Three hours beyond the renowned Jim Corbett National Tiger Reserve, in between the Himalayan foothills lies a small, obscure village called Tarari. The village has a population of about three hundred in roughly seventy households. The primary occupation on official records is farming but that would be a contentious description as the land is hardly used for agriculture or cattle as lack of water and rising temperatures are not allowing them to continue their existing ways of life.
This has led most families or at least the men, especially the young ones to move to urban sprawls in search of livelihood over the last decade. The nearest freshwater source is about half a kilometre away. Hardly enough to suffice the household needs, let alone for farming or cattle. So the community has almost gotten rid of cattle, about thirty remain in the community and they live with their families. The ground floor belongs to the cattle and their feed, the first floor to the remaining semblance of a family. In their farmlands, it’s just chilli plantation as it needs no tending and almost no water. The community hopes the monsoons will be able to support their farms. It’s a minimal input minimal output situation. As the village population has decreased, the primary school lies dormant and the next nearest school or dispensary is down the hill in the next village.
All this has led the women to be, what we would call in the urban areas, inhumanly overworked. Their day begins at six when they go into the forest to find fodder for their cattle, return back home, cook and reach farms where they are employed in the surrounding areas which helps them earn money for groceries. They work there from eight in the morning up till six in the evening, after which they proceed into the forest to find wood to burn for cooking and heat. Return back home at around 7:30 PM, cook for the family. Just in time to get some sleep to be up at six the next day.
My experience growing up in Rajasthan whilst engaging with the Rural Community was that the people had a lot of haya (an overt sense of modesty or shyness). It would mean, almost no talking or eye contact, especially from women. It was only courteous to not invade the buffer space.
Tarari was different, maybe it was the region’s culture, maybe it was Prabhat (he was my handler and was beloved in the community) but everyone engaged. Salutations were exchanged, tea invitations were extended and light jokes were made. Obviously on us being sahebs from English speaking lands having to now walk in cow dung followed by us profusely proclaiming our connect to the Indian culture and nature and that we felt just at home. We did not delve into the fact that for most of us, home was usually on a higher floor like a third or a seventh, and the only interaction we have with cattle is with their silhouettes printed on the milk packets. The jokes could have taken a sharp turn left if we had started talking about the amount of water we use to flush out our pee.
Side note, we did sit down for tea at a house but asked for tea without milk. They were perplexed of how bad milk must be on health because sahebs didn’t seem to have any problem with the 3 spoons of sugar per cup. We had forgotten to ask for no sugar and nobody had the heart to say anything, so we sat and drank the molasses with as much love as it was served with.
My hypothesis about Tarari is that it lacks proactive community leadership. There are government policies to aid, at the very least, the basic infrastructure required but it entails engaging with bureaucratic channels. The community is, therefore, restricted in a cycle it is not able to break and, as most communities in India, only focused on survival.
Tarari, therefore, becomes an intriguing and interesting village to work in. The small scale in itself can provide an opportunity to register observable impact. In our almost two week long deliberations with various stakeholders, we have been able to converge on the most urgent and high priority interventions developed out of the aspirations of the stakeholders and analysis of various experts over water, land, farming, rewilding, community champions. We have mapped out an extensive plan of action for the region where economic growth has been planned alongside assisting improvements or restorations of natural systems. These ideas involve community eco-tourism, venture studio program for the region, agroforestry and farm-in-box supply chain model, decentralized primary food processing. A few of these will be going into prototyping in the coming months, but first – water.
One of the first things, and the last things, we were made aware of was that there was no water, and it was hard for me to comprehend what that meant, as this region is not stressed by overpopulation. I presumed, aquifers were healthy and there was extreme rainfall in the region. It took me a two hour long meeting with the community to realize that access and storage of water was a problem, not the availability of water itself which has been the problem in Rajasthan, Delhi, Gujarat, Bengaluru and other places I had frequented. Over the deliberations, everyone reached a conclusion that rainwater catching is the urgent priority to even kick start any rewilding, farming or even eco-tourism efforts. The rains from the day of writing this blog are about 30 days away and all efforts of the enlarged team have been primarily dedicated to establishing a rainwater catchment network and introducing storage capacities in the region. I am hopeful and anxiously waiting to see how much water are we able to store and use over the next few months. The rainy season will provide us with information on the real potential of rainwater runoff in the region, as of now we are going with a calculated guess.