Watershed Management On the Ground, Day 1: Learning about the Lambadis

During my fellowship and previous professional positions within the environmental field, my core work has occurred primarily in my respective organization’s office itself, so I eagerly take any opportunity available to witness project implementation in the field and obtain a more “on-the-ground” perspective. One such opportunity came available in October with my fellowship host organization WASSAN, based in Secunderabad, Telangana and focusing on watershed management, rain-fed agriculture, participatory groundwater management, water sanitation and hygiene (WASH), and land employment and entitlements in drought-prone rural communities of India.

In October 2015, I accompanied 5 American students visiting from the School for International Training Study Abroad India program on a 2-day visit to one of WASSAN’s field offices in Parigi, 1 of 37 mandals (administrative divisions) in the Rangareddy District of Telangana, located approximately 92 km from Secunderabad.

A street lined with auto rickshaws in Parigi.
A street lined with auto rickshaws in Parigi.
WASSAN's Parigi field office.
WASSAN’s Parigi field office.

From its Parigi field office, WASSAN directly implements its initiatives with the surrounding Lambadi tribal communities. The Lambadis, known as nomads, “forest wanderers”, migrated from the Indian state of Rajasthan to Telangana centuries ago and first herded cattle for livelihood and now primarily engage in agriculture and gathering forest products. They speak in a Lambada dialect (a combination of Sanskrit, Gujarati, and the Rajasthani group of languages) and have learned the languages spoken in their respective areas of settlement but continue to preserve their own language, social structure, and cultural identity[1]. Lambadi women also stand out from the crowd with their bright, colorful cotton attire adorned with mirror chips and coins.

Lambadi woman in traditional attire at the second village we visited.
Lambadi woman in traditional attire at second village visited.
Traditionally designed doorway of a Lambadi home with diamond shapes and shades of primary colors.
Traditionally designed doorway of a Lambadi home with diamond shapes and shades of primary colors.

After arriving at the Parigi field office early in the morning, we met the WASSAN field staff members, who took us to one of the Lambadi villages where WASSAN implements its watershed management projects. One of the field staff members showed us several of the water pumps WASSAN had installed in the village and explained their functioning, as well as that of the device tracking their usage. We also observed holes dug in the ground forming the beginning stages of WASSAN’s toilet construction project in the village.

The first village we visited.
First village visited.
Water pump installed by WASSAN in first village we visited.
Water pump installed by WASSAN in first village visited.
Water pump installed by WASSAN and fields outlying first village we visited.
Water pump installed by WASSAN and fields outlying first village visited.
Device tracking functioning of water pump installed by WASSAN.
Device tracking functioning of water pump installed by WASSAN.
Holes dug by WASSAN in preparation for toilet construction in first village we visited.
Holes dug by WASSAN in preparation for toilet construction in first village visited.

As a holiday happened to fall on that day, we had additional time to interact with the community and divided into groups to interview – with translation – several farmers, laborers, and their families in their homes about their lives, livelihood and thoughts on WASSAN’s work in their community. I learned from the family I interviewed that the husband, Kishan, had been working for years in construction/labor and agriculture/cultivation for his livelihood. Kishan owned 1 acre of land, on which he raised red gram and maize, and his typical workday lasted from 9 A.M.-6 P.M. His wife Lowdia stayed home and engaged in agricultural and other tasks, such as removing weeds and cultivating firewood. Kishan and Lowdia had 3 grown sons with children of their own (some of the grandchildren sat with them during the interview). One son worked as a mason, and another had been working in Pune, Maharashtra for the last 3-4 years. I also learned the village had stood for at least the past two generations, as Kishan’s father and grandfather had lived there previously. Originally comprising 8-9 homes, the village had grown to 40 at the time of our visit. We also asked about their thoughts on WASSAN’s projects; they responded that WASSAN was conducting good work for their community.

A house in the first village we visited outside Parigi.
A house in the first village we visited outside Parigi.
Shrine in the first village we visited.
Shrine in the first village visited.
Carrying water into the village.
Carrying water into the village.

Additionally, we asked the family members about their diet and learned during the week, they ate primarily roti, rice, and vegetarian curry and on weekends, chicken and mutton. During religious festivals, the family would conduct a puja and cook goat meat and other special items. For fun, the village adults and children participated in sports and played in the fields, and the adults partook in libations, as well. During one point in the interview, Lowdia bashfully but proudly brought out pictures of her wedding day and family. Seeing these photos was a treat; I still recall their clarity, vividness, and striking colors.

Pictures of Kishan and Lowdia's family, as well as Lowdia on her wedding day.
Pictures of Kishan and Lowdia’s family, as well as Lowdia on her wedding day.
Kishan and Lowdia on their wedding day.
Kishan and Lowdia on their wedding day.

The village children also seemed thrilled to have visitors, as after the interviews, they led us to another house for an impromptu dance party to popular Bollywood tunes (perhaps the earliest dance party I have attended!) and more dancing outside in the center of the village. After the visit (ending with a hearty farewell, to boot), we lunched on scrumptious South Indian food in Parigi and then visited a second Lambadi village where WASSAN had implemented its initiatives in agriculture and toilet construction. We had the opportunity to speak with these villagers in some length about their lives, as well.

After the impromptu early-morning dance party.
After the impromptu early-morning dance party.
Lunching on uttapam, a tasty South Indian rice and lentil pancake.
Lunching on uttapam, a tasty South Indian rice and lentil pancake.
Agricultural field outside second village.
Agricultural field outside second village visited.
Toilets constructed by WASSAN in second village  visited.
Toilets constructed by WASSAN in second village visited.

Witnessing natural resources management project implementation on the ground adds such a rich, tangible, and personal dimension to my work in the office I cannot otherwise substitute. I felt grateful for the opportunity to interact directly with the Lambadi villagers and hear their own voice about their lives and livelihood. I felt significantly more closely connected to my own work at WASSAN after this visit, and I do hope for similar chances going forward as I progress in my environmental career.

[1] http://www.thealternative.in/society/lambadis-gypsies-of-the-deccan/

Benita comes to the AIF Clinton Fellowship from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., where she served in the Office of Planning, Analysis, and Accountability beginning in 2011. Among other areas at EPA, she has contributed to advancement of partnerships; development of internal Agency program guidance reflecting Congressional budgetary decisions; analysis of performance in water, Tribal affairs, and children's health and performance information in EPA's Congressional budget request; and creation of EPA's Strategic Plan and Annual Performance Report. Benita began pursuing her interest in environmental and social issues in 2009, when she traveled to Ecuador as a volunteer on environmental projects and teaching English with the Yachana Training Center in the Napo province of the country. Later that year, she also began developing her interest in serving India while volunteering at Auxilium Snehalaya, a homeless children's shelter in Guwahati, Assam, India.

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2 thoughts on “Watershed Management On the Ground, Day 1: Learning about the Lambadis

  1. A great combination of both pictures and text, Benita! Thanks for capturing and sharing this interesting experience that you had in Telangana.

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