The temperature was hovering at around 44 degrees Celcius in Barmer. We were advised to drink lots of water and always keep a water bottle to avoid dehydration.
These advisories were given well before we reached Barmer, the westernmost district of Rajasthan. Located in the Thar desert region, Barmer is surrounded by Jaisalmer from the north, Jalore in the south and Pakistan to its west.
Due to its location, the district has a large variation in temperature, from 51 °C in peak summer to 0 °C in winter. We could hardly imagine life in these severe conditions and how its residents are surviving.
Interestingly, the region has the highest population density in any arid area with 90 people per square km. Unlike its neighbour Jaisalmer, this is not a tourist place and is almost cut off from the mainland.
However, the place has a rich history since the 12th century, when it was known as Mallani. Its present name was give by its founder, Bahada Rao, popularly known as Bar Rao, Parmar Ruler (Juna Barmer).
Once known as a camel trade route, the area is rich in crafts that include wood carving, pottery, embroidery work and ajrak prints.
Several festivals are held in Barmer, Most important being the Mallinath cattle festival, which is held at Tilwara village in remembrance of Rawal Mallinath, who was founder of Mallani Pargana.
Till 2004, the region was known as any other border district. But in 2004, this harsh terrain revealed one of the largest onshore oil fields in India ~ Mangala.
Since then, the region attracted technical oil experts, who have been pouring into the tiny town. At the same time, the town started developing, keeping pace with the rest of the world. As we came out of the small railway station, the town appeared quite impressive.
Due to the oil refinery, many hotels and eateries have mushroomed here. A number of foreigners, mainly oil experts and trainees, could be seen. Working in the Mangla Oil Field they can be spotted sharing their experiences in evening over drinks in the not-so- big hotels.
Full of issues
Overall, Rajasthan, covering 10.4 per cent of the country’s geographical area, 5.5 per cent of the population and 18.70 per cent of the livestock, has only 1.16 per cent of surface water available in the country.
Not only does the state lack water, even rainfall is quite erratic.
One can hardly forget 2006, when this arid place received severe rainfall, which deluged the whole Barmer. It was of such intensity that the desert turned into a cluster of lakes.
Barmer’s railway station was under about 15 ft of water. The average annual rainfall ranges from 100 mm in Jaisalmer to 800 mm in Jhalawar.
Due to arid region, its ground water is highly saline and is unsuitable for daily purposes, be it drinking or for farming. Its ground water contains high fluoride content, which is responsible for several ailments like diarrhoea or joint pains.
The Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) as well as Maternal Mortality (MMR) is high in the area. As per some newspaper reports, 75 per cent of Indian villages with multiple water quality problems fall in Rajasthan. And per capita water availability in the state was 840 m3 in 2001, while the international benchmark for water scarcity is 1,000 m3.
Perhaps these problems were well-understood by Vedanta’s Cairn India, which got mining rights in Mangla Oil field. Cairn Oil and Gas, a vertical of Vedanta Limited, is one of the largest oil and gas exploration and production companies in India.
Under the company’s CSR activities, they have promised to provide clean drinking water at a minimal rate. They have come up with a project, called Jeevan Amrit Programme, in association with the Public Health Engineering Department, government of Rajasthan.
Under the programme, the company has so far installed 114 RO plants across Barmer. The company addressed access and shortage of safe drinking water. Their aim is to provide local communities access to treated safe drinking water through the RO plants, which have been set up under a PPP (public- private partnership) model.
They sell treated water at minimal rates. “Water is one of the most basic needs for every human and we, at Cairn, ensure that members of the community have access to clean and safe drinking water,” said Madhavi Jha, Chief Communications Officer and CSR Head, Cairn Oil and Gas.
Another part of the project is innovative water ATMs running on solar power that ensures the community can access safe drinking water at their convenience. One has to have a water card with a value of Rs 150 and one can get 20 litres of water for Rs 5.
The card can be recharged for a similar amount. For those people, who can’t access water ATM, there are Jal Raths, which reach people located far from the RO ATM locations.
These interventions have helped in providing safe drinking water to rural communities at their doorsteps. Besides installing RO plants, five bore wells have been constructed in water constrained areas, in collaboration with PHED.
These borewells cover five gram panchayats, serving 5000 families. Another problem is lack of technical schools. To meet this need, the Cairn Enterprise Centre, in association with Rajasthan Government and International Finance Corporatio to develop vocational skills as well as domain skills, soft skills, English and digital literacy.
In this project, Cairn claims to have trained 12,000 youth till date through skill development centres at Barmer and Jalore.
In fact, they claim 80 per cent placement. The centre was started in Barmer in 2007 with support from government of Rajasthan and International Finance Corporation, to develop the capacities of the local youth. They offer courses such as electrician, basic computers and mobile repairing, masonary, submersible pump repair and motor rewinding.
The youth, with the basic school degree undergo two months intensive training in the domain knowledge of different courses.
The company has not only education plans for youngsters but also kids. For the toddlers Cairn India has launched Nandghar (a classroom for young kids) . Unlike other Anganwadi centres, the Nandhghar is a little modern with full e-learning tools, television, solar panels, safe drinking water and clean toilets.
At present, Cairn claims to have built 50 Nandghars that are operationalised in Barmer district. They benefit 15,000 children and 500 women.
“Since it is a very hot region, we spent a lot of our resources to build classrooms. Therefore, we have come up with Japanese architecture, which remains cool in summer. It makes a perfect ambience for the little students,” said Madhavi Jha.
These centres are not just providing basic education but also taking care of supplementary nutrition, pre-schooling, and health service to pregnant and lactating mothers.
They also provide skill training to women, in which 1,500 women have been trained as teachers.
“This initiative has provided significant impacts like interactive learning facilities through e-learning tutorials ~ building the early stage learning in children in the age group of 3-6 years ~ primary health care ser vices, nutritious food/pre-packed food, women empowerment through skill development, access to clean water and toilets and solar electricity,” informed Jha.
Health and sanitation
Another major problem with this district is health as it has only one district hospital. It is capable of taking care of basic treatment and for any major health issue one has to run to Jodhpur or Jaipur. Cairn India stepped in to help change this situation.
Till a few years back, the district hospital had no operation facilities but now it has residential doctors and equipped with operation facilities. The hospital register claims to have treated several major health problems.
The Barmer District hospital has 10 Mobile Health Vans (MHV) providing basic medical services to 3.9 lakh community members annually.
Three specialist doctors have been appointed and the hospital has treated 54,000 OPD patients, conducted 1,700 surgeries and 480 institutional deliveries annually. They are also helping to maintain cleanliness at Barmer district hospitals through 57 housekeeping and sanitation workers.