Global warming and climate change have gone beyond being just catchphrases in large parts of India. But the people, especially in the interiors, are striking back - adapting, altering and improvising to beat back the assault.
Climate change has come home. And those hit the hardest are India's millions in its countryside. They rubbed their eyes in disbelief recently when ice formed in the Jaisalmer desert. Men and women in some of our traditionally wet places routinely complain these days of water scarcity. Some of them, though, are not only slowly getting used to the vagaries of an erratic weather - frequent floods deluding their crops and breaking embankments that protect villages from angry rivers, or lack of moisture turning their fields into dustbowls - but are already making changes in their living and lifestyles to beat back the assault.
To survive, there are those who are rapidly adapting; others who can't are uprooting themselves from the lands of their ancestors and settling in safer, more viable pastures. Global warming is not just making the countryside hot and wet, flat and broken, crowded and deserted at the same time, it's also changing relations - between the farmer and his fields, between people in different caste and social hierarchies, between demands of tradition and expectations of changing current dynamics.Sunday Times brings five stories from five different parts of the country where rising or falling levels of water have forced people to adapt, innovate, change or just migrate.
Makings of makhana country
Raging floods kill scores of people in this part of the country almost every year. But, of late, the floods have become more frequent and furious. Kosi - the sorrow of Bihar - caused massive damage here in 2007 and 2008. With their fields under water for long periods, people here have turned to growing makhana, or fox nut, which grows well in waterlogged farms. Over the past decade, the Bihar government has promoted this 'industry' in a big way to relieve the poor whose crops are swept away again and again.
Praveen Singh, assistant professor of human ecology in Ambedkar University, analysed the problem and wrote a report on how makhana, a cash crop, can become an asset in the flood-prone region. Now, it's being grown in many districts of the region, and it's being cultivated by the people who earlier thought it was below their dignity to grow makhana. "Only the fishing community, mallaah, used to cultivate makhana in fish ponds. But over the last two decades, other caste groups have also taken it up. It's a flourishing business today," says Singh.
The flood-ravaged people have turned a problem into an opportunity. "Some of the villages have completely switched to makhana because it's so profitable," says Saket Ranjan, a makhana cultivator and facilitator for Shakti Sudha, a food processing company.
Turned away by the tide
Forest dwellers here are yet to recover from the 2009 cyclone Aila that displaced more than one million people in India and Bangladesh. Such was the fury of the cyclone that it destroyed embankments, flooded villages, broke houses and made countless people homeless.
Now, even as the government rebuilds some embankments, people - poor and hungry - are leaving the place in hordes. Subhadra Baidya of Kakmari Char is the only elderly male in the village. All others are working as daily wagers in Kolkata and other cities. "After the soil turned bad, there was no means of living. We could have been reduced to begging," says Char.
It's time the government started thinking about relocating these people to the mainland, feels Amitav Ghosh. "The truth is that those who live in these areas should know that they are living with a risk - it is like building villages upon the slopes of an active volcano," says the author of The Hungry Tide.
STANDING ON SLIPPERY EARTH
In Assam's flood prone districts like Dhemaji and Lakhimpur districts on the northern bank of Brahmaputra, everybody knows what a bad flood can do. Thanks to their traditional knowledge, they have, however, tackled floods by increasingly building houses on stilts, planting more flood-tolerant crops, devising food-storage systems suited to riverine environments and developing social support systems. "Just like north Bihar, in Assam, too, castes that did not build stilted houses earlier have started building them to avoid damage," says Praveen Singh, an academic.
But even a stilted house is not safe as an average 7.4 sq km of land is being lost in erosion every year. "Flood waters are reported to carry more debris and sand in recent years. The coping strategies have become less effective in the face of increasingly frequent and more virulent floods," says Partha J Das of Aaranyak, a biodiversity conservation NGO.
As if the recurring drought was not bad enough, erratic and scattered rainfall - a relatively new trend in the desert state - has taken a further toll on farming. Experts say the rain and sandstorms are making traditional species of herbs and grasses disappear and dealt a deadly blow to animal husbandry. But the farmers are fighting back. They have adopted mixed cropping as an adaptation strategy. In several districts, farming of jamun and tomato has stopped following a sharp decline in the ground water level. A local variety of melon - matira - has become popular in the western region of the state as it requires less water. The fruit, sweet and with high water content, is used for its seeds that go in the making of a variety of snacks. And the oil extracted from it is used for cooking.
"Climate change has led to an increase in migration, decrease in animal husbandry due to low availability of fodder and low agricultural output and decrease in land association,'' says Sharad Joshi, secretary of an NGO that documents the impact of climate change on farmers.
An oasis in the desert
It never received good rainfall, but now this part of the state is turning drier. Kharamal, a small village on the foothills of Gandhamardan hills in Paikmal block of Bargarh district, has used traditional wisdom to deal with recurring droughts. Just restoring traditional water harvesting structures, the village has become an oasis in the desert-like surroundings.
Failing rains over the years had made agriculture difficult here. But 2005 saw a new revolution in the village. People who had started abandoning paddy crop due to frequent droughts generated enough water to sustain it during the kharif season ; they also saved water for vegetable and pulses cultivation during the rabi season. Since then the local ecology has improved drastically, greatly reducing the migration of villagers in the last two years. "With some guidance, we could easily figure out the direction of rainwater flow and created ponds and puddles to save it," says Sitaram Majhi, a resident of the village.
Sitaram, who had turned a daily wage earner after abandoning his own land, dug a well and started cultivation in 2007. "After villagers created water bodies, forest cover in the area has automatically gone up. We are trying to replicate the model in other villages as well," says Pramod Ray, sarpanch of a panchayat.