Friday, July 27, 2012

Adivasi Economy and Water Access (or lack thereof)

Pranam dobara, Jharkhand. (Or in English: Hello again, Jharkhand.)

I'm back in Jharkhand conducting a feasibility study for a solar thermal pump. Why a pump? As the tribes of Jharkhand have traditionally been engaged in hunting and gathering, they are relatively new to agriculture and thus have no irrigation infrastructure. Only 5% of the state of Jharkhand is irrigated; the rest rely completely on rainfall (this monsoon season's lack of rain is having serious consequences, which I will discuss later). Why solar thermal? Because diesel is soon to be deregulated and, without subsidies, it will become too expensive for poor farmers to purchase the fuel to operate their diesel pumps (assuming they even have pumps). As it is, legal diesel is not easily available to these communities. The farmers explained to me that they must buy diesel on the black market, and this diesel is often adulterated and thus the pump often does not work properly. Electricity, which is free or close to free for agricultural purposes in India, is either nonexistent or extremely unreliable in these villages. Meanwhile, the capital cost of solar PV pumps is too high. Solar thermal is much less expensive than solar PV, plus the fuel (sunlight, duh!) is free and available, so this could be a good irrigation solution. For some reason, I'm not sure why, it seems no one has attempted to develop a solar thermal pump, other than an NGO in Ethiopia, but they have faced some mechanical issues and their pump is priced too high for Indian farmers. I am also thinking about possibly including a built-in filter or still so that the water that exits the pump outlet is clean, but maybe this is getting too complicated. (I have not made a final decision about what my project will be; next week I will be doing a feasibility study for another, totally unrelated, project in the salt pans of Gujarat.)

I am spending my time in some of Jharkhand's poorest communities: adivasi (tribal) villages in Gumla district. Most villages I have visited belong to the Oraon tribe, who speak a language called Sadri, and the other villages belong to the Khadia and Lohar tribes, who speak their own language as well as Sadri (since Oraon is the dominant tribe in the area, the other tribes have learned their language). Their Hindi is at times difficult for me to understand because (a) it's a different dialect and accent than the Hindi I have learned (it is similar to Bihari Hindi), (b) when they don't know a word in Hindi (after all, it is their second or third language) they substitute a Sadri word, and (c) they don't use the usual English and Urdu loan words that I've gotten used to in Delhi and Shimla--they use the original Sanskritized word.

I have been interviewing farmers about sinchai (irrigation), and, obviously, this involves a lot of questions about khetibari (agriculture) and more generally about their livelihoods. I also stumbled upon a fantastic book in the NGO's office, Mainstreaming the Margins: Water-centric Livelihood Strategies for Revitalizing Tribal Agriculture in Central India* by Sanjiv J. Phansalkar and Shilp Verma. I don't think a more perfect book could exist for the project I'm currently researching. So, let's talk about the adivasi economy. (Note to Jhanvi: you had asked me for some more context to understand the coal cycle wallahs. Here it is.)

*The use of the term "mainstreaming" here does not mean assimilating the tribal communities into mainstream Indian society. The authors emphasize that there is "no inherent conflict" in preserving tribal identity and culture and an approach to tribal development that involves mainstream water technologies and ties to the mainstream markets. Besides, I tend to believe that cultures are dynamic. What culture has really stayed the same throughout the centuries? While there is certainly value in protecting certain aspects of culture, I would argue that it is more important to live a meaningful life free of poverty--not that being free of poverty necessitates sacrificing traditions. Of course it is preferable to both preserve culture and promote development, when possible. Anyway, the Christian missionaries have already altered tribal culture; a huge percentage of adivasis have converted from their animist religions to Christianity. As a reaction to this, Hindu missionaries swooped in and converted many adivasis as well. Fairly few people still practice their traditional tribal religions. Although I'm usually very anti-missionary, I have to admit that they have done some good: in Northeast India, especially Nagaland, Christianity has brought high literacy rates and an end to intertribal warfare. Ok, tangent-rant done.

Phansalkar and Verma explain that the adivasis participate in three economic spheres: (1) forests, (2) agriculture, and (3) migration. It is a very common misunderstanding among the mainstream Indians that all adivasis depend only on forest activities (forest activities basically means gathering "non-timber forest produce (NTFP)" such as wild fruits, tubers, and mushrooms). Each Central Indian adivasi group is different from each other, and while many (if not all) groups have roots in hunting and gathering, their engagement in NTFP today varies widely. The communities I have been visiting in Gumla have largely abandoned that way of life in favor of a settled agrarian lifestyle.

Well, settled to an extent. Phansalkar and Verma emphasize that tribal agriculture is not modernized and thus cannot sustain a community for an entire year. Tribal agriculture is rain-fed and has no irrigation inputs, so during the non-rainy seasons people must migrate to other parts of India to work as laborers. Some bring their families with them, while others send money back to their families.

After reading a bit about migration in this book, I decided to ask the villagers what they do during the rabi (November/December to February) and garmi (March/April to June) seasons if they don't cultivate their land. As expected, many answered that they migrate. I asked to where, and the answer surprised me: to brick industries in Uttar Pradesh and cement industries in Himachal Pradesh.

Wait, did I hear that right? Cement industries in Himachal Pradesh? They couldn't possibly be referring to Nalagarh, where I had worked with IIRD in 2011, could they? (You may or may not remember my two blog posts discussing Nalagarh's cement industry: the first and the follow-up, in which I briefly discussed the migrant workers I had at the time believed to be Bihari.) I asked them, "do you go to Nalagarh?" and now it was their turn to be shocked. "You know Nalagarh?!" "I worked in Nalagarh on village development planning," I told them. Apparently I had been wrong about the migrants in Nalagarh being Bihari; they were Jharkhandi, and from these villages! Who knew these two very remote, very different areas were tied to each other? And what a coincidence that I had worked in both the area that was demanding the migrants and the area supplying the migrants! India continues to astound me with what a small place it is, despite being a country of over a billion people. (Yes, I'm aware I've written that sentence before, possibly more than once. The smallness of India really never ceases to amaze me.)

Phansalkar and Verma argue that this migration is the biggest obstacle to the development of the tribal belt. What good are health and education initiatives if people aren't around to receive the benefits? They claim that the government and the missionaries (who have historically been the only ones helping the adivasis--that's why there are so many Christian adivasis) are attacking the symptoms, not the root cause, of the communities' poverty problems. To lift the adivasis out of their poor living conditions, they must be given assistance to build a more stable livelihood in their home villages, to build a life without migration. Only then will these health and education programs become effective. The key to ending migration? Irrigation that will allow year-round agricultural productivity. The root cause of tribal poverty, then, is poor access to water, according to the authors.

As I stated earlier, right now the vast majority of tribal communities depend solely on rain for their agricultural livelihood. This means most adivasis only grow one season of crops, the kharif (monsoon) crops. Unfortunately (unfortunately is an understatement), this year has seen drought-like conditions (the Government of India is refusing to declare a drought, but the Jharkhand state government is considering it). This is my sixth consecutive monsoon season in South Asia, and I can say it has certainly been the driest I've experienced. It is unbelievable to ride a motorcycle through these villages and pass acres and acres of land covered in grass and weeds from the previous season--at the end of July! Rainfall has been so low that farmers didn't even bother to turn the soil, let alone sow the seeds. Why waste the money on seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides if there isn't enough water for the crops to grow? I do see a few tilled plots scattered here and there, but I haven't seen much of the beautiful, healthy florescent green rice paddies that I'm used to seeing in the monsoon.

This lack of rain is terrifying for several reasons: the kharif crops provide these communities with food for the rest of the year. If the kharif fails, then they will not have enough food to eat (and they have very little money to buy food from elsewhere)--people will go hungry. Additionally, people will go thirsty. In every village I have visited, people tell me that their wells dry up by the end of summer (which in India is April to June) and that usually the monsoon rains re-fill the wells. This year, however, the wells have remained dry. These wells provide the only source of drinking water for the entire year, and villagers depend on the rains replenishing these wells during the monsoon. Even after a good monsoon their drinking water supply is limited (this is why there is little to no agricultural activity during the rabi and garmi seasons; the wells do not have enough water for both irrigation and domestic purposes, and the communities consider drinking water more important), so a poor monsoon can be catastrophic. I cannot properly articulate how grave these circumstances really are and how scared I am for these communities for the upcoming year.

What does my pump idea have to do with all this? Well, I hope that by increasing access to groundwater (which is actually quite accessible in Jharkhand, where the water table is high at less than 15 meters), I could help reduce the dependence on rain. Of course the groundwater level itself depends on the rain, so utilizing groundwater wouldn't completely eliminate the problem. However, especially if coupled with groundwater recharge methods, pumps to access groundwater could certainly alleviate some of the issues (worst case scenario, just keep digging deeper until you hit water). The NGO facilitating my visit here has developed earthworks methods that have proven quite successful in aiding groundwater recharge; they have actually seen a rise in the water table where these techniques have been implemented. I hope that, if ultimately I do decide to work on a pump, the implementation would include groundwater recharge earthworks.

Not only would an affordable pump reduce rain dependence during the kharif, it would allow for additional crop seasons. A second (rabi) or even third (garmi) crop season utilizing groundwater irrigation would significantly increase a family's income as well as provide them with a stable year-round livelihood. They would no longer have to migrate for work. And, as I explained earlier, Phansalkar and Verma believe the end to migration is integral to raising these communities out of poverty, because staying put allows them to take advantage of social services.


(PS: Sorry there are no photos. The Internet here is waaaay too slow for me to upload any.)

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