The bucolic life

Up close, you realize that living in the countryside is hard work. Farming, especially of rice, is famously back-breaking labour. Almost three millennia ago, people were already writing long poems about a past golden age when nomadic people herded cattle. Bucolic poetry, pastoral art, a hankering after a simple life in movies and TV shows saturate culture even now.

Little concern has he with quarrels and courts who has not a year’s victuals laid up betimes, even that which the earth bears, Demeter’s grain.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

There are still some nomadic herders in India, but they are considered to be a little outside of civilized life. Generally, farmers look down on them and their lifestyle. It is a reflection of the way that city dwellers, in turn, look down on “simple” farmers, with an added layer of hostility about their “thieving ways”. In the Sahyadri region there are large tracts of land where the top soil is too thin for cultivation. We saw herds of cows grazing on such fields. I began to wonder whether these are used by nomads.

Later, we were caught in the middle of a traffic jam of a mixed flock of goats and cows. I looked out at the livestock, and revised my opinion. This was a very mixed bunch. They were unlikely to belong to nomads. They usually herd particular breeds of cattle. They are unlikely to have the money to buy new breeds. It was more likely that farmers here supplemented their incomes by raising cattle as well.

The herders were all women. The Family got a few good portraits of the women at work. This tied in with something else we’d noticed earlier. The fields that we passed were being ploughed by men. It was possible that the work is split by gender: women to tend cattle, men on the field. This gets interrupted during the time that the paddy has to be transplanted. Then the whole family, children included, get drafted into the work.

And Epimetheus did not think on what Prometheus had said to him, bidding him never take a gift of Olympian Zeus, but to send it back for fear it might prove to be something harmful to men.

Hesiod (Works and Days, circa 700 BCE)

A little further on, an earth mover was standing in a rice field. The farmers here are quite willing to sell their lands to city folks intent on building hotels and resorts for people like us. They’ll take the money and move to cities. In a couple of years the plateau will be filled with city people on a short holiday. About ten thousand years ago agriculture began, and villages formed. It took at least five thousand years for the majority of humanity to convert to a life of settled farming. A couple of thousand years later, a little before the time of Hesiod, the first cities formed. At the end of the twentieth century, for the first time in history, a majority of humanity began living in cities. We are lucky, we live in a moment of unprecedented changes. In our times the cities will begin to retreat from coasts into these highlands.

Desert livelihoods

As we traveled westwards from Jodhpur into the deep desert, we raced past tiny villages. A day later, as we stood in a little oasis in the desert and saw a herd of sheep come in to graze and drink water, I started to wonder about the livelihood of people who live here. The desert covers about 60% of Rajasthan. The population density of about 80 persons per square kilometer is about a fifth of the rest of Rajasthan. Still, the desert holds more than 15 million people. How do they live, what do they do?

Herding is a major traditional livelihood. Apart from sheep we saw goats, cows and donkeys. The photo which you see above was taken near one of the largest oases in the western desert. Ground water is scarce in the desert; we hardly saw any wells. Because of this, traditional herders were nomadic, driving their livestock from one oasis to another. I don’t know whether this lifestyle is still possible today. I suspect that the slightly improved supply of water, from the Indira Gandhi Canal, has contributed to the settling of nomads. Another factor in the settling of nomads is the plentiful electricity from wind generators: you need to have a settled address in order to tap into the electric grid

There was evidence of subsistence farming, as in the photo above. I had to keep my nose and mouth constantly covered against blowing dust, so I suspect that there is little soil here. Farming cannot be a paying proposition. The article on the Thar desert in Wikipedia claims that a third of crops fail. This figure is not referenced, and may be inaccurate. New crops are constantly tried out, and it was clear that pearl millet (bajra) is a success. We had wonderful bajra roti all through our trip. The Family pointed out that the bajra is better than what we get in Mumbai. On the other hand, it is also clear that there is a constant battle to contain the desert.

One possible future for India due to global warming is widespread desertification of the country. This is not inevitable, because good policies and innovation in large-scale rain and ground water management could lead to a different future. The Thar desert is a laboratory for how we could try to manage this kind of disastrous future.

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