Farmers in Rajasthan: from subsistence to economy
In 2014, Excellent Development spoke with Mahavir Singh, a farmer with land close to one of the first sand dams we supported in Rajasthan, India. He explained excitedly about the changes he’d seen in the first year and a half of the dam’s life. Excellent's chairman, David Jordan, and Programmes Officer, Emma Seal, returned in 2016 to see how he was progressing and meet the community.
Rajasthan is located in the northwest of India and covers an expanse four times the size of Scotland. This immense land is comprised largely of harsh desert landscape, punctuated only by clusters of severe, jagged mountains. The Thumbo ka Goliya dam sits deep in the countryside, several hours’ drive from Jodhpur. After juddering along many a rutted, dusty track, suddenly the sandy riverbed widens out and there it sits, an inconspicuous concrete wall which is quietly changing lives.
Once we’ve satisfied the need to clamber up and down the dam, peering at plants growing around the edge of the river and taking endless pictures, we are ushered up the road to Mahavir’s land. The track leads straight through his field which is planted uniformly with small green bushes. At the far end we come to a set of mud and wood huts. A group has gathered, settled on a striped rug awaiting our arrival. Young boys sit on their mothers’ laps, their sisters shyly staring through colourful veils. The women sit elegantly, their red saris contrasting them starkly against the dusty earth. The men sit cross-legged at the front, chattering away under bulging turbans. As is traditional for visitors, we are presented with pungent, vividly coloured garlands of orange and scarlet and seated on a low bench.
Mr Singh begins, “Before the dam was constructed we had a very low level of water in our well. Even the cattle did not like to drink it.” He gestures to the large, concrete cylinder dug into the ground next to his house. “Two years after... we found this well went up and also got a good quality of water. I am supplying water to the government reservoirs from my own well. I am giving it for free, without cost.” He is so matter of fact about his generosity, no grandiose sentiment behind his words. To the communities here, water is to be shared, not a source of profit. “Our well water is better now than bottled water. There are nine wells owned by the government which supply more than 3,000 people.”
When Mahavir spoke to Excellent Development in 2014, he was growing chillies on his farm and making large profits in comparison to those achieved from his previous, more common crops. When asked how this is going, he responds, “In this particular region people couldn’t grow chillies before because of the water quality.” Glancing back at the flourishing seedlings it is clear they are not chillies. He responds the look. “Also Thai berries, this is new. Nobody grew Thai berries before. Now we can grow vegetables also. In this region, this is the first plantation of Thai berries.” Through multi-cropping and intercropping, Mr Singh manages to grow a huge variety of crops on his land, harvesting each at a different time to provide a regular income for the family. “We can also farm pumpkins and watermelon. These we can grow on the surface under berries. We couldn’t grow these before the dam.”
The economic benefits to growing these more select crops are huge. “For 1 hectare we can get 250,000 rupees. In comparison, for millet we can only get 10-15,000 rupees per hectare.” This 17 fold increase has changed the family’s life. “We have a good earning and good money. We are able to get a good lifestyle. Before, the women have to collect the water in pots on their heads and bring it from far away. Now the people have access to water nearby.” The nearest water source used to be a 4 kilometres' trudge away. It is currently the coolest time of year in Rajasthan but as we sit in the shade I am sweating. I try to imagine walking the 8 kilometre round journey with a weighty, unstable, water-filled pot on my head in 53 degree summer heat. I can’t.
Mahavir is a pioneer in this region, the farmer to whom others turn to for evidence of success. “I demonstrate such things. Others are growing chillies now.” He has transformed his farming from subsistence level, survival agriculture, into a profit-producing enterprise. Without water, he could not have achieved this incredible feat.
Before we leave, his young children bring us glasses brimming with clear, shimmering liquid from their well. It tastes clean and fresh, a welcome drink ahead of our next trek up a sandy river bed. This family’s success has grown year on year since the sand dam was constructed. It is clear that the need for water in Rajasthan is immense, but equally apparent is that the impact of a simple concrete wall can help thousands to transform their lives here.
We can also farm pumpkins and watermelon. These we can grow on the surface under berries. We couldn’t grow these before the dam.
Mahavir Singh, farmer in Rajasthan, India.