India: Villagers starve as water is only a mirage in Rajasthan's 5th year of drought


By Anindita Ramaswamy, dpa

Jodhpur, India (dpa) - A mother of four walks five kilometres every day to collect a pot of water. A young man prays for rain so he can plough his fields, earn some money and get married. Children of a bankrupt farmer are sold as bonded labour to pay off a debt their father never could.

The ongoing drought - now in its fifth consecutive year - in the northwestern Indian desert state of Rajasthan has altered lives irrevocably.

The situation is particularly challenging for women in this largely male-dominated society who have absolutely no say in decision-making but are forced to work, both at home and outside.

Rama Devi starts her day at 4 a.m., cleans her home and cooks a meagre meal of "rotis" or rough unleavened bread that her husband will have with chillies or a little salt. By 6 a.m. she is at a government relief work site, her four children in tow.

For the next six hours she digs ditches and widens roads, often juggling a shovel and a crying baby. Once home, she has to walk over two kilometres to the nearest well to collect water.

While Rajasthan has suffered drought for 44 of the last 50 years, the government is increasingly less prepared to tackle it.

Officials said 41,000 villages, 40 million people and 50 million cattle have been impacted by the drought.

All the major water sources have dried up and little effort is made to trap water during sporadic showers. Water is supplied to remote areas on special trucks and trains.

The government has also connected 5-6 villages through pipelines to a common well that pumps water for a few hours every day. Those at the end of the pipeline receive little, if any at all.

A government-run food-for-work programme attempts to provide employment by rotation to every family. For a nine-day cycle of work, which those who are lucky get once in three months, the government pays 180 rupees (4 U.S. dollars) and 60 kilograms of wheat.

Rama Devi told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa, "There is lots of work but most of us are too weak to complete our targets every day. So, we don't get our full wages, won't have enough to eat and get weaker."

Rajasthan is a land of surprises. Endless miles of parched lands and an overhanging dusty brown haze are suddenly interrupted with splashes of flaming pinks, reds and oranges, the vibrant colours that women of the desert wear. The deadening monotony of the landscape is broken with the flash of white bangles, the glitter of a silver nose ring or the gentle tinkle of an anklet.

The state's highways are dotted with hundreds of women toiling in temperatures over 45 degrees centigrade. Government officials said nearly 80 percent of the workers at the relief sites are women.

"Our men would rather starve than do this work. So they send us. They are proud farmers. They don't think this work is dignified," said Rama Devi.

Women have begun to realise their importance in a state where gender discrimination is common. At a unique conference in January, over 1,000 women from 12 states exchanged experiences of the close relationship between women and water, the importance of conserving water and its impact on women's health and happiness.

As participant Shakuntala Desada said, "The challenge before us is not of water alone. It is one of civilisation and culture. We have to lay the foundation of a new culture of equality, of fraternity and sisterhood. Our society needs a new direction, and this only women can provide."

The drought has also affected scores of unemployed young men who have no water to irrigate their fields and say it is difficult to find women willing to marry them.

For three years, eligible bachelor Girdhari Lal has helped organise weddings in his village, patiently waiting for his turn. "I blame the drought for my misfortune. My fields are dry. I don't have any work or much money. Which girl will marry me?"

Chattura Ram, the head of Meethi Beri village, said, "Even if we find girls for our sons, who has the money to arrange water for a big wedding? Half the men here are bachelors. Other villages know we don't have water. They won't send their daughters here."

Bansi Lal from neighbouring Dheerpura village has been looking for a groom for his 19-year-old daughter. "The man should be working and have water in his village. I can't find anyone who meets these requirements."

His wife said, "I know what it means for a woman to spend her life walking miles looking for water. I don't want this for my daughter. Let her stay unmarried until the drought is over."

Where there is water, villagers say their precious cattle get the first sip. In Baran district over 60 percent of the cows have died due to lack of fodder and water. Those alive are emaciated and starving. One villager said, "They just drop dead. On some days 10 die, on others eight. There is nothing we could do."

The Meteorological Department has predicted that this year's monsoon, scheduled to arrive in June, will be below normal.

Farmer Ranjit Ram said, "I spent everything on seeds. With no rains I have nothing."

Ram, 70, plans to leave his ancestral village of Khanodi and move to Jodhpur city. "This is the only life I know, of farming. In this old age, I have to learn new skills. Maybe death will bring escape."

Some villagers have re-learned old skills and created oases by using traditional, innovative water harvesting methods.

Earlier the drought would force mass migration from Kharkali village in Sawai Madhopur district every summer. Now a non-government organisation has taught the villagers to store water by constructing small tanks around their homes and fields.

One village chief said, "In the old days there was less population and lots of cattle. We lived simple lives and used traditional knowledge to survive. Today people want big concrete houses, television and other luxuries. We have to go back to nature to find a solution to our problems." dpa ar blg

AP-NY-05-21-03 0524EDT


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