How farmers in Jaisalmer are using traditional ‘khadin’ agriculture to beat the heat

The Khadin agricultural system has been around for centuries, and is still a technique that allows farmers to maximise their water usage for irrigation.


“Once, when I was young, I used two buckets of water for a bath. My father admonished me and pointed out that I had committed a sin by using more water than I needed,” recalls Jethu Singh adjusting his tinted spectacles. “Water conservation is a part of life here and has been for centuries.”

He is seated on a beri or a water tank built to store runoff water that seeps into the ground after it collects in this sandy bed from the surrounding catchment area. The stored water is used by the neighbouring village for their daily needs and by livestock. “Now women don’t have to walk kilometers to fetch water and since the water is limited the villagers are more responsible with its usage. That small rectangular stone tank beside the beri is filled for livestock; after all they too have an equal right on the water here in the desert,” quips Jethu Singh.

Jethu Singh(left) and Thakur(right) with a beri or water tank to store seepage water

Jethu Singh (left) and Thakur (right) with a beri or water tank to store seepage water

Initially there were two water tanks constructed here and as their utility became obvious the government built an additional four to augment the water supply. “The officials choose to ignore traditional methods of conservation and agriculture, even when they have been proven to be effective for hundreds of years but things have been changing over the past few years,” he says with a triumphant grin.

Water is a much discussed topic in Jaisalmer and regularly crops up in daily discourse—the numerous lakes that once dotted this dreary landscape and whose dry beds now yearn for water; the legends of many others that have never dried and cradled civilization even during severe drought conditions; the Indira Gandhi canal that brings waters from the high Himalayas to the thirsty desert; how floods pose a regular threat to the region during monsoons.

Traditional mud huts in Manpiya village ready for tourists

Traditional mud huts in Manpiya village ready for tourists

And to understand this bitter-sweet relationship with water and how it affects communities of the desert I am travelling to the outskirts of Jaisalmer to witness how Jethu Singh Bhati is waging war against the persistent sand and reclaiming precious land for agriculture. Riding on the lonely road, threading the vast expanse of arid land dotted with mud huts, the impotency of the winter sun is evident as the biting wind punishes without mercy. In this morbid landscape a patch of green is a welcome sight; these are Singh’s fields where he cultivates crops using the khadin or rain-fed system of agriculture.

The system has been used in this region for more than 500 years – its design is attributed to Paliwal Brahmins who lived around Jaisalmer. In this system the runoff water from a catchment area (which is usually a rocky upland close to a flat area) is collected in the Khadin bed by building a bund. Excess water is allowed to drain off via spillways and sluices, traditionally. But in Jethu Singh’s fields, however, extra water is re-directed to nearby fields and a pond. Water is allowed to be absorbed by the soil till it is ready to be sowed and no irrigation is required post sowing.

The fields, where Singh grows gram and mustard, also have a lush covering of perennial trees like acacia. He mentions that information is still not readily available to farmers and it is hard to convince them to switch to crops like mustard that needs relatively less water than conventionally grown wheat.

A spillway to carry over excess water from one field to another

A spillway to carry over excess water from one field to another

Apart from improving yields and providing food and financial security to desert dwellers, khadin has several positive impacts on the environment itself. It prevents soil erosion and washing away of essential minerals and organic manure from the fields. The plant waste lying in the field is converted into manure by the trapped water. Ground water is replenished and the system is not exacting on the land (a lot of farmers grow crops organically). Dense natural vegetation that flourishes around khadins provides fodder for animals and much needed shade during scorching summer months. The government is also promoting research in searching new sites for prospective khadins, to improve upon utilizing the current ones and identifying crops that are suited to this environment.

The next stop on our itinerary is the village of Manpiya, around 12 kms from Jaisalmer, where Jethu Singh is setting up a village tourism venture that promises an authentic experience complete with home cooked meals and music from the desert. In Jaisalmer, which is a very popular tourist destination, the cultural events are often geared towards offering what the tourists want rather than what is genuine. The accommodation is arranged in mud huts with thatched roofs and the company of simple villagers is refreshing. The plan is to combine this sustainable form of tourism with spreading knowledge about khadin, water harvesting and the role water plays in daily lives of sturdy denizens of the desert.

Green khadin fields surrounded by sand with the rocky upland in the background that serves as the catchment area

Green khadin fields surrounded by sand with the rocky upland in the background that serves as the catchment area

As the sun dips towards the horizon the resurgent cool wind awakens; it is time to say goodbye to Jethu Singh. He remarks as the motorbike sputters to life, “Real freedom is in self-reliance and khadin is our best chance to achieve this.” And on the ride back to Jaisalmer one can witness the morose golden desert peppered with green fields, evidence that several other farmers too are willing to place their bets on khadin.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An engineer by profession, Deeptangan likes to explore India, meet its people, savour its cuisines, climb its mountains and sail down its rivers. Born and brought up in the shadow of the Great Himalayas, he reveres the mighty mountains as the temples where I have been educated. When not writing code, he is trekking in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, writing, reading books and enjoying mu... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
An engineer by profession, Deeptangan likes to explore India, meet its people, savour its cuisines, climb its mountains and sail down its rivers. Born and brought up in the shadow of the Great Himalayas, he reveres the mighty mountains as the temples where I have been educated. When not writing code, he is trekking in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats, writing, reading books and enjoying mu... more

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