A long tradition of eco-sensitive agriculture helps Bishnois preserve groundwater

At the end of the 15th century, long before our country’s environmental laws were formalized, Guru Jambeshwar, 34, from Nagaur, in present-day Rajasthan, set out the 29 principles of a new sect he had founded. : bishnoism. Of these, eight focused on protecting the region’s wildlife and its thick green cover. Since then, the Bishnoi community has been at the forefront of fierce preservation of the environment.

The Bishnois are environmentalists by tradition. They bury their dead instead of cremating them to limit unnecessary cutting of trees. In addition, they only use dead trees to fuel their stoves and make furniture. With a heritage stretching back 500 years, this vegetarian sect with an estimated population of nearly ten lakhs is concentrated in the present-day states of Western Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh.

In Bazidpur Bhoma, a village in the Punjab, just on the border with Rajasthan, the Bishnoi community has firmly attached themselves to their enduring indigenous cultures. Here, their environmentally friendly social practices have been perpetuated for six generations. This once arid land is now home to around 3,500 people, who together have made their lands lush and abundant.

The majority of the Bishnoi community is engaged in the local economy, working as farmers. As Punjab’s water-intensive farming practices heralded by the Green Revolution sowed groundwater distress throughout the state, the Bishnois of Bazidpur voluntarily followed their sustainable farming practices. This has resulted in balanced groundwater levels, profitable agriculture, healthy living standards and rich grassland ecology.

The Bishnois are traditional ecologists extremely aware of their impact on their environment. (Image: Puneet Poonia)

Saving the Khejri: a community effort through the ages

One of the main reasons the community has worked to preserve groundwater levels is to protect their sacred Khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria) which grows in a short time and is vital for maintaining the regions ecosystem. dry.

“Khejri trees add immense nutritional value to the soil and ensure a good yield. Crops grown on the periphery of these trees are also protected from infection and microbial disease. Dry tree bark has great antibacterial properties when burned as firewood for cooking. The green leaves add a lot of oxygen to the air and are rich in lactic acid. The tree produces a very nutritious fodder for our livestock. All parts of this tree have some medicinal value or another. In addition, we prepare a local dish called ‘Sangri’ from its fruit on special occasions, ”said Ajay Pal Bishnoi, a famous conch blowing (shankh) practitioner from Bazidpur Bhoma, and winner of several accolades, including the Limca Book of Records. for the longest non-stop blowing of the conch.

Community efforts to save the Khejri have continued through the ages. In September 1730 AD, Maharaja of Marwar, Abhai Singh’s men reached the village of Khejarli near Jodhpur to chop down Khejri trees to build his new palace. In protest, 363 Bishnois sacrificed their lives hugging these trees to protect them. This inspired the famous Chipko movement of the 1970s.

Now the Khejri trees seem to be in danger again. A 2015 report from the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) claimed that the rapid decline of Khejri trees in Rajasthan was due to indiscriminate use of groundwater.

Responsible agriculture

In the Punjab, the crisis in the level of the water table is notoriously attributed to the practices induced by the green revolution of transplanting rice three to four times a year. This conventional practice requires flooding fields for nearly three consecutive months by pumping groundwater through tube wells.

To control this, the state government passed the “Punjab Groundwater Preservation Law” in 2009, prohibiting farmers from planting rice before the notified dates. Farmers who break the law are subject to a fine of Rs 10,000 / hectare / month. “However, the government continues to promote the excessive pumping of groundwater by often providing 100 percent subsidies on electricity and water bills,” said Naveen Poonia (27), a former photographer who now works full time as a farmer in his ancestral fields in Bazidpur.

Intercropping of kinnow and cotton in the fields of Bazidpur Bhoma. (Image: Puneet Poonia)

Well aware of the impact of the Green Revolution on ecosystems across the rest of the state, Naveen, like other members of his community, decided to grow their native rice variety called Jonna instead of the energy-hungry hybrid types that found in Punjab. Even this is only planted once a year closer to the monsoons, reducing their dependence on groundwater.

“If we ever need to use the groundwater, we only have to dig 30 to 40 feet deep, unlike the rest of the state where you have to go down to 130-140 feet deep. Also, you have to use a lot of fuel like diesel or hydroelectricity to pump that water, ”said Naveen.

Given climate change and erratic precipitation regimes, it may not be possible to replenish groundwater at this depth. Moreover, when pumped, this deep groundwater seriously affects soil fertility and damages old trees because it is rich in salts.

Indigenous cultures and community livelihoods

For the Bishnois, cotton is an important crop. The community uses cotton thatch to build houses and cook. Stubble burning is strictly prohibited in the village.

The majority of Bishnois continue to cultivate the native variety of cotton. Although this variety produces a lower yield, it sells for a 50% higher price and involves no use of chemical pesticides compared to the widely used hybrid variety.

The practice of intercropping with water resistant crops such as kinnow, mustard, sesame, gram, corn and candle millet has been constant among the Bishnois. They generate more profits by cultivating several crops and thus enrich their soil.

Although not very profitable, the community continues to engage in traditional crops instead of cash crops to support the local village economy. “If we grow non-native crops such as rice, not only will this have a dangerous effect on our natural ecosystem, but we would also be required to hire day laborers from other states such as Bihar who have the right kind of crop. skill. -fixed for [cultivating] paddy.

Then, the disadvantaged demographics of our community, particularly women, who rely on [agricultural] their daily wages for their subsistence will be forced to migrate to work, ”said Kalawati Devi (58), a Bishnoi woman from Bazidpur, who, like her fellow farmer-owners, annually hires local women to grow cotton. we don’t do everything we can to support people; that’s just how our social system works, ”she added.

Read also : Living inside a wildlife reserve, this community combines conservation and coexistence

The Legacy of Bishnoi Traditional Knowledge Systems

These sustainable social systems are carried by the next generations who returned to Bazidpur to work from home during the pandemic.

Young professionals combine traditional knowledge with contemporary interventions that save water and effort. They are developing intercropping practices that will make better use of the soil and yield more profits. Puneet Poonia, 36, software engineer, who has been working remotely from Bazidpur since March 2020, has successfully experimented with growing broccoli, beets and plums through the intercropping approach.

“We try to store all the water we get from the government for farming purposes and rotate our crops so that no extra water is pumped out from the basement. We have also switched to the drip irrigation method whenever necessary to conserve water, ”said Puneet. Like other young returnees, Puneet has reconnected to its homeland, to its people and aspires to encourage sustainable practices in the Bishnoi community through innovative approaches.

“Along with the drop in groundwater levels, its quality has also deteriorated. Therefore, we have recently started digging underground reservoirs to preserve rainwater for consumption. The government is giving grants on some of these sustainable practices, so we thought we could take advantage of them, ”he added.

In order to maintain the shelf life of crops longer, most houses in the village have traditional storage facilities integrated with natural mechanisms for temperature regulation and pest control. In this way, the community also remains empowered to keep their crops longer instead of selling at the current demand prices set by the intermediaries in the supply chain.

As the community continues to move forward with practices focused on resource conservation, one of their challenges remains the lack of market links for traditional crops, which are not listed as cash crops by the government.

(The author is a Dehradun-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-Indian network of local journalists.)

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