The Barmer Model of Development
Witnessing a 650 per cent per capita income growth in the last decade, Rajasthan's remote Barmer district is an exception that must become the norm for India to achieve self-sustenance and social prosperity
Even a decade ago, Barmer was marked only by distant stretches of undulating sand – typical to the Great Indian Thar – that was intercepted intermittently by thorny shrubs and a few locals who had dared to challenge the region's glaring halo. Located on the western border of Rajasthan, adjacent to Pakistan, this faraway district was fearfully called kaalapaani, reminiscent of the eponymous prison in the Andaman islands where inmates were banished to die during colonial rule. But Barmer wasn't a prison – it only replicated death-like circumstances. Annual temperatures here swing between 50-degree C and 0-degree C; the number of rainy days in a year are sparse and drought prevails, with unexpected rainfall causing some flooding in recent times; agriculture was always limited to bajra (pearl millet) – the most commonly grown and consumed crop – while health indices and literacy were at a shameful minimum. But today, those dark days of kaalapaani have given way to a lush desert that is blooming in prosperity.
Cairn India, a vertical of Vedanta Ltd and the largest independent oil and gas exploration and production company in India, struck gold when it discovered oil reserves in the middle of this arid desert. Hailed as India's biggest onshore oil discovery in over two decades, this new block was named Mangala. Very soon, the number of producing fields multiplied and the imposing steels of Mangala, Bhagyam, Aishwariya ushered surprising relief in an otherwise ochre landscape. Sitting proudly in Bandra panchayat of Barmer, Mangala comes with an eponymous pipeline which is the world's longest continuously heated structure carrying oil from the fields of Rajasthan to refineries in Gujarat. While Cairn struck gold, the residents of Barmer too dipped their handsome feet in the golden river that soon flowed down.
Since 2009-10, when its annual average per capita income was Rs 17,088, Barmer has witnessed an approximately 650 per cent growth and now, it boasts of an average per capita income of Rs 1,28,266 – much higher than both the state (Rs 69,730) and national (Rs 82,229) averages*. The metamorphosis of this desert landscape is unmistakable – the barren expanses are now dotted by plenty of greens, poultry animals can be spotted at frequent intervals, water dispensaries are not uncommon and, most importantly, people have seamlessly woven their existence with this environment that can no longer subjugate man's existence with its inherent harshness. From being synonymous to banishment, Barmer is today symbolic of ethical business that can not only reap great economic benefits (oil from Barmer's fields contribute a quarter to India's domestic crude production) but also bring a measurable difference in societal well-being. In fact, in Barmer, we see how social welfare itself is a most productive business that is seen, not antithetical to profitmaking, but essential to wholesome entrepreneurship.
A 'model' model
Primarily agrarian, residents of Barmer depend on farming – despite the region being historically maltreated by nature. Unsurprisingly then, farmers here have been among the poorest in the country with limited access to resources and technology. "When we came here, they were still using outdated techniques of production and they had no knowledge of the correct ratio of fertilisers, due to which the topsoil had completely degraded; water structures were absent and there was either no water or during excess rain, there was immense runoff that too completely drained the fertile top layer," said Dr Bhanu Pratap Singh, CSR Manager for Cairn, who has spent the last seven years initiating projects to augment agrarian income in Barmer. Where there are problems, for an astute business mind, there lies the most potent opportunity for solutions – and Barmer was a hotbed of crisis with a consequent ocean of opportunities.
In the last decade, agriculture in Barmer has been revolutionised by simply focusing on the inputs – namely, water, seeds, fertilisers and farmers' knowledge. Nadis or open water structures where rainwater is collected and consequently supplied through the year to neighbouring villages are a common sight in Barmer. But a lack of maintenance had caused massive silting in these ponds whose floors convexed with large depositions of topsoil. Round-the-clock labour drained the topsoil and sent it back to farmers, by which crores of phosphate and diammonium sulphate were recycled. And soon, the convex floor regained its concave shape and water gathered. These common water bodies or nadis provide water which is used for drinking, washing, for animals, agriculture, et al, and can be accessed across the year. Astoundingly, the biggest nadis can be as deep as 20 ft! Additionally, they have also assisted greatly in reviving the region's dying ecosystem. Egrets and white ibis are now common visitors here that is also home to insects, small birds and migratory species. 17 such nadis have been revived across Barmer, consequently uplifting agrarian fortune by at least as many folds.
Alongside nadis, micro and drip irrigation along with rainwater harvesting are practised extensively to disallow any water from seeping out during rainfalls and in the process, at least 70 per cent of the water is saved within the bounds of a village. Earthen bunds or catchment areas too have been created to prevent seepage of water between agricultural lands. 117 solar-powered RO Any Time Water (ATW) machines provide safe, cool drinking water at Rs 5 for 20 litre around-the-clock. "What we have achieved here in transforming the lives of more than 12,000 farmers is gratifying. Farm incomes have surged 15-20 per cent and water bodies have enriched groundwater reservoirs, attracting a number of wild animals and birds. This is the real impact on lives that we see in Barmer," added Dr Singh, a key functionary in Barmer's story of evolution.
The true worth of a resource can be best realised in these spaces of acute shortage – and Barmer's rise stands testimony. As water began flowing, farmlands were revived as were farmers' ambitions. Various schemes witnessed their soil being tested and them being trained in alternate farming beyond bajra, which is the most popular here but also the least productive, fetching a mere one quintal produce per hectare land. They were also pushed towards adopting horticulture and over 1,200 farmers were provided one lakh quality seeds of ber and anar (predominantly). Alongside, knowledge of dairy and poultry farming, sheep rearing, agricultural management and soil testing have together created a society that is blossoming despite unfavourable natural wealth. In certain homes, dairy farming has fetched a five-fold increase in family income, while some have planted ber, a most productive plant whose each part is commercially viable, to add Rs 60,000-Rs 70,000 to their annual earnings.
The home that has been plagued by malnutrition, poor maternal health, hygiene and education too wasn't ignored. Notably, 80-90 per cent childbirths that were earlier conducted at home by midwives now take place in hospitals and Barmer's district hospital has also earned the top position among all district hospitals of Rajasthan. Further, 50 nandghars, a network on anganwadis – the sustaining thread of rural well-being – targetting over 3,000 children between 3-6 years of age are approaching the abuse of human development indicators in this region. A combination of learning, health intervention, maternal care, and more, these centres are the nourishment that is building adults that can tomorrow release India from the vicious cycle of hunger, unemployment and poverty. "We ensure that our programs align with UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and we carefully undertake initiatives that bolster existing schemes or those that ensure longevity and sustainability," emphasised Arnab Ghosh, Community Development Officer, CSR, for Cairn's Rajasthan operations.
Nevertheless, the imminent fear of tankers stopping to arrive or chullahs running cold will never erase from this land of historic drought and poverty, and perhaps shouldn't – for only in these remote regions of scarcity do we realise the epitome of innovation in preservation and heightened conscientiousness towards nature's final word. Yet, Barmer today can wake up to the jarring yet very calming honks of water tankers – a result of intervention that has brought resources to people's doorsteps and also educated them to utilise nature's gifts in their most efficient capacity, which in turn creates healthy productive workers and an abounding environment where the wave of prosperity motivates profits.
Finding the missing middle
This dynamic social intervention has been possible by a crucial economic evolution. When Cairn struck gold in Mangala, Barmer leapt into the second phase of its social evolution – it was now a secondary-sector oriented society, one that is driven by industry and manufacturing. India's current employment crisis stems a large extent from this absence in the development of the manufacturing sector. India had rocketed straight into becoming a service-sector oriented society which, as history shows, is bound to witness a crisis unless the manufacturing sector is parallelly developed to create mass employment and also generate robust revenue which can be infused back into society. Manufacturing today has a 72.55 per cent share in Barmer's economy while the primary and service sectors' share stand at 8.13 per cent and 19.33 per cent respectively. The declining share of agriculture from 23 per cent in 2011-12 to 8.12 per cent now is telling of the transition and its ripples in society. A 650 per cent GDP growth is astounding for a region that is deprived of the natural resources essential for sustaining a flourishing human civilisation. But, when we account for the presence of a massive secondary sector outfit, the growth is not surprising – it is only reflective of the most basic economic theory that is forgotten in the noise of complex articulations.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has gained precedence in recent debates. India was the first country to make CSR spending a mandatory requirement in 2013 and recently, its violation was proposed to be made an offence (later changed to civil liability). In such times, Barmer stands as an example of how CSR can be approached with optimism, a sense of social welfare and also a complementing astuteness of benefitting both the self and subject.
Barmer maybe a pursuable microcosm for India, particularly in achieving targets of becoming self-sufficient, empowering farmers and bringing innovation in water conservation – but as a microcosm of India, it is also plagued by the softer troubles of patriarchy, illiteracy and superstition that pave the way for palpable challenges manifesting as disease, malnutrition, honour killings, lack of hygiene and sanitation, and much more. These challenges of the home and mind are often more difficult to overcome; they demand more time, patience, investment and innovation in thought. While a challenge, this lacuna also provides greater opportunity in the days to come and Barmer thus, shines as a model whose journey so forth and possibility ahead both motivate more change that is sustainable, infiltrative and mindful of even the last man in the queue.
*at constant prices; current averages at 2016-17 level
(Photo credit: Cairn India. The author visited Barmer in August 2019)