Magazine article New Internationalist

Desert Storm: Cath Sanders Reports from India Where the Massive Indira Gandhi Canal Is Changing the Landscape and Disrupting the Life of the Region's Nomadic Herders

Magazine article New Internationalist

Desert Storm: Cath Sanders Reports from India Where the Massive Indira Gandhi Canal Is Changing the Landscape and Disrupting the Life of the Region's Nomadic Herders

Article excerpt

DAWN lights up the dun and sage landscape of Rajasthan's Thar Desert as hundreds of softly tinkling bells echo in the morning half-light. Scores of cattle and goats stream out of the sprawling village of Sui into the dunes, accompanied by men and boys swaddled in thick goatswool shawls insulating them from the freezing winter morning.

Cattle are the mainstay in this area of north-west India. The hardy rathi breed are well-suited to the sparse rainfall and the extremes of desert heat and cold. (The desert's name is taken from thar, the local word for butter.) The dry land is ill-suited to farming. Traditionally, most people here lived as semi-nomadic pastoralists. And many still do. They plant dryland crops like sorghum, lentils and chickpeas when the monsoon comes in late June. If they are lucky, they have fodder to feed their animals for the rest of the year. In dry years, or when the feed runs out, they migrate with their animals in search of pasture.

But this year the rains have been exceptionally good in western Rajasthan. The domed grain-stores are full and fodder is heaped up all over the village. The animals are fat and there is plenty of milk. Beside me a young woman tethers her cow to a small twisted tree. As her daughter drags away the calf, she washes the cow's udder and begins rhythmically squeezing milk into an aluminum pail.

I wander past thornbush corrals into a courtyard with honey-coloured walls rounded with smooth mud and cowdung plaster. Megha bai, an older woman, beckons me to sit. She herself rests on a string bed, warming herself in the sun, surrounded by her eight children. 'We keep animals but we grow crops too when the rains are good-gower, bajri roti and moat [millet and pulses].'

In the woodsmoke-filled room, Megha bai's daughter-in-law heats flat breads on a clay stove before spreading them with butter from a brass pot.

First we let the milk turn to curd and from that we make butter to sell,' she explains. The churn is a stick split into a whisk and tied to a bedpost with a leather pulley. Chach, the buttermilk left after churning is drunk with heavy millet bread, dripping with butter and a chutney of fiery ground chillies. 'And not just breakfast,' says Megha bai. 'This is what we eat three times a day: bajri roti, ghee and chach.' The day heats up and women go off to the village well, their sequinned veils glittering like sunlight on water.

This way of life has gone on for centuries in Sui. …

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