(IPS) - These days the only visible activity in Bhilon ka Tala village in arid Rajasthan is the digging of a small reservoir that the villagers are trying to complete before June when the monsoons, they hope, will bring some rain. But that hope is a forlorn one. The last four monsoons have failed Barmer district, which borders Pakistan, and the work on the reservoir digging is going on at a half-hearted pace and then only because it is part of a government scheme to provide employment and grain to the villagers.
In distant New Delhi, scientists including Rajendra Pachauri, who happens to head the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), have pronounced that the repeated failure of the monsoons in these parts is due to global warming.
"Last year's experience was the worst," recalls Amiya, a middle-aged woman of this village, her face emaciated and parched. "There was an early indication of good rains so we used all our resources and even borrowed to plant the crop. But the rains never came and we now have nothing -- no grain, no fodder and no seed for the next crop," she says.
Many families have started migrating to distant places in search of an uncertain livelihood from hard labor rather than gamble yet again on wayward monsoons. For those who stayed back, the central government has provided some employment under the head of 'relief work' visible mostly in the building the reservoir that looks small and helpless in the middle of a vast, parched desert. The work is undertaken by rotation so that all the families get a go. One group is employed for nine days and followed by another group for the next nine days, until every family gets a share of what seems to be a desultory enterprise. Theoretically, a nine-day rotation should fetch each worker 90 kg of grain and about three dollars in cash. But already the villagers are so weak and malnourished that few reach that target and the average is something earning is closer to 50 kg of wheat and a dollar after a nine-day stint.
And now the central government is thinking in terms of reducing by half the grain component of the "food-for-work" relief package. Says Shankar Kumar, an activist of Lok Adhikar Network (LAN) or People's Rights Network, which works in several of Barmer's drought-affected villages: "Access to food will be reduced greatly if the central government goes ahead with its proposal to reduce the grain contribution."
At a time when the need is clearly to increase relief effort ahead of the blistering summer months, any move that reduces employment and food-grain availability can be disastrous. Kumar and other activists wonder why when the central government's granaries are bursting with a 60 million tonne stock of surplus grain, a reduction in the quota is even being considered. The Supreme Court has reprimanded the government time and again for mismanaging food distribution in the country, but somehow the system contrives to ensure that marginalised villagers like those in drought-ridden Barmer district stay deprived. Everybody in Bhilon ka Tila village is sure that the "food-for-work" programme has been hijacked by a contractor-politician nexus, but are too scared or too weary to speak out and anyway there is no one around these parts to even listen.
In Rajasthan, a state of 57 million people, health surveys have shown that half of all children below three are undernourished and half of all adult women suffer form anaemia - though this is not apparent in the capital city of Jaipur, a major tourist destination that boasts of palaces converted into luxury hotels.
"The fodder shortage is an even more serious problem. Our surveys revealed large scale animal deaths last year and the situation is bound to worsen this is summer," says Adil Bhai an activist with the Mahila Mandal women's forum, another voluntary group. The government provides grant for cattle camps, but at 25 cents a cow there is not much hope for such livestock as have survived. Sitaram, who is supervising several cattle camps on behalf of the non-government Society for Upliftment of Rural Economy (SURE) says, "Quite often the fodder supply by traders is of poor quality and adulterated with sand."
What is more, the camps shelter only cows and bullocks. Manas Ranjan, a senior activist of LAN, says, "There is a clear need to provide additional fodder for other animals including sheep, goats, camels and donkeys. All these animals are important for the livelihood of the villagers." Weakened camels and donkeys are to be seen everywhere foraging in vain for some stray green fodder in the desert many dropping in their tracks. As for drinking water, even the human beings do not get enough.
Starting this March, the number of villages that will need to be supplied water by the government's motorized tankers will start increasing rapidly. But the villagers point out the jeeps and tractors generally reach only the main settlements accessible by road. After that, camel carts are supposed take over and carry water to the scattered settlements or 'dhanis'. Says Manas Ranjan, "Past experience has been that only a very small part of water needs are satisfied by tankers. Now that there is talk of reducing the per capita norms further the villagers are apprehensive and worry about sheer survival."
Fodder and water shortage, even more than food shortage, is likely to cause extreme distress right up to late June when hopefully, the monsoon rain will, at least this year, bring relief. "This will be one of the most difficult of summers in Barmer and other neighboring areas of Thar Desert," says Magraj Jain, director of SURE. Very careful planning, adequate budgeting and close cooperation of government and NGOs will be needed to cope with the coming cruel summer - and so far this has remained elusive, the villagers aver.