than the normal clay pots that are used to store water. The water in these pots is “cooler than fridge water,” says one of the potters, Shah Ahmed. These pots are used to store water in the nearby areas and are also heavily exported to Gujarat.
Pottery making is an activity done especially during the non-rainy months when the rain fed agriculture of the area ceases.The art remains an exclusive domain of the Muslims and has been their cultural capital for their ages. There are no reasons to why others have not taken up this occupation or why it was the Muslims who started it; when asked, the people vaguely shrugged their shouldersand muttered something about them being always the ones who engaged in this kind of pottery making.
The pots are made of a special preparation of a mixture of clay, sandstone and saw dust mixed in a particular ratio.This mixture is kneaded together and then made into small pots which are beaten into becoming bigger pots. All the pots made in a day are dried in the sun after which are put in a furnace and hardened. Sawdust is used for fuelling the furnace as other forms of fuels are costly.
These pots are sold all across the markets of cities like Jodhpur at a price of around Rs 40. The makers of these pots sell them for a lot less to the middlemen who come to buy the pots from them.“We will have lesser hands to work in the house if we go out to sell in the market,” says Ahmed. Naturally, their poor conditions tell us that they cannot afford the infrastructure required to sell their wares in the market and have to be content of the price that the trader pays them.
Sandstone mining is another major area that people have engaged themselves in to escape the bouts of drought and other difficulties of sustaining agricultural activity in the dry seasons.Sandstone mining is one of the major sources of livelihoods of the people of this area– there are around 7000 mines in and around Jodhpur, out of which 4000 are illegal. Labourers get into mining because of irregularities of agriculture (because of erratic rain) or because the amount of land they hold are not enough to support their families. Many people who have migrated to Jodhpur from surrounding areas also find a refuge and steady earning in mining.
Mine owners recruit the labourers by paying an advance amount known as peshgi which can be as high as Rs 1 lakh. Although the labourer does sign an agreement for the money, it is never done on a notary paper. The owners never explain the terms and conditions of that advance and its payment to the labourer. Result – the labourer is forever stuck in a system of debt with the owner and thus becomes a permanent worker in the mines.
Most of the workers I met in a mine around 20 kms from Jodhpur, would not tell their names, which was a sure sign of the kind of exploitative conditions they worked under. There was no union; they were unwilling to form one because they did not want to antagonise the mill owner.
This love-hate relationship with the mill owner is because of the fact that the labourers rely on him for everything. So if there is a death in the family or if some one is sick or getting married, it is the mine owner who turns moneylenders to the workers in their hour of need. Although the workers know that by doing this the owner envelopes them further into his cycle of debt, they think that there is really no way out.The mill work gives them around 200 to 250 rupees a day and there is the money from the advance. As the rain fed agriculture is failing to sustain them, they do not want to give away an important source of their income. Even the threat of death by Silicosis does not deter them because for most of them it is a choice between present hunger and future doom.
Casual Labourers/National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme
There are designated places in Jodhpur, known as Labour Chowk from where a thekedaar/contractor or a jobber could recruit labour for the many activities in Jodhpur. So there was a dedicated labour chowk for labours to be recruited for housing sector, a separate one for miningand for the various other activities that Jodhpur needs its labourers. People who want to augment their earning from agriculture come here from the nearby villages and work as labourers in the non-rainy months of the year. The wages are good, Rs 300 a day and the work is slotted to be for 8 hours. Although the rate is fixed, the labourer only gets his pay when he completes a certain amount of work. A labourer, Ramesh, told us that there are gradations in the labourers. A karigar or a skilled worker got upto Rs 500 a day as “he needed to use his brain more.”A labourer or the majdoor did more physical work and thus was paid less.
Most labourers choose to work as labourers in the private sector and not in the Government scheme of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MNREGA) because in the former, the hours are fixed; the wages are higher and more importantly, these are regular jobs. The employees are sure to get paid if he’s worked; something not quite a norm in MNREGA.
Most of the labourers come from the nearby villages, hardly 50-60 Kilometres away from Jodhpur to work in the city.Their advantage lies in the fact that they can work the entire day and then return to their villages to come back the next day. This way they could augment their earning without having to move to the city, although a lot of the labourers of those present on labour chowk had migrated to Jodhpur because of better opportunities for employment and for schooling of their children.
Tourism is another staple means of earnings of the people of Rajasthan as the place is full of exotic forts and palaces where people can visit as a retreat to their busy lives. Proximity to Delhi also helps in improving its connectivity to tourists.Tourism businesses range from transport services to ferry down people from one place to another across the city, to entertainment services like performing the traditional arts for tourists. Shops selling traditional Rajasthani artefacts also contribute to the burgeoning tourism industry in the city.
Salim Khan who works in the tourism industry in Jodhpur drives a bus to ferry tourists across the city for a transport company run by Amit Arora ji. The company runs 300 buses and a fleet of small cars. Khan’s ancestors migrated to Jodhpur from Nagore District in Rajasthan some 135 years ago. Most people of his familywent into Government service and other different occupations other than agriculture. Khan went on to the tourism business whenhe came back to India after a stint in the Middle East. He learnt driving in the Middle East and realised that it can be turned to business in Jodhpur. Khan calls it “convenience”, which is the reason he joined this business. From the money he has amassed in more than a decade of driving buses, he has bought houses and rented them to people as an investment.
Why did he not use the money to buy land for agriculture? Khan says, “It is completely unsustainable; prices for agricultural land are more than 10 lakhs per bigha which is 12,400 square metres which is completely cost ineffective.” Of course, the lack of adequate water leaves agriculture as an impossibleoption for him.
Resilience is not a virtue anymore
The much appreciated and lauded virtue of resilience hides in itself levels of exploitation of the people of Rajasthan.Mining workers are exposed to the fine dust that flows when the sandstone is drilled. This dust collects in the labourers’lungs due to exposure over a period of time and results in a disease known as Silicosis which ultimately kills him. Silicosis is difficult to diagnose, especially with the kind of medical equipment present with thehospitals in the area. The patient is mostly treated for Tuberculosis because the symptoms are exactly the same and the patient who presents with Silicosis also tests positive for Tuberculosis.
The Government is in no mood to recognise Silicosis as a disease borne out of the harsh working conditions of the mine workers because in doing so it will have to give lifelong pension to the families of the deceased labourers under The Rajasthan Workmen’s Compensation (Occupational Diseases) Rules, 1965 Act.Most of the labourers who received compensation after they died of apparent Silicosis received a one time payment from the disaster fund of the chief minister used for compensating victims of man made and natural disasters. This apathy of the government is killing Thousands of labourers in the mines; while we celebrate the resilience of the workers to eke out a living for themselves in the harsh conditions it is slowly taking them to their graves.
Most of the NGOs working in the area are doing credible work with the people to make them self reliant. There have been various initiatives that have helped the people such as the community tube-wells, the village development centres, coaching the people how to tend to their cattle (although the reach of that program did not seem to be much) and constructing tankasso that villagers are able to store water.
However, it is difficult to see the path of the villages towards self sustainable development. Most of them would be clueless without the aid of the NGO, and yes, environmental activism and bringing up NGOs has become another livelihood option in the area.
The activists and the NGOs need to structurally change the meaning of resilience of the people of Rajasthan if they really have to make a difference. Rather than helping them to sustain, they need fight for the rights of the people who are entitled to certain benefits from the Government and have every right to get it. In almost 28 years of its inception, the NGO Gravis could file a PIL in the Rajasthan court only four years back demanding that Silicosis be recognised as a disease that is killing the labourers.
More such PILs need to filed, and a demand for the rights of the people needs to be made. People should be able to change their social conditions of development and this can happen only when the leaders and people who work with the villagers take it to become a policy level discussion. Knowledge generated by working with the villagers at the ground level should be reflected in policy making for agriculture and food security. Only when this happens, through sustained legal and civil society struggle, can there be some hope of change in the patterns of livelihoods of people.
We need to drastically improve the meaning of resilience, till then, just consider it as a bad word we can do without.