February 28, 2020
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A Name For A Thirsty Land

Of Ismael, his village and water that is a desert away

A Name For A Thirsty Land
Ismael has naughtiness written across his face. His eyes have that glint and his smile merely serves to enhance his mischievous appearance. It is purely coincidental that Ismael belongs to a clan of Muslims in the desert who, in sticking to their rules, have always been known as anarchic. Not for them the societal dictates on politics and the petitioning that goes with the way life functions in India. The desert, in that sense, is no different from the rest of the country. In one corner of the Indian desert lives Ismael. Actually, he lives pretty much in the middle of the desert but as far as the Indian part is concerned, he is in a corner. His village is on the edge of Jaisalmer district, touching the border with Pakistan near Nachna. On maps, Nachna appears large but actually it is merely a village, dusty as dusty can be. Albeit made bigger by the arrival of the government to bring water.

Ismael first came to me regarding a matter of great prestige—a battle going on between his clan and the established Muslim leadership of Jaisalmer district. That this leadership comprise the senior officer-bearers of the district Congress committee is not a coincidence, and neither was the fact that Ismael approached me, "rather than rub my nose before them". The clash was over the naming of a soon-to-be-recognised revenue village. While the leaders sitting in Jaisalmer wanted to have it registered under a different name, the locals were adamant that it be called after a well-known person from Ismael's clan. In this, all communities, castes and every labelled grouping possible were united. And it was a matter of such importance that the old man, under whose name the area to be designated a revenue village was already known as, had refused to eat. So much so that he had in fact left his home and was living at his daughter-in-law's. The old man was very upset and took it as an affront to his standing in the area.

The petitions were drafted and signed by every adult. The number of thumbprints was striking, though. The petition, nevertheless, read much like the ‘we the undersigned' letters that newspapers here frequently publish. The tone, however, was one of unanimity and determination. The original was despatched to the district collector and a photocopy entrusted to me. The collector was very kind and heard me out reasonably, promising to send a team to the village and thoroughly verify the claims and counter-claims. Last heard, the matter was pending before the divisional commissioner in Jodhpur and one also hears that things are not going to move in a hurry since the state government isn't particularly very keen to designate new revenue villages. Doing so would entail more development and welfare activity, hence more expenditure, for which Jaipur has no funds.

For the people of the area, the naming of the soon-to-be-designated revenue village is not merely a question of prestige. A revenue village is the first, and surest, step to getting a school. That's a government norm and even the poorest of those in Jaipur can't tamper with that. The thumbprints as in that petition of prestige would then be a thing of the past. During the last reorganisation of revenue villages, two of them in Barmer district went all the way up to the high court, battling over the right to be designated as the gram panchayat headquarters. For, that would then give them a new panchayat bhavan and a gram sewak living among them. At the bottom of the administrative chain (or ladder, depending upon the perspective), the gram sewak is the key to all administrative documentation. In the current system of functioning of the state, certificates are the means to all gateways. And a gram sewak who can be feted regularly is, therefore, critical. He determines, for example, who has been living in the village, and for how long. In a border district, these are not simply matters of citizenship or national security. It is the means to water, and Ismael has the certificates, but the government is yet to authorise him to use the waters of the Rajasthan Canal.

As with colonies in every city, airports, and every other conceivable place of public use, the Rajasthan Canal too is officially known as Indira Gandhi Canal. Ismael is married in Sindh and tells me that the Bhutto family also has a penchant for having things named after them. Rajasthan or Indira, that still doesn't give water to Ismael. He has been in possession of that land for decades and the local officials empathise with him. But rules made in Jaipur, and which keep changing often, determine that he can only be recognised as the registered owner of canal land if he is a special allottee, or if he has purchased it in an auction by the state. Since he is just a simple villager, even if he has mischievous eyes, he doesn't come in either of the categories. From Nachna to Jaisalmer to Bikaner, as the administrative chain of the canal goes, Ismael's case has been referred. But relief is yet to come by—he cannot draw water that flows by his land. This, however, is not the only one of Ismael's woes. Or of those like him.

(The writer stood for elections as the bjp candidate in Barmer, Rajasthan. He now works full-time in the constituency and is writing a column on life and development issues in Barmer.)
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