Sustaining livelihoods of desert communities

Sustainable livelihoods of arid zone communities remain an important issue to be addressed. BAIF’s innovative farming system based livelihood model is emerging as a viable and sustainable approach for addressing a gamut of core needs of desert communities.

Deserts in Rajasthan and Gujarat account for over 80% of the arid zone in India. These regions are characterized by poor natural resource base, perpetual drought, very high temperature, very low precipitation, scarcity of water, low content of organic matter and presence of soluble salt in the soil.Rearing of cattle, goats, sheep and camels is most common but less productive. Permanent pastures are highly degraded and neglected. Many of these pastures do not have any basal plant cover. Increased grazing pressure has led to disappearance of many plant species and there is a decline in biomass yield.

Such a situation forces people to migrate to other areas for survival. Mostly men migrate while women left in villages face a difficult life owing to scarcity of water, fuel and fodder.

To address these fundamental livelihood issues of the people in the arid zone, a comprehensive multi sectoral umbrella program was designed by BAIF, an NGO. The programme was implemented in Barmer district of Rajasthan in coordination with Rajasthan Rural Institute of Development Management, Udaipur.

Villages were identified based on communities needs and interests. Also, villages where not many interventions were carried out earlier, either by the government agencies or the NGOs were preferred. Accordingly, two clusters of villages – Alika tala and Ranigaon kala of Ranigaon panchayat were selected. A number of meetings were conducted for building rapport with the communities. Baseline situation was assessed, issues and needs were listed, all by involving the local communities. Also, separate meetings were organized for women, to facilitate greater participation by them in the programme.

The base line study revealed that there is an acute shortage for drinking water in these villages. Often, women and children had to walk 4-8 kms. to fetch water from the government fed tanks. Sometimes, women had to bring water from wells, where water table is low, making the task even more tedious. Agriculture is mostly rainfed with annual rainfall being 250 mm, received over a period of 12-15 days.

The important crops grown are bajra, cluster bean (guar) and green gram. Livestock rearing such as goat, sheep, camel and donkey is adopted to support income, but it’s productivity is low due to absence of worthy breeds and scientific management. This together with degradation of resources such as fodder and biomass, puts limits on development in desert areas. Due to limited livelihood options, most of the men migrate for 8-9 months to cities like Baroda, Sanchor, Ahmedabad, Jodhpur and mostly get engaged in labour work.

Against this backdrop, the focus of the programme was to minimize the risk of drought and provide sustainable livelihoods for desert communities. This was to be achieved through efficient use of scarce natural resources, providing suitable technology solutions for crop improvement and diversification for additional income generation.

As a strategy, it was decided to utilize the existing natural resources judiciously by conserving every drop of scarce water, strengthen the livestock based farming system, improve the degraded community pastures through promotion of silvipasture, increasing land productivity and income through various inventions like agro-horticulture, agro-forestry and diversified improved agriculture. The interventions were also aimed at creating more productive assets both at family and at the community level.

All the initiatives were carried out involving likeminded research institutions like Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Jodhpur, Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI), Jodhpur and Rajasthan Agriculture University (RAU), Bikaner. While CAZRI supported with technical inputs, AFRI and RAU provided inputs like budded plants of ber, pomegranate date palm etc. Local KVKs provided training and extension, soil testing support along with supply of improved seeds.

Interested households were exposed to the work of CAZRI, KVKs and that of other progressive farmers in the region where they could see some useful set of technologies which they could adopt. Need based demonstration, field based trainings were also conducted. All these helped in motivating 310 families to participate in the programme.

Agor is a circular catchment area with diameter of 5 to 8 m, paved with stone fragments, sand and gravel. The surface slopes inward, towards a silt catcher that leads to an underground pit, in which the collected rainwater is stored. As mud is used for plastering, the collected water has to be filtered before use.

Conserving water, the scarce resource

The initiatives started with water resource development. In Barmer, communities have a traditional underground storage system called agor (See Box). But, many agors are structurally weak and are prone to damage in every rainy season. Many are in the state of disuse.

Local communities were trained in techniques and skills in renovating agors. Agors used by poor families were repaired by the trained people, using cement plastering.

Water harvesting structures, called Tankas, were created near the houses to ensure availability of drinking water. Rooftop rainwater harvesting was also introduced along with the storage tank wherever feasible. Around 60,000 litres of rainwater was harvested even when rainfall is 250mm per annum.

Making better use of water

With increased availability of water, communities were also conscious about the way it had to be used. Priority was given to drinking water followed by water for livestock and irrigation.

With surplus water, the area under irrigation increased. Farmers started growing additional half acre with protective irrigation. Farmers started raising vegetables on small plots. Vegetables crops suited to arid conditions (water melon, cucumber, ridge gourd, bottle gourd) were grown. By consuming vegetables on a regular basis, the nutritional status of households improved. The surplus produce, which was sold, fetched some additional income too.

To optimize the available water, wadi model of tree raising was promoted. Farmers were motivated to plant trees that required less water for getting a stable income from the land. Tree species were selected keeping in view the agro-climatic conditions of the area. Fruit trees like ber (Ziziphus mauritiana), Pomegranate (Punica granatum), Gondi (Cordia gheraf) and date palm were selected owing to their tolerance to excessive heat, survival in salinity and less water requirement. Around 50 plants of two hybrid ber varieties (Gola and Seb) promoted by CAZRI, were planted alongwith 50 other fruit-yielding plants on half an acre area adjacent to the residence.

Farmers were trained in growing and managing trees and were provided with input and management support for the entire cycle of tree plantation. Locally available natural resources have been used for fencing plots and protecting saplings from extreme heat. Other adaptation techniques were also used. For instance, SYBOIN –S, a PH reducer, was used to increase water storage capacity of sandy soils. Vermicompost and organic manures were added to enhance root growth.

From the second year of planting, farmers started getting the fruit harvest which maximized from the fourth year onwards. Ber plants provided an additional advantage with their green foliage serving as fodder. From the fourth year onwards, each ber plant has yielded around 4kg of fodder. With 80 trees per wadi, every household had a potential to harvest 320 kg of fodder, which could support goat rearing. In a way, trees in wadi helped poor communities opt for a very viable and remunerative livelihood option in desert regions.

Amongst forestry species, farmers raised multipurpose trees and drought resistant trees like khejari (Prosopis cineraria) as they had variety of uses. The fuel wood and fodder requirement of families is expected to be met by these trees in future.

Goat rearing – a source of income

Desert families rear 2-10 goats with a mix of breeds like Marwari and Sirohi. The productivity of these breeds is low with 200-500ml milk production per day. To improve the quality of the existing breeds, cross breeding with ‘Sindhi’ breed of goat was promoted. Sindhi breed has several advantages. This breed depends on open grazing and is known for twin production.

The yield of milk and meat is also high. One Sindhi breed buck per 10 households was provided for cross breeding. This has resulted in substantial improvement in quality of goats in a cluster. One-year-old goats, with body weight of 60-80 kg, fetched around Rs 2000. Each family has sold at least 3 kids a year and earned good income.

Basic nutritional support and healthcare services were provided through paravets known as ‘Bakri Mittras’. Bakri mittras are local goat rearers who are trained in management and treatment aspects of livestock. They offer goat breeding services and take care of grazing of bucks.

Along with livestock development, efforts were made to improve forage production. Traditional practice of protection of commons was revived for silvipasture development. This included practices like reseeding with high yielding varieties of perennial forage grasses like Sewan (Lasiurus Sindicus), Dhaman (Cenchrus setigerus) and stylo hamata, and fodder trees like Pilu (Careya arborea), Gondi (Cordia dichotoma), Neem and Shirish (Indian siris).

A replicable model

A farming-system model, combining water-resource development with agri-horti-forestry and fodder and livestock development, emerged as a cost-effective and sustainable option, with replication potential. By integrating suitable tree crops with traditional agriculture, improving livestock breeds, and reviving traditional water harvesting methods, there was a synergistic impact on the livelihood situation.

Since all the above interventions have been introduced as a ‘package’ at the level of family, together these interventions improved the natural resource base and have enhanced the livelihood options for desert communities. The model proved that even in adverse conditions, there exists a scope and opportunity for enhancing livelihoods.


BAIF, A booklet on innovative farming system based livelihood model for desert areas

BAIF, A brochure on sustainable livelihood initiatives –focus on desert areas

BAIF, A report on brain storming workshop on promotion of sustainable livelihood in desert areas of western India – jointly organized by DBT – Government of India and BAIF

M.S. Sharma, Banwarilal, Rajashree Joshi, S.S. Roy and Waman Kulkarni

M.S.Sharma and Banwarilal
Center for Arid/Desert Areas, Rajasthan Rural Institute of
Development Management (RRIDMA)
BAIF Bhavan,G block,
Near community hall Hiran Magri,
Sector 14, Udaipur – 313002

Rajashree Joshi and Waman Kulkarni and S.S. Roy
BAIF Development Research Foundation,
BAIF Bhavan, Dr Manibhai Desai Nagar,
Warje, Pune 411058
Phone: 020-25231661

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