In a drought, only the wise survive

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Desperate farmers are fleeing the arid lands of Western Rajasthan in their thousands as the worst drought in a century bites home. They leave behind dead and dying cattle, the only wealth they possessed.

Desperate farmers are fleeing the arid lands of Western Rajasthan in their thousands as the worst drought in a century bites home. They leave behind dead and dying cattle, the only wealth they possessed.

In hundreds of Rajasthan's villages, people hope against hope that state aid - drinking water, animal fodder and famine work schemes - will turn up in time for them to squeak through to the monsoon, if the rain obliges by turning up.

But in the midst of this suffering and fear, one community has demonstrated how it is possible to out-think even a drought as bad as this one without throwing yourself on the mercy of the state.

I am sitting in the hut of a Bishnoi, some two hours out of Jodhpur in Thar Desert. The Bishnoi are a community of desert people known as India's original ecologists.

The principles of their community, enunciated by their guru, Jambeshwar, in the 15th century, involve reverence for all living things, including trees (which they are not allowed to cut while they are alive), birds and animals.

The circular mud hut has a conical roof made from the dark brown stems of millet, or bajra, the staple grain of the desert which can even grow in sand. Sparrows, bulbuls and other small birds fly in and out, unafraid.

Outside, the mid-day temperature is about 43C in the shade. But in here the mud walls, pierced by ventilation holes, and the thick roof make the hut surprisingly cool.

We sit on string beds woven by Bhikaram Sahu Bishnoi, the tall, bony patriarch of the place, who has a shaven head and a wide tapering moustache.

Although close to the city, this dhani or out-station of the Bishnoi has no modern facilities of any description - no electricity, telephone or water supply. The only road is of sand and gravel, and Bhikaram's only convenience is a cart pulled by one of his camels.

Yet Bhikaram has no plans to flee. Life is simple and frugal, but it always has been. Water is running short but he is confident they will survive. In the absence of any provision by the state, Bhikaram has built a rainwater collection tank next to his hut.

Monsoon rain falling in the 400sq ft circular catchment area is funnelled into a big underground tank. This is used only for drinking, and is fresh and sweet. Bhikaram and his family never waste a drop.

For washing and watering the cows and camels, Bhikaram straps canvas water carriers either side of his camel's hump and treks six kilometres to an ancient well. The well has been poorly maintained by the authorities and the water has become salty but it suffices for washing.

The simple and dignified strategems of the Bishnoi expose the pitfalls of state dependency into which other poor inhabitants of India's arid zones have been enticed.

This part of Rajasthan has always been dry, and droughts are common. Like the Bishnoi, all communities in the region evolved strategies for surviving them. Then a few years back the state waved its wand and water worries appeared to have been banished for good.

As recently as five years back Jodhpur, Rajasthan's second biggest city, faced such a severe drought that there was talk of evacuating the city. Then the Rajasthan Canal was completed and for the time being the city has plenty of water.

In the surrounding countryside, the authorities have built big concrete cylindrical water tanks in every village, hooked up to pipelines supplied from the city. Elsewhere they constructed high water towers. Where nature proved so fickle, the state had promised to provide.

But this year's crushing drought has proved that the state is just as fallible when God turns off the taps. The big water tanks are still hooked up to the pipeline but today the supply is highly unreliable.

In the village of Jajiwal Gehlot, only 24 kilometres from Jodhpur, water is the only topic of conversation through the long summer heat.

"No water comes to the tank at all for four or five days," says a man in a turban. "When it does come it's only a trickle, for half an hour. How is that going to supply a village of 4,000 people?"

The answer is to open up the wells in the dried-up ponds, wells dug centuries ago, and tap what water emerges. But the ponds have been badly looked after in the age of state dependency. Much of the water is unusable - some of it a lurid shade of green. Other wells are only good for the animals.

So the villagers are thrown back even more completely on the state's mercies, labouring in the hot sun for 40 rupees (60p) per day to buy drinking water from profiteers, and waiting patiently for the state's grain and fodder trucks to turn up to keep them and their livestock in food.

Bhikaram's millet crop failed last year, like that of all the farmers in the region, but the crusty black millet chapatti he produces for our lunch - it has the consistency and rich flavour of pumpernickel - is not a mirage.

The wisdom of the elders prevails. The Bishnoi do not sell their grain but store enough of it to last them three or four years in huge pots, kept cool by more of the black millet stems they use for roofing.

We dunk the chapattis in curds and flavour them with homemade onion and chilli pickle. With the bulbuls popping in and out, it's possible to think of this not as a disaster zone but a desert idyll.

Of course, that's not the whole story. Like all the other farmers in the region, Bhikaram has run out of animal fodder. He is also down to the last foot of drinking water in his tank. If the monsoon were to fail again, he too would be in serious difficulties.

And Bhikaram has only one solid gold reason for being confident that he can stay put here - his son works in a Jodhpur factory.