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Where, one, people sneer at you if you ask them if they feel any pride for having made the first sacrifices for India's nuclear programme, and two, they are reeling from a two-year-long drought...

Cheluram had spent all his 30 years in Eta when the people from the government came and told him they would have to go. "The military wants it," they said. "We'll give you land elsewhere." Cheluram and the rest of the villagers didn't want to leave the land they had lived and grazed their cattle on for as long as anyone could remember, but they didn't really have a choice. One day, soldiers came in trucks and surrounded the area. The same trucks were used to transport the villagers 100 km away, between the villages of Little Chinnu and Big Chinnu, about 40 km from the Pakistan border. They were paid compensation for the land the government had taken over from them, and the new area where they started building their huts again, from mud and stone, was christened New Eta. Months later, the villagers heard that a nuclear bomb had been tested where they had been living for a thousand years. Eta had been vapourised.

Fourteen years later, in 1988, the men from the government came to New Eta. The refugees of India's first nuclear blast were being offered new land again, next to a new distributory of the Rajasthan Canal Project which had now reached Jaisalmer district. They could buy that land at a nominal price, 25 bighas per registered voter; for the scheduled castes, it would be free. Most of them moved. To 3mdm (the third village on the Minor Distributory, Madasar; Madasar being the closest large village), another pioneer settlement sired by the Rajasthan Canal Project, or, as it was called by now, the India Gandhi Nahar Pariyojna (ignp).

We tear down the highway, shrubland stretching away on both sides, marshland glistening like a mirage far to the right, away from the golden city of Jaisalmer, past Mohangarh, past Nachna, in search of 3mdm, deep in the Thar desert. The scenery grows harsher, green turning to ochre to yellow interspersed with thorny scrubs like a population of immobile hedgehogs. Sand becomes dunes, dunes spill over onto the asphalt. The only signs of life for miles are giant monitor lizards crossing the road, wild pigeons fluttering up to miss the onrushing car by inches, and bugs smashing into the windshield. But the landscape changes dramatically close to any of the ignp waterways, indistinguishable sometimes from the Gangetic Plain.

The Rs 7,139-crore ignp has, till date, built 9,700 km of canals, 2,237 km of roads, afforested 248,000 hectares, with an irrigation potential of 1.5 million hectares. It is one of the most amazing achievements of independent India. Through the desert run rivers today, and they have transformed lives, livelihoods, societies. There are flourishing farmlands where not a blade of grass grew since the beginning of time. "Everything has changed in this area in the last 20 years," says Bhamwarooram Bishnoi, panchayat pradhan of Madasar village. "The whole region was arid and desolate. Dacoits and smugglers abounded. But as the canals changed the landscape, they couldn't use the terrain any more to hide. Crime dropped, farmers moved in. Villages died as the people moved to the new settlements around the canals. New villages appeared." There are now 40 "deemed villages" around the canals in Jaisalmer district.

But the local people have always been cattle grazers, not farmers. So, though the new ignp-nourished land was allotted to locals, many sold out to enterprising outsiders from Punjab and Haryana. Also, the village-establishing process often became a chicken-and-egg one. Allottees take charge of their agricultural plots, and often prefer to stay there rather than move into the area earmarked by the government for the village, usually a couple of km away from the fields. And until enough people build houses in the village area, the government does not bring in electricity, a primary school, a health centre. And till these appear, the allottees tend to stay put in their fields. In the long term, the problem solves itself, but the long term can stretch to even 15 years, which leaves the settlers bristling with indignant complaints.

Like in 3mdm, where, one, people sneer at you if you ask them if they feel any pride for having made the first sacrifices for India's nuclear programme, and two, they are reeling from a two-year-long drought. The waterways running into their fields are dry and choked with sand. Shrubs grow at the bottoms of the large tanks built to store water. "Don't ask me how much I earned last year and this year," says Sanguram Meghwal. "I'm ashamed to give the figure." In Ghaffoor Khan Mirasi's plot, the guar plants are germinating, little green buds poking up through the soil. "But it has to rain in the next 15-20 days," says Ghaffoor. "After that, it will be of no use."

Shyam Singh, a Rajput, is the most cynical of the lot. "The government has done nothing for us," he rants. "They started building the community hall for us, and left it half-finished, without a roof, and went away. That was five years ago. It's been standing like this since then, like a haunted house." "We were far better off in Eta," grumbles Cheluram. "All of us had 150-200 bighas of land, now we have just 25." But that was arid cattle-grazing shrubland. "So what? That was our land." "Who says they had 150-200 bighas?" scoffs a local government official. "Refugees always have tall tales about their past wealth." There's no way to verify either claim. The area around Eta today is fenced off with barbed wire for miles around, with soldiers in watchtowers keeping an eye out for intruders.

"We live at the very corner of India and we are the country's forgotten people," says Goduram, who runs a tiny flour mill inside his mud house. "No one gives a damn for us." "These people are idlers and cribbers," snorts Ladooram Bishnoi, teacher at the Madasar Upper Primary School, "They were doing very well till last year. The tanks are dry because they never filled them because there was enough water in the waterways.Especially those Mirasis: the moment they get some money, they blow it on some car and something and then they come snivelling to the Bishnois."

These Bishnois are very strange people," proclaims our driver, from the Charan caste. "Half-Hindu, half-Muslim, with peculiar rituals. They even bury their dead." "Look at Ladooram here," says Bhamwarooram Bishnoi. "He made Rs 1-1.5 lakh last year from his farmland, in addition to Rs 1,200 a month teacher's salary, which is being hiked to Rs 1,800. What are these people complaining about?" "Working hard is no problem for us," says Sanguram".National security comes I can walk 30 km in the hot sun every day. But soon we'll default on the Rs 5,000 a year that we're supposed to pay for this arid land, and then the government will throw us out of here too, to starve to death. Those who got land in Rajwada are flourishing." "What are they talking about arid land?" says Ladooram. "They were given a choice between Rajwada and here. They themselves chose 3mdm." Who's right? Who's wrong? Who's speaking from the heart, who from the head? High on a sand dune that towers over 3mdm, two nomadic Bhil families have built tents out of stray plastic, to work on some fields that 3mdm-ers have hired out to them on a commission basis.

"The land is good," says Ghaffoor Khan Mirasi, standing by his guar field. "All it needs is water and it'll grow anything: wheat, guar, groundnut, cotton, chana. If only the rains came." But the sky is cloudless. Bright white light bathes us, bounces off the lands, the sand dunes, the white clothes of the nuclear refugees.
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