From India’s flood-prone border with Bangladesh in the east, I travel to the drought-prone border with Pakistan in the west.
A taxi driver with an alarming tendency to go against the flow takes me to Barmer, Rajasthan. As we hurtle down the wrong side of National Highway 112, he is curious about why I want to go there. There is only the desert there, he says, and tourists generally prefer the desert safaris around the more picturesque and historic city of Jaisalmer.
In fact, I am on the final leg of my journey in India for my project on climate change adaptation. I’m traveling to hear a story that clearly illustrates the nature of change that is needed to adapt successfully to climate change.
The desert state of Rajasthan is one of those places that you would automatically assume is on the brink when it comes to climate change impacts, given its already acute water shortage and high summer temperatures. This is, after all, the Thar Desert.
Appropriate knowledge and technology
But in fact, this also means that it has had more time to adapt to extremes. There exists a bank of indigenously tested traditional knowledge to deal with extreme conditions, which can contribute to reducing vulnerability at least in the short and medium term.
Evidence of this is strewn along the roadside. We pass a number of strange structures that look like abandoned spaceships – saucer-shaped with either a bush or concrete mound in the middle. These are taankas – small lime-covered water catchments to trap rainwater and run it into a storage tank in the middle. This well-shaped storage tank is covered, and often even locked, to prevent evaporation, contamination and pilfering of the precious resource it holds. Used only for drinking water, taankas are one of many ways devised to make the Thar habitable. Rajasthan has a number of ingenious traditional water harvesting structures – including kuis, beris, saza kuans, johads, kundis, baoris and jhalaras.
Similarly, years of farming in these difficult conditions has resulted in a bank of traditional knowledge related to farming in arid areas – including resistant seed and livestock varieties. I was told a very interesting story by my host from the Society to Uplift Rural Economy (SURE), about an indigenous cow breed called Tharparkar (named after a district in the Thar, on the Pakistan side of the border).
The Tharparkar is a high-yielding cow breed that is well adapted to the Thar’s arid conditions. Before the India-Pakistan partition, herds of Tharparkar owned on the Indian side would travel to the Pakistani side to winter. Post partition, however, tight border controls made this impossible and the herds had to travel south instead, to Gujarat. This led to crossbreeding with local cattle (and no doubt, also crossbreeding with high-yielding imported breeds), until the Tharparkar breed was on the brink of extinction. There are now efforts to revive the breed, including by NGOs like SURE.
Strong agents of change
The second strength of Rajasthan, after this traditional bank of knowledge and technology, is a strong presence of civil society and non-government organizations (NGOs). In fact, it was an NGO from this state, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) that was at the forefront of a national campaign for the acknowledgment of two critical rights in Indian legislation: the Right to Information, and the Right to Employment.
As a result of this campaign, the Right to Information (RTI) Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) were passed by the Indian Parliament in 2005.
The RTI is a powerful and empowering piece of legislation, even compared to its counterparts in developed countries. It includes a deadline by which information must be provided by officials after a request has been submitted, an independent appeal mechanism, and a personal penalty for officials who fail to comply.
NREGA, meanwhile, guarantees 100 days of paid labour to adult members of poor households in rural areas at a minimum wage of Rs 120 a day. Corruption and leakage in the implementation of such an ambitious schemes was a concern from the outset – and so the RTI was made an integral part of its implementation. The Act includes strong provisions for transparency and grievance redressal.
Effective awareness raising and information provision
MKSS and NGOs from across Rajasthan have been strongly involved in ensuring that the two Acts are followed in letter and spirit. They formed a NGO network called the Rozgaar Evam Suchana ka Adhikar Abhiyan (information and employment campaign, also known as the SR Abhiyan), to oversee the implementation of these two Acts.
The network has prioritized awareness raising among the public and government staff in Rajasthan about the two Acts, informing them of their due through culturally appropriate media. As a result, people are well informed of what is due to them, and cannot be short-changed by government staff.
Transparency, accountability and redress
The SR Abhiyan network also promotes transparency and accountability in the implementation of NREGA, through a system of “social audits”, where officials are obliged to share documents with village-level auditors trained by the independent social audit team. The accounts are read out in public in the presence of beneficiaries of the scheme and the implementers, and villagers question transactions. Through this process, irregularities in the use of funds are uncovered, funds recovered, and action taken against corrupt officials.
Appropriate knowledge and technologies; strong agents of change; effective legislation; effective and locally tailored means of providing information and awareness raising; mechanisms of transparency and accountability and a redress mechanism. These are powerful and essential ingredients for reducing poverty – and climate vulnerability. While these terms have been reduced to a meaningless mantra in the international climate negotiations, the experience in Rajasthan illustrates the true meaning and effectiveness of each.
I can see the successful outcome of this series of events in Barmer. NREGA funds have been used to build over 9,500 privately owned taankas over a period of six years (2007-2013), benefiting mostly women who would otherwise have to walk miles for drinking water. Women like Daiya from Aatiya village, who used to walk 3 kilometers twice every day for drinking water. The taanka was built by Daiya, her sons and others from the Aatiya, who were all paid for their labour through NREGA funds.
Of course there have been challenges and setbacks along the way. Like the time in 2007 when sarpanches (local government leaders) and the government of Rajasthan protested against the right of third parties to conduct social audits. But this eventually resulted in making the process stronger – third party social audits have not only been upheld by the Rajasthan High Court, but independent social audits have been made an essential part of the NREGA process. The state of Andhra Pradesh has led the way by setting up an independent and autonomous body called the Society for Social Audit, Accountability and Transparency (SSAAT).
The Rajasthan experience holds a number of lessons for successfully reducing vulnerability to climate change. It is deep-rooted change like this that is needed for effective adaptation, not business-as-usual projects with an adaptation label stuck on.