We’re staying in the Thar Desert here in Jaisalmer, and yet the lunch menu includes more than 10 different vegetable options, all grown locally. There is an aquifer where water can be sourced from 100 metres below the ground – it frequently dries in the summer before the 3-day monsoon.
The secret to all these yummy vegetables is the Indira Gandhi Canal, which was built after Partition to help check the desert’s spread into fertile zones and irrigate crops – and has the added benefit of acting as a strategic barrier running parallel to the Pakistan border. Through it, the state of Rajasthan has been transformed from a desert to a producer of cotton, wheat and mustard (for mustard-seed oil). While it has been relatively easy to deal with the Pakistanis on its borders – a large military base and plenty of electrified fencing is seeing to that – the grumbles of the state’s other neighbours in Punjab and Gujarat may be harder to dismiss. Both are taking issue with Rajasthan’s water use – Gujarat downstream and upstream, Punjab, whose river has been largely diverted for the canal, which was originally agreed as only to provide irrigation but which now is used for Rajasthani drinking water, washing and every other facility. And as climate change kicks in further, this precious water will become more of a touch-paper here and elsewhere in the region.
A few weeks ago, I was at ICIMOD in Kathmandu talking to scientists about water management in the region, and one of the biggest problems the researchers and planning authorities face is the reluctance of the Indian government to share its data, because of its ‘strategic value and importance for national security’. Basically, if river flow, rainfall data and dam volumes became open knowledge, it might be harder to justify certain projects. But conflict is inevitable unless this precious resource is seen to be openly and fairly shared. Yesterday, India’s Central Information Commission rapped the Meteorological Department for not making public data on rainfall in Madhya Pradesh, despite an FOI request issued five years ago by the South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People, a consortium that works on water management issues.
On conflict of another variety: The United Nations mandate in Nepal ended yesterday – it should have been a joyous occasion whereby the government entered a mature and secure state and this desperately poor country could have turned its back on 12 years of violence and begun development. But it was not to be. The Maoist fighters have not been integrated into the army: the UN extended its stay until July.
It’s hard to see a solution for this generation of child soldiers-turned thugs that roam the country in angry gangs, their youth and culture stolen from them; their allegiance to a warring Maoist cause now redundant. The regular army doesn’t want them, except in its lowest ranks – which is of course unacceptable to the hardened Maoist fighters. Disillusioned and armed, they threaten a dangerous new war – the fragile government is split between a harder line and ‘betraying’ its Moaist principles. Meanwhile, there is no money for the army or anything else while the country is in such a mess – nobody will invest. The entire youth needs to be rehabilitated after the past decade’s trauma and trained in productive occupations – what does the country need such a large army for? Who will Nepal fight: China? India? I think not.
Of course, China and India each have their own stake in how the country turns out, and each elbows onto Nepal to glare closer at the other… but that’s another story.