Environmental Degradation & Migration in Rural Rajasthan

Ten thousand years ago, Rajasthan was lush and green. Ancient civilizations prospered off of the fertile farmlands fed by the Saraswati River.  Today, the Saraswati River is both legend and history, as it appeared to have dried up some six thousand years ago. On my flight from New Delhi to Udaipur, I flew over the outlines of several dried-up seasonal rivers. In Rajasthan, the months of April until June are the “dry season.” Urban dwellers like myself are eagerly awaiting the upcoming monsoons for a relief from the oppressive heat (115 degrees F!) and an end to whirlwinds of dust.

For small-scale farmers in Rajasthan, the dry season potentially means seasonal unemployment compounded with resource and water scarcity. Due to lack of irrigation facilities and extreme aridity, farmers are not able to grow crops in their fields during this season. In addition, the effects of desertification are already visible in Rajasthan due to resource over-exploitation and mismanagement. Desertification is not only a consequence of climate change, but can accelerate climate change as well.

Haila road
Rajasthan’s arid landscape

One evening, we talked with two women under the shade of a mango tree. During the dry season, these women are “commuter migrants,” traveling  daily to work as laborers in a gravel pit. Both mothers, their children are left in the care of relatives. The daily life of a woman commuter migrant is demanding—before and after their daily commute, the women look after their children, cook for their families, care for their livestock, gather firewood and water, and attend to various other household duties.

Both women work in the gravel pit from 9am until 5pm. For their labor, they are paid 150 rupees ($2.53) a day. While women migrant workers often earn less than male migrant workers, they are more likely than their male counterparts to remit their entire income back into their families.

According to the UN, 70 percent of internal migrants (people migrating within a country) in India are women. Migration poses unique challenges and vulnerabilities for women. In every country, women migrants—and women who are left at home— are more likely to face exploitation, sexual abuse, violence and discrimination.  Migrants and their families can also experience loneliness, depression, social isolation and anxiety.

In rural villages, open air jeeps provide are the most efficient method of transportation.
In rural villages, open air jeeps are the most efficient method of transportation.

In Indian cities, three out of ten people are migrant workers. In some ways, migration can potentially change the social fabric of India. Labor markets may provide the opportunity for upward social mobility, as lower caste people fill the vacancies of jobs traditionally reserved for upper caste people. As wage earners—even principle wage earners—women may have more decision-making power in their homes and communities.

The women we met expressed their desire to remain in their homes and communities. The Foundation for Ecological Security (the India-based NGO I’m working with) and the Indian government have initiated several development projects and schemes in nearby villages with the intention to support local livelihoods. In Haila, both men and women were equally unaware of FES and Indian government schemes and opportunities. As we continue to converse with the communities, we hope to eliminate this information gap and connect the communities with these programs.