The situation of the Thar Desert has become critical for many rural farmers as they struggle with poverty and malnourishment. Overall, India is home to approximately half of those living with hunger worldwide. The arid climate and unpredictable droughts make food security a serious challenge for subsistence farmers.
In spite of water shortages, over 82% of the population living in the Thar claim agriculture as their primary occupation. Crops generally include bajra (pearl millet), moong (green gram), moth (moth bean), guar (cluster bean) and til (sesame).
The most detrimental factor to their livelihoods is failed crop cycles due to drought, disease, or any other number of circumstances. Crop failure leaves farmers without food to feed themselves or sell in the market. It also greatly reduces the availability of fodder for their livestock, thus extending the negative impact. The introduction of commercial seeds, unsustainable irrigation techniques, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides have only worsened the situation as these practices reduce soil fertility.
Low yields also result in an increase of farmers forced to migrate bringing undue stress on the women and children of the family who are left at home to fend for themselves. In other cases, family members are forced to seek out wage labourer in the health hazardous stone mines where the working conditions greatly increase the risk of occupational lung diseases such as silicosis and tuberculosis.
While the situation may look bleak, GRAVIS has a number of strategies to help combat food insecurity and malnourishment.
Khadins- A khadin is essentially method of collecting water by building an earthen embankment at the end of an upland plot of land to prevent water run-off. This method was developed by Paliwal Brahmins in Jaisalmer hundreds of years ago, but still serves as an effective and sustainable method for improving soil moisture. GRAVIS promotes the use of this traditional technology and has aided the in the construction of 4,854 khadins to date.
Horticulture Units- As malnutrition threatens the health of many in the Thar, adding vital nutrients and minerals to farmer’s diets is a major concern for GRAVIS. Our main involvement on this front has been building horticulture units where families can grow fruits and vegetables which they would not otherwise have access to. The availability of green vegetables is particularly important as anaemia is a major ailment among women and children in the Thar. So far, GRAVIS has given 3,534 horticulture units and will continue to promote this practice.
Seed Banks- As the foundation for growth, seeds are an important part of agriculture and their improvement can be a springboard for a successful crop. GRAVIS’ involvement with this issue is twofold. First, research is done to identify the most productive seeds based on water consumption and yield. This process does not involve genetic modification or hybridization. Then, once the healthiest seeds are harvested, they are stored in earthen pitchers in a mix of ash and neem leaves for preservation. The seeds are then distributed among farmers to be sown. GRAVIS’ other focus is establishing seed banks within villages so farmers can store their own seeds nearby. This allows farmers to save time and money as they will not need to travel to the market to buy commercial seeds. Additionally, seeds from plants grown on their own land are often more productive than commercial seeds as they have already been proven to grow in the farmer’s particular climate and soil. To date, GRAVIS has set up 453 seed banks.
Orans- An Oran is a community pastureland which have traditionally been private lands donated to a deity for the benefit of the public. While the practice is fading, its usefulness is still apparent as the growth of trees and shrubs helps to avoid soil erosion, adds nutrients to the soil, and provides fodder for livestock. While the Thar continues to be degraded by overgrazing and unsustainable farming methods, orans are a useful tool in regenerating the environment. GRAVIS has set up 61 orans to date.
Agroforestry- A number of trees grow natively in the Thar including khejri, babul, bordi, goonda (a citrus fruit), anwala (another citrus fruit), anaar (pomegranate), nimbu (lemon) and ber (desert plum). Unfortunately, with pressure to produce higher crop yields of grains, these trees are becoming less and less common. GRAVIS has been helping families to develop orchards of these trees on their land as they bring protection from soil erosion, added nutrients to the soil, firewood, fodder, and edible fruits.
While agriculture is the primary occupation in the Thar Desert, animal husbandry is the secondary occupation for over half the families. Livestock provide stability in the face of crop failure and drought and villagers are able to provide wool, milk, and other dairy products for personal consumption or to sell in the market. Unfortunately, animal rearing is not without its challenges in the arid and unpredictable Thar.
In drought years, cattle owners face many problems due to the lack of water and fodder and are sometimes forced to migrate to acquire the necessary resources. GRAVIS has a deep concern for the wellbeing of livestock in the Thar Desert and has a number of programs to support the care of these animals.
Veterinary Care- Veterinary care is often hard to come by in the rural villages. With the various diseases and ailments that affect cattle and livestock, it is important to have a facility where they can be receive treatment from trained staff. To promote healthy livestock, GRAVIS has developed a system to train villagers to become “paravets”. These volunteers are trained at the GRAVIS Kalron Field Centre and are able to identify and treat a number of cattle diseases. With the help of the Government of Rajasthan Veterinary Department, many paravets have been trained and have been given the basic equipment to carry out veterinary care.
Distribution of Milch Cows- As the elderly have been identified as a marginalized group GRAVIS has a special animal husbandry program to meet their needs. GRAVIS field staff and the local VOPA work to identify elderly individuals who would benefit from owning a milch cow. Beneficiaries are generally those in the community who lack social and economic support and can use the milch cows as a means to provide nutrition through milking. GRAVIS donates the cow and local insurance companies insure the cows against disease and accidents.
Fodder and Cattle Feed- Due to persistent drought, the availability of fodder is a major problem in the Thar Desert. GRAVIS organizes fodder banks which allow villagers to safely store fodder for the upcoming years in case of drought. We also provide emergency fodder to farmers who are facing drought and who have no back up stores. Additionally, in our Food-for-Work programme, labourers can receive fodder and other resources in exchange for their work.