Metamorphic Landscapes: “First There Were Forests, Then Came the Agricultural Fields and Now the Saltpans”

The old man sat on his khat (bed) eating his humble supper of bhajra (pearl millet) roti (bread) and dal (lentils). The peepal and neem trees swayed to the sounds of the passing wind as the sun slowly crawled out from the rain clouds. The goats lazily stretched on the haystacks in the old man’s courtyard while the women shyly giggled at the sight of strangers in the dhani (hamlet). Slowly the men gathered around us as we settled onto some chairs. As I gazed around at the beautiful courtyard while the men discussed about the salt industry with my colleagues, the conversation drifted to a subject of my interest: environmental changes. The old man washed his hands, turned around and in despair exclaimed: “First there were the forests, then came agricultural fields and now the saltpans”. He was around 90 years old and had seen three landscapes during his lifetime. Yes three landscapes, you got me right. And if you think he has travelled across the globe to see these landscapes then you are sadly mistaken. The landscapes have travelled to meet him in Sant ki Dhani, Village Aau, Ajmer District, Rajasthan. As age was catching up with him, he could barely hear our questions but his memory was remarkable. Through his descriptions I tried to visualize these three landscapes or as I would like to call it, “metamorphic landscapes”.

Picture 1-Sant ki Dhani, Village Aau, Ajmer, Rajasthan surrounded by saltpans. This hand-pump had sweet water about 25 years ago and now only has salty water
Sant ki Dhani, Village Aau, Ajmer, Rajasthan surrounded by saltpans. This hand pump had sweet water about 25 years ago and now only has salty water.

Imagine living in a metamorphic landscape where one gets to first experience the forests, then agricultural fields and now saltpans. To me at first it seemed like an enchanted land. But as the discussion proceeded with younger men, women and children joining the circle, it was clearly evident that certain human and natural processes had led to this landscape change.

Picture 2- Lands surrounding Sant ki Dhani. These lands were agricultural lands some 30 years ago. This particular land is excavated to use the mud to build the saltpan boundaries
Lands surrounding Sant ki Dhani. These lands were agricultural lands some 30 years ago. This particular land is excavated to use the mud to build the saltpan boundaries.

Sant ki Dhani (like many other dhanis and villages in the area) is situated in the center of the saltpans and on the banks of the Sambhar salt lake. The dhani consists of Gujjars (herdsmen) and Kumavats (masons) who settled here 80 years ago. The herdsmen were in search of forests and grasslands for their cattle. This area was the ideal location for these communities as the forests were dense and the grasslands green. As these communities took up are rather settled lifestyle, agriculture started to supplement cattle rearing. As time passed and the land became a source of income for these communities, forests were cleared for agricultural production. Communities lived out off the bounties of nature. But this was short-lived. Somewhere around 30 years ago, there was a drastic and sudden change in the landscape and climate. The lush green agricultural fields started falling apart. The rainfall declined steadily year by year and the Sambhar Lake never ever filled up again. Salt intrusions into all the water bodies and land surrounding these villages fastened at a pace that was uncontrollable. The trees started drying up due to the presence of salt in the soil. This led to the springing up of another occupation – salt production.

Salt production units were set up all over this region by outsiders who assumed this to be nature’s biggest boon to their business. Taking cue from this, many villagers also started salt production in their agricultural fields. However, this salt production was carried out through illegal bore wells. According the locals, there are approximately 500 saltpans producing salt through 1000 bore wells in a 1000-acre area that surrounds this dhani. As the land was being plundered, there was an unspoken impact on communities that lived within these landscapes. Not only loosing their traditional livelihoods of agriculture and cattle rearing, salt production threatened basic survival. Fresh drinking water sources became a thing of the past. Hand pumps (as shown in picture 1) have become salty thus forcing the community to resort to tankers that supply fresh water. Water that was earlier freely available within the dhani is now being purchased at a costly rate from nearby fresh water sources. Both men and women now work as labourers in the saltpans in the harshest conditions to make two ends meet.

As the discussions proceeded, it was learnt that most of the community members sold their land at cheap rates to outsiders who started salt production units. Most of them regret this decision as they now feel that like other villagers, they too could have started their own salt production business and earn some profits that could sustain them for the future. But for them now, the larger looming threat is the rampant depletion of ground water in the region due to excessive extraction and low rainfall for recharge. So the community fears that in the next few years they will loose their jobs as salt laborers as salt production seems to be on a downhill. The obvious question that came to my head was whether these people will migrate. However, for them migration is not an easy option as they are not economically well off to purchase land somewhere else nor do they have the required skills to fit into the urban occupation space. As the landscape continue to change with an increasing salt intrusion and changing rainfall patterns, there is not only a threat of these communities disappearing but a loss of a rich culture and history that has evolved over centuries giving states like Rajasthan its distinctive identity.

Picture 3- Salt pickup truck on the way to Nawa for salt processing
Salt pickup truck on the way to Nawa for salt processing.

Observations and interactions with people in this area over the past five months have challenged my views and ideas on sustainability. I have begun to alter my perceptions of sustainability, especially at the level at which humans have blundered appallingly in order to plunder nature way beyond its carrying capacity. But for me at this moment, a larger personal conflict arises as to whether one prioritizes an income source (here it would be eking out a sustenance from salt production), controlling the expansion of salt production (stoppage of illegal bore wells) or basic survival needs (access to freshwater sources) when designing development projects or policy and governance mechanisms on a larger stage. It is at this stage that I realized how important it is to not look at these cases in isolation but in synchronization with larger regional and global environmental, social, economic and political processes that perpetuate environmental changes.

Picture 4- These were once forests and agricultural lands and now salt lands
These were once forests and agricultural lands and now salt lands.

In the age of the Anthropocene, it is critical to understand local, regional and global processes that lead to such metamorphic landscapes and climatic changes. At the local level, salt production has been uncontrolled without any checks and balances in place. At the regional/national level, faulty policy designs (e.g. the babool tree plantation in the area has destroyed indigenous tree populations and declined the soil’s water retention capacity) and governance mechanisms (unchecked boring wells expansion) has led to environmental destruction from different dimensions. The global responses to climate change have been in a deadlock ever since they were instituted. Though none of the communities were aware of the larger national and global scenarios on climate change and environmental degradation, all of them could point out that a decline in the local forest cover and the babool trees plantation programme by the government had led to this situation.

It is thus evident that in such sensitive environmental spaces, the local, regional and global socio-economic, cultural, political and economic processes make basic survival a hard reality. As I interact with these communities everyday and as the impacts of climate change unfold in front of me, I have become weary of the very concept of adaptation. The pessimism keeps growing larger every day, as we have seen a rather chilling shift in the global governance scenario with a rising number of climate change skeptics and deniers taking control of the political stage while at the national level environmental conservation receives a very low priority. So for now it looks like the salt’s forward march and drastic climatic changes will continue unchecked in the region as the changing global political scenario and the domestic environmental action plans do not offer any respite in terms of strong environmental governance. Rather sad but true, we would be watching local communities struggling to survive the onslaught of environmental changes while scavenging to adapt.

Though my hopes of revival and further action at the global and national level seem to have collapsed, my spirits have been uplifted a bit with local grassroots organizations like Manthan that try to bring in feasible adaptation solutions through watershed development projects. Keep a look out for my next blog where I will trace the impacts of these watersheds and the importance of local grassroots action in terms of environmental conservation in such metamorphic landscapes.

Denise is excited about interacting with diverse people in different environmental, social and cultural settings through her coursework, work experience, volunteering stints, travels and field studies. She believes that AIF and the project will bring in a new set of challenges and learning experiences that will help her appreciate new perspectives and innovative solutions for sustainable development. She wants the fellowship to deepen her learning experiences and enhance her passion and research skills to understand sustainability issues and the inter-relationship between societal and environmental systems. Her greatest achievement is being able to learn and appreciate the everyday lives of people in rural India and she believes that these interactions with people from diverse rural settings will help her during her fellowship journey.

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One thought on “Metamorphic Landscapes: “First There Were Forests, Then Came the Agricultural Fields and Now the Saltpans”

  1. This was a great piece, Denise! Part of the problem with big, expansive environmental degradation is that it is rarely due to one “cause.” You did a great job in this blog showing how government policies, agriculture, and global-scale environmental changes (the ongoing droughts) all created a negative synergy that leads to the mess of today. Often, ordinary people can see these changes (like the nonagenarian in your story!), but don’t always have the ability to articulate what’s going on. This is the stuff of good environmental journalism!

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