Drought, Discrimination and Progress, by Jeffrey Schuhrke

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My FSD internship here in Jodhpur is with an NGO called UNNATI (the word unnati means “progress”) and is centered on their disaster risk reduction program. The major disaster here in the desert of Western Rajasthan is drought. My previous experience has dealt with hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, which tend to be very visible events with a clear beginning and end. It is easy to see their impact because you can clearly see the difference from before and after the disaster; it’s dramatic and typically gets a lot of attention when it happens. Drought is different because it has no clear beginning and end, and so its impact is more difficult to see. It becomes a regular part of people’s daily lives, and therefore doesn’t seem as dramatic and gets less attention. It’s insidious and gets to the true nature of disasters as more than just one-time events.

The ongoing drought here in Rajasthan weakens food and water security, and it severely hurts rural livelihoods. People lose valuable time and money just trying to get water, so they can’t maintain their crops and livestock, and are often forced to migrate to cities for work. UNNATI is trying to counter this in a few ways. One project they’ve undertaken is providing some funds for families to build water-harvesting structures like underground tanks able to catch and store as much rainwater (which is extremely minimal) as possible. These tanks can also store water pumped in from tractor-hauled tankers that bring it from various sources like ponds and canals, though the owners/drivers of these tankers often charge unfair prices. For this, UNNATI is buying some water tankers and tractors and will give them to village committees, which will manage and oversee their use, and will charge fairer prices.

The organization has also undertaken a horticulture development project with about 30 households. The women of the households oversee their own plots of berry and plum-producing plants that require little water. The plants can provide extra food and fodder during times of scarcity, and are also reliable sources of income when the families sell the fruits.

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UNNATI did not originally do this kind of work. Instead, the organization has traditionally worked to empower the Dalits, also known as the “untouchables”. In India’s ancient caste system, the Dalits were given what were considered the dirty jobs like dealing with waste and corpses, and were thus seen as permanently polluted and literally untouchable, and were treated as sub-human.

Since the time of India’s independence, the government has sought to eradicate “untouchability” and engender equal rights. While the overt mistreatment and oppression of Dalits has mostly ended, there are still subtle ways they are discriminated against. They are often systematically denied decent jobs and livelihoods, as well as access to quality education and other basic opportunities. It’s easy to draw comparisons to racism in America, which has also become subtler in recent decades.

This discrimination is very similar to the drought. Both are forms are of deprivation—one is a sort of environmental deprivation while the other is a sort of social deprivation; and also both are insidious and subtle, rather than dramatic, overt situations that get a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, the Dalits tend to have the least access to water, often living farthest from water sources, and also not having the money to afford storage tanks or tanker-delivered water. So, while UNNATI originally worked with Dalit activists to help them assert their rights, it now also works with them to reduce their vulnerabilities to drought.

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Many of my Indian colleagues are ashamed of the continued discrimination against Dalits. Speaking with Indians about Obama’s election back in my home country, a lot of them seem to think such problems in America are all over and only India is dealing with negative discrimination now. I try to tell them it’s not that simple. As proud as I was to see Obama win on November 4th, I was disappointed and ashamed at the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar measures in other states.

But the election of Obama is definitely a mark of progress for the U.S. Looking at all the struggles for social equality that have taken place throughout my country’s history and how far we’ve come, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So I don’t despair the passage of Proposition 8 or the continued discrimination against Dalits, but instead have the “audacity to hope” that it’s only a matter of patience, faith, and dedicated effort before the long drought of injustice finally ends.