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Salting out the poorest

January 31, 2009

Salination is a huge problem for Gujarat’s farmers, and for farmers in states across India – and it will only worsen with climate change. The problem in Gujarat, which with sea-level rise will carve into three islands, is that it has so much coastline. Historically (millions of years ago) much of it was beneath the sea, too. It is of course the poorest and most marginalized farmers (in the social and physical sense) that use lands at the crust of the continent – their crop poverty reduces them to financial straits whereby they borrow at exorbitant rates money that they have no chance of getting back. From such a position they become beholden to wealthier farmers, and this situation of bonded labour is passed down the generations to children not even conceived. It’s a pitiful, desperate position akin to slavery, which no human should find themselves in.

The salination in Gujarat is likely to worsen still, exacerbated ironically by a government project to bring freshwater to the limb of the state via a newly built network of canals that is being spread through the driest parts. Farmers who have exhausted the aquifers will now pump canal water onto their crops, raising the salts from their subterranean depths. As the water evaporates and is transpired, the salts will remain like a crystalline shroud on the fields.

Today we spoke to the utterly charming head of VIKAS centre for development in Ahmedabad, Rajesh Shah, who has dedicated his life to bettering that for those in his state. Bonded labourers are being helped up and out of their situation using grants and micro-loans from his NGO. And he is working with some of the poorest, including women, to find alternative livelihoods, including saltworking. The government too is aware of the futility of future farming in the state – across the bulging nose of Gujarat, it is investing in coastal projects such as port-building and shifting agricultural workers to jobs in these sectors. Many NGOs are up in arms at this because it is erosion of such peoples’ traditional lifestyles. Can they not see that misplaced nostalgia for an older way of life is equivalent to condemning the poorest to destitution?

Tonight we take the night bus south to Junagadh for a peek at the last remaining Asian lions, India’s national symbol, which once thrived throughout the continent and shared habitat with its bigger stripy cousin. Then it’s back to Delhi for the Asian summit on sustainable development.

Cross your fingers we spot a lion!

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