The Thar Desert—one of the world’s most distinctive deserts renowned for its stunning vistas and extensive cultural history—is also home to indigenous people and immigrants who are fighting for their survival, especially in the Barmer and Jaisalmer regions in the Indo-Pak border area.
The population of the area is diverse—consisting of Rajputs, Jats, Bishnois, Meghwals and other groups, each with their own customs and cultural practices.
The socio-economic situation of the people in this area is tough, to say the least. Water scarcity and drought are widespread and recurring problems that affect livestock and crop output. There is seasonal migration and many of the local people work in agriculture, construction and other industries. The opportunities for children are limited since it’s a struggle to provide access to education in remote areas. In some regions, there aren’t many healthcare centres, so getting medical care can be very challenging.
After speaking with the residents of several villages in Sheo, an assembly in Barmer district of western Rajasthan close to the Indo-Pak border, we found that connectivity, healthcare, power, education and agriculture needed urgent attention. As compared to other parts of the country, where people have access to 5G network connectivity, these areas and its residents are still decades behind. People in these locations don’t have even simple network connectivity. They are so powerless that when they have any kind of health problem, they simply prefer to die because there aren’t adequate medical facilities or even basic medical services. Rajasthan has several schemes and services, but on the ground, the western part of the state is totally ignored. And due to this neglect, the residents are suffering. Children are still hoping for a source of formal education.
Western Rajasthan has a thriving cultural heritage that includes indigenous music, dance and painting. Diwali and Holi are two festivals that are enthusiastically celebrated. Indigenous customs and ceremonies, such as the Bishnoi community’s conservation efforts, add to the area’s rich cultural heritage. For the promotion of their art and tradition, many people and for the protection of their customs, many people have moved from city to city and village to village. Here, women are typically in-charge of taking care of the home and raising the children.
However, the number of women engaged in efforts for community improvement and money generation is rising. Living in western Rajasthan, particularly close to the border, is characterised by a blend of socio-economic difficulties and cultural diversity.
In 1947, the news of India’s Independence was communicated to them by a painting of one land in two colours and giving it the shape of two countries. In the same year, new rules and regulations were imposed. Hundreds of villages in the Barmer-Jaisalmer region are under the control of the Desert National Park (DNP). There are lakhs of people living in 73 villages that are part of the DNP. The establishment of a national park, like the DNP in western Rajasthan, has both favourable and unfavourable impacts on the local populace. The unique habitat and species in the park must be preserved, yet there are significant difficulties and issues that its native citizens in the nearby towns and villages are facing.
Ratan Singh (40) from one of the DNP areas says: “Our life was already very painful. But after the DNP, it has become very miserable. No development can take place; we are in the middle of the desert and we have to walk for 10-12 km just for our basic needs, due to poor connectivity.”
The livelihoods of people who depend on activities, such as grazing, agriculture and the gathering of non-timber forest produce for their survival have been impacted by the restrictions. Many local people follow ancient customs that are forbidden within the park’s boundaries. When national parks or other protected areas are created or expanded, it sometimes results in conflicts over land rights and even the eviction of residents. For other individuals, this may mean losing their ancestral land and their homes.
Water is a scarce resource. Intensified competition for water resources may be due to the establishment of the national park, thereby worsening the water scarcity problems for both animals and communities. For the local people, access to forest resources such as firewood and animal feed can get limited. This may have an impact on their everyday lives and force them to look for alternative supplies.
Girdhar Singh Ranawat (32) from Khabdala, a village in Sheo, says, “Our village is totally ignored by the government. I was born in Thar, and till today the situation is the same. Nobody has come to our village to ask how we are surviving. We are on our own.”
The people are tired, and they want to be a part of the mainstream of the country. In the villages falling in the ambit of the 1,400 sq km DNP of Barmer district, there has been administrative indifference for many years, and government schemes have hardly made a difference.
Even the Indira Gandhi Canal, the dream of growing crops with the waters of the Himalaya, does not enter their areas. The government buildings that have been constructed seem to be just waiting for their new occupants. The strict rules of the DNP have become a hindrance for all development work. Due to the strict rules regarding wildlife, no projects are getting approved. Due to the India-Pakistan border, even the towers of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited are not installed.
According to the people who are suffering the repercussions of the DNP, the issue is raised in every election. But after the election, the issue fades. As soon as you enter the DNP, the bad condition of roads greets you.
Residents believe that their lives have been divided—in the surrounding villages, work related to government schemes is done, whereas in the areas surrounding the DNP, there is nothing, except false promises.
Everything becomes incomplete as soon as we enter the DNP of Barmer. The road itself is poorly constructed, and the mobile towers also disappear as soon as we enter the area.
It is critical that the national park’s administrators, the local people and key stakeholders collaborate on sustainable conservation and development to address the issues that concern the local people. This could include compensation, neighbourhood-based conservation programmes and efforts that support new livelihoods for the affected populations. It will take careful planning and collaboration with all stakeholders to strike a balance between conservation and the welfare of the local people.
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'Deserted')
Ashutosh Verma, Vikram Raj are independent journalists