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Who Shall Win the War: Salt or Water?

A rather bizarre question I know, but it is equally significant in the complex world of natural resources. Resource antagonism has been an old phenomenon that has determined tribal community boundaries, ancient empires, modern day nation states and international diplomacy. But it could be unusual and even amusing to think of a growing antagonism between two everyday resources- salt and water. For many urban folks that easily find salt on their table and water flowing from the tap, these two elements go unnoticed or rather ignored. So a war between them might seem nonsensical. But in my little habitat where I have been staying for the past 6 months, the words –‘pani’ (water) and ‘namaak’ (salt) are rather too powerful to go unnoticed. I hear it everyday and it is common talk in the village square, the kitchen, the bazaar and at the tapri (tea stall). And I have just realized that these two words have now slowly crept into my daily vocabulary. But what makes these two words the talk of the town.

My previous blog ‘Metamorphic Landscapes: “First there were forests, then came the agricultural fields and now the saltpans’, I tried to highlight the problem of landscapes changes due to multiple factors. One of the major repercussions of landscape changes in this area has been on water resources. Over the past thirty years, water in wells and tube-wells have all become salty. Earlier water could be found at 20 feet, can now be retrieved at only 500 feet. The locals assume that with excessive salt mining and declining rainfall, the levels could drop to 800 feet or more. Ground water recharge has been completely nil due to a constant extraction of underground water for salt production. It is a massive struggle for the villagers to access drinking water for human and cattle consumption. All the villages surrounding the salt lake depend on tanker water costing each family around Rs. 450-500/ per month. In most areas, agriculture has been reduced to only the monsoon crop (and only if the rains are good). These changes have severely affected income sources forcing men to migrate in search of labor work and women to work as laborers in the harsh salt production sites. The water situation in the area is so grave that colleagues at Manthan tell me that if a person falls ill the general trend is to ask a neighbor for juice or milk but in the Sambhar Salt Lake area if one falls ill you would go to neighbor’s house to fetch fresh water.

The water crisis has been the biggest reality challenge for Manthan as a need based organization in the area. Initially storage tanks were built in critical villages but later Manthan realised that in order to arrest the growing salt intrusion due to declining rainfall, water needs to be captured in watershed areas to increase the groundwater recharge. In the mid-2000s Manthan carried out a water budgeting survey in the area and with the help of the villagers came up with possible areas of potential watershed structures. But funding was hard to come by. Eventually in 2010 through Forrad (1), Coca Cola Foundation decided to fund 24 watershed structures in Manthan’s catchment area.

It was only two months ago when I began to understand the war between ‘salt and water’ in a small village called Gudda. Nestled at the base of the Aravalli ranges, this serene and quaint village will surely give you a different vibe once you set foot in it. Now Gudda actually means a ‘mystery’ and indeed this village is a mystery to me. The village is around 600 years old and every time I ask the villagers from where the village got its name, I get to hear interesting tales making it even more mysterious to understand its history. The origins range from a love story between the Rajput ruler and a Baniya girl; a generous sage called Giga baba and an old man who was in debt and sold the land. I promise that if you ever decided to visit this village it will not fail to amuse you with its easygoing attitude and fascinating stories of the Rajput landlords. With the formation of the state of Rajasthan in 1956, the village got separated into two parts- Gudda (Nagaur District) and Gudda (Ajmer District).

Picture 1: - The village of Gudda

Picture 1: – The village of Gudda

Manthan has extensively worked with Gudda Ajmer, which is a Gujjar settlement. The Gujjars are traditional pastoralists communities that have settled in lands where forests and grazing lands have been in plenty. The story goes that one Gujjar man settled in Gudda Ajmer some 300 years ago and the currently 200 strong household village is the offspring of this one man. Cattle rearing is still an important part of the Gujjar lifestyle and this village has around 5000 cattle. The villagers jokingly tell me that one house even owns 1000 sheep and goat and call it the ‘cattle bank’ of the village. Agriculture was also practiced to supplement cattle rearing.

But after 30 years when the rainfall declined, this village faced some drastic impacts. Most of the families became transhumance (2) cattle keepers as the forests and grazing lands disappeared. The younger generation started migrating in order to work in the labour industry. All the hand-pumps gradually dried up and water, which was earlier found at 70 feet in the wells, could only be found at 300 feet. Agricultural production declined and a winter crop was not possible as the wells were completely dry.

Manthan worked with this community through its night school, solar lantern project and women’s Self Help Group. But it soon realized that the main need was water. Though the Coca Cola Foundation funding came in 2010 the project in this village couldn’t start till 2013 as the proposed structure was in forestland. The battle with the forest department was not an easy one. The community strongly protested the interference by the forest department and appealed to the local political representatives and higher-up bureaucratic authorities. Eventually the forest department relented and the structure was built. Though facilitated by Manthan, the construction and management of the structure was largely spearheaded by the community building in a sense of ownership for the structure. The participatory model of watershed development did bring in some good results.

Picture 2: - Gudda watershed structure-Monsoon 2014 Photo Credit: - Sanjay Mali

Picture 2: – Gudda watershed structure-Monsoon 2014
Photo Credit: – Sanjay Mali

Though the long-term impacts of the structure are distant, the immediate results are that all the hand pumps have been revived as the aquifers have been recharged to some extent. People have started growing a winter crop after almost 18 years as they have been able to dig 11 new bore wells in their fields. Migration has also reduced post the coming in of the winter crop. The construction work also gave the villagers a short-term source of income.

Picture 3: - Vegetables growing in the winter season. January 2017

Picture 3: – Vegetables growing in the winter season. January 2017

When discussing with the villagers the stories of the watershed, one man daringly narrated the hidden political and economic nexus of water conservation and salt production in the area. It was shocking to hear that local political elements have prevented local water conservation efforts under different government schemes or private initiatives in order to allow fresh water to flow towards the salt production sites. This is when I realized that there is a growing war between two elements-salt and water.

Picture 4: - Villagers explaining the impact of the watershed construction

Picture 4: – Villagers explaining the impact of the watershed construction

The man’s next statement made me ponder on this war even more deeply, “the politicians and salt manufacturers will become richer by diverting the water but what will the poor villagers eat and drink; where will they migrate without money in their pockets. In order to save our villages, families and cattle we will fight the roadblocks to ensure that water comes back to our village.” This battle in Gudda has been largely won due to people’s power to understand and appreciate the value and importance of water in their lives. Even though Manthan initiated the project, it was the people’s determination, resistance and resilience to march against the forest department and local political forces that prevent such structures from coming up.

Picture 5: - The wheat crop grown with the help of sprinklers. January 2017

Picture 5: – The wheat crop grown with the help of sprinklers. January 2017

Water might have won the battle of Gudda but the war is yet to be won as we have political and economic forces that team up together to fight the simple weapons of the farming and cattle rearing class. As climatic changes increase, it looks like the war is going to be a long one. It will only depend on constructive initiatives of Manthan and the power of people’s resistance to reduce the duration of the war and sustain life for a little longer in the area.

So until next time where I will be narrating the powerful stories of women who have been important warriors in water conservation efforts, do remember to spare a thought when you sprinkle salt in your food and gulp down a glass of water for there are communities, cultures and heritages that face the threat of slow extinction because of an escalating conflict between two everyday resources-SALT and WATER.

Thanks to Gunjan Gupta, student from MA-Sustainable Development Practice, TERI University, New Delhi for patiently and keenly visiting these watershed sites with me and helping with the impact assessments.

(1) A Delhi based non-governmental organization
(2) Transhumance is a form of pastoralism where shepherds move with their flock to areas that have grazing land during fixed seasons when green lands in their home village becomes dry.

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