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.

People of Bhutan

Thinking of Bhutan brings back memories of a wonderful country with gentle and friendly people. As tourists we probably saw a larger proportion of monks than there actually are in the population. Also, we saw much more of the countryside than the city. Still, I hope the slide show below captures a not-unreasonable cross-section of the people of Bhutan. Click on any of the photos to start the slide show.

Above Myanmar

When you fly over Myanmar you see very clearly how the land is used. The towns have started spreading, but have not yet gobbled up the countryside. Most of the country remains a patchwork of agriculture. From the air you can see that farming remains traditional: all the fields are small. This is something that is easily verified when driving through the country-side. People are out selling produce from their own farms. Large scale mechanization and industrialized farms are not here yet.

Flying above the Irrawady

Myanmar is a small country. Most flights take less than an hour. We did most of our flying in turbo-props which stay close enough to the ground that one gets a feel for the land and the way it is used. We flew over the muddy Irrawaddy river (photo above). Fluffy clouds receded into the distance, throwing a patchwork of shadows on the little fields below. Living in Myanmar seems to be hard, but the people we met are upbeat now. In the centre of the country, around the Irrawaddy heartland, the land seems peaceful.

Lost between Dolkhamb and Kasara

Mumbai is a megapolis reclaimed from the sea, windwards of the Sahyadri mountains. An hour inland, the terrain is usually rocky and inhospitable: cliffs and oddly shaped peaks tower over a seared land. But, during the monsoon the land turns lush green, and waterfalls cascade over every cliff.

It seems that every monsoon weekend a large fraction of Mumbai’s population spreads out over the mountains. This is a special week, with many holidays. In the afternoon of last Friday there were long traffic jams on the highways leading out of the city. The Family decided that Saturday was a good day for a drive. We started out in the morning, took the highway towards Nasik, turned off it at Shahapur, and got lost soon after as cellular connectivity faded. We were near Dolkhamb, and wanted to reach Kasara. We knew there should be a road, but there were no signboards.

Farmer and rice paddy near Kasara

The result was hours of blundering through an incredibly lush and beautiful landscape. This area is normally dry, and the farmers barely eke out a living. In this season the only way to figure that out is the fact that the land is almost empty. Now and then you come across a small cluster of huts, where each family tends a small plot. Even in the middle of such a heavy monsoon, rice grows only in the lowest parts of the terrain. Hillsides are an inch of soil covering volcanic rock: not suitable for farming. Earthen dams husband water for the remainder of the year. In spite of the fluorescent green cover, this is a harsh country.

Chicken shop in the middle of nowhere

There were no signs at crossroads telling us which way to go. We often took the wrong turn and drove for kilometers before meeting someone who told us to back up and take the other fork. At an empty crossroads we found this little shack sporting a battered board which proclaimed that it was Arbaaz’s chicken shop. They were out of stock, but easy with directions. There were no villages in sight, but I guess the road has enough traffic to keep Arbaaz in business.

Soon after, our cell phones began to receive signals, and we came to the highway again. Fifteen kilometers on we reached a roadside restaurant just before their lunch service closed. This had been a wonderful drive, although really slow.