Rajasthan is one of the largest states of the country and the districts of Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Nagaur spread over thousands of kilometres form part of the Great Indian Thar.

Bikaner and Jaisalmer share common borders with Pakistan. Since only 1% of the total land is irrigated, the state remains one of the most socio-economically deprived states of India. More than half of the total ground water in the Thar is considered brackish and highly saline.

Water has been one of the basic defining components for explaining the settlement pattern in possibly every period of settlement history of the Thar. Interestingly many settlements were abandoned either permanently or temporarily because of the drying up of a water source. For most of the villages located in the arid drought prone region, rainwater is still the dominant source of water for subsistence. Potable drinking water is a serious problem and several villages are still without their own captive ground water source, having to rely on wells and reservoirs several kilometres away. In summers esp., the communities have to spend a substantial sum of money in purchasing potable water. Shortage of fodder is another serious problem and is imported from neighboring states at a higher price Absence of timely rains means that the farming communities do not even recover the cost of sowing, thus leading them towards debt and unable to overcome their poverty cycle.

Big and small dunes amidst the sandy deserts interspersed by plain and sandy agricultural lands mark the topography. These dunes are formed because of the southwest winds, which blow at great speed from March to September. Because of these severe sandstorms, communication links esp. with the rural areas are badly disrupted, making the provision of development support services almost impossible. In the middle of the desert, the vegetation is sparse with only a few ‘Khejdi’ (Prosopis ceneraria) trees and thorny bushes to break the monotony of the sand and flat landscape.

Around 85% of the population lives in villages. A peculiar feature of the desert demography is its scattered nature. The scattered communities and their seasonal settlement patterns make it a challenge to institutionalize any form of service delivery – whether health, education, or extension of banking or agriculture related services. A combination of subsistence farming and semi nomadic pastoralism based on the utilization of large tracts of non-arable and marginalized lands still forms the basis of much of the region’s rural economy. The majority of the arable is mono-cropped mostly producing rainfed crops. The fragile eco-system and typical geo-physical features lead to fluctuations in production and peoples’ livelihoods. Owing to poor socioeconomic conditions, a harsh physical terrain and the presence of recurrent natural disasters like drought, investment on children at the family level is far from adequate.

The distress migration, though it gives the inhabitants enough opportunity to survive, has obvious long-term repercussions in the spheres of health and education of the family members, esp. women and children. This uncertainty does not let the people come out of the throes of poverty, which is more marked in case of poor people who have always lacked access to resources and opportunity.

The Indira Gandhi Canal* has in many ways been responsible for the disappearing of the grazing lands, severe water logging and salinity, resulting in the displacement of a large number of farmers. Depleting pasturelands are also direct fallout owing to the sporadic rise in the number of tractors.

The man’s role within this community is one of decisionmaking and leadership. Men do not participate in the dayto- day running of the fam- ily while the women, mostly housewives, are primarily responsible for taking care of their families. They also help their men folk in subsistence farming, during the brief months of the rainy season. The society of this region is characterised by a patriarchal order where women have a secondary and subjugated status. This means that women find themselves increasingly overworked and socially isolated. Traditional conservative practices and the persis- tence of the feudal ethos continually keep the women in the arid zone silenced, exhausted, and confined to interiors, veiled and secluded from birth to death. Women, and in particular, poor women, are thus invisible and unremuner- ated for their household work.

They and their children, suffer the effects of dislocation and loss of income due to forces that they do not understand or have control over. Further, their economic lives have been mainly subsistence-oriented—to fulfill basic needs. They have not received their share of education, training, health and livelihood opportunities consistent with their potential, which will enable them to deal with crises and shocks or improve their well-being.

Life is hard and much is a question of hope and survival. The inhabitants here have been living here since generations and their way of life is steeped in tradition. The native populations of the Thar rank as societies that have one of the lowest literacy rates in the country. In particular, literacy among women in the rural areas is abysmally low. The area also has one of the lower sex ratios in the country.

The absence of flow of scientific knowledge, ideas and expressions and non existence of opportunities has made conditions unfavorable for adolescents and young people too. As a consequence, the rural-urban divide is quite stark and evident in the regions of the Thar.

Development programmes, in the true sense, have rarely reached the poorest families in the region, having had to filter through a more educated and richer class of people. The situation is compounded by the persistence of the older feudal ethos where caste hierarchy and status attract prestige and hegemony. This has made the poor, the lower castes and women even more vulnerable to the manipulations of quacks, market forces as well as the corrupt bureaucracy.

The disruption and breakdown of the traditional mosaic of material cultures and social communities, ecosystems and their boundaries, rangelands, bird lands, wildlife, biodiversity etc., is a part of the on-going process.

The Thar Desert has never been hospitable to large permanent settlements due to environmental constraints. In the ongoing conflict between nomadism and civilization, our deep-seated prejudices as civilized human beings has not only made us greedy, aggressive and atomised creatures, but has also made us tragically oblivious of our common links with the nomads.

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