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The Great Wall of Surajpura

Water warriors of a Rajasthan village use the rural employment scheme unerringly to turn the climate tide.

Roli Srivastava

Villagers pose for a picture standing on top of the mud wall they built tapping into MGNREGA funds to arrest rainwater runoffs in Surajpura, Rajasthan, Feb 22, 2024. Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story

Surajpura, Rajasthan: The villagers of Surajpura in Rajasthan have built a wall: a 15-feet mud bulwark that snakes through vast barren land for nearly a mile, with an equally long trench dug painstakingly beneath it. The soil even today appears loose but the wall passed its strength test last year when it arrested rainwater runoffs, and the trench channelled the water to parched farms in the drought-prone region, reviving them for the first time in over two decades.

For the 650 residents of this village in the northwestern Indian state of Rajasthan, who toiled on the wall for six months in 2022, it is nothing short of an architectural marvel. For climate advocates, it’s a case study in climate resilience powered by an Indian social welfare policy, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA). One of the world’s biggest job programmes, climate activists are increasingly citing MGNREGA’s role in building water security in villages amid growing climate uncertainties.

In the past year, Surajpura’s residents have seen their farms come back to life, their wells recharged and their environs once more alive with migratory birds. A few migrants have also returned to their farms.

“Our village received good rainfall until about 20 years ago. But major droughts and poor rain later led to our wells drying up. Our farm yields hit zero. We had just one harvest cycle for years,” farmer Hemraj Sharma told The Migration Story, standing in the middle of his lush wheat crop fed by water from a nearby well, clean enough to drink.

“We see a drought once every three years. Last year was a drought year too, but this time around we had water. The wall worked,” said Sharma, who worked in a mill in neighbouring Bhilwara town until a few years ago. The water scarcity had led to his brothers migrating as well, putting in 12-hour shifts like he did for monthly wages of 5,000 rupees.

Sharma had feared that he would lose his farmland to the growing climate crisis, which the entire village then came together to avert. “More than 40 of the 100 wells in the village have water now,” he said.

Farmer Hemraj Sharma drinks water from a recharged well that successive droughts had rendered dry until a couple of years ago in Surajpura, Rajasthan, Feb 22, 2024. Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story


Rajasthan, India’s largest state in terms of area, is also among the most vulnerable to droughts. Ninety-eight percent of its 250 village clusters are marked as ‘dark zones’—areas with dangerously low groundwater levels—and almost seven percent of the land here is uncultivable, according to local state officials and researchers.

More than half of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted faster than they can be naturally replenished, the United Nations warned last year, with countries like India among the most at risk of groundwater plummeting to levels that existing wells can’t access.

While rain is scarce in the sowing months of July to October, unseasonal rainfall in winter damages standing crops. Worse, the impervious soil quality in Rajasthan villages such as Surajpura prevents water percolation.

It is in this bleak scenario that MGNREGA has come to play a part in turning around the fortunes of villages. “The rural employment guarantee scheme should no longer be viewed as an instrument that’s solely for job creation,” Shantanu Sinha Roy, head of the Rajasthan chapter of the land and forest conservation nonprofit, Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), told The Migration Story. “It is a climate action tool. It can do marvels and is the only way to protect our future.”

1.A dry farm pond owing to poor rainfall last year in Baldarkha village, Rajasthan, Feb 22, 2024. 2.Farmer Shaintanji Rebari shows a check dam villagers have built using funds from MGREGA, reviving a pastureland in Makarya village, Rajasthan, Feb 24, 2024. Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story

MGNREGA, brought in by the Indian government in 2005, guarantees 100 days of work a year to rural households that request it. While men migrate for better wages than the average 200 rupees per day doled out by the scheme, women, who account for 57 percent of its workforce, participate in it as they did in Surajpura, becoming the foot soldiers in this tale of climate revolution.

Over the years, MGNREGA has been credited with cushioning some of the country’s poorest people from the devastating blow of droughts and floods and even the Covid-19 pandemic by creating an employment opportunity in villages. Its importance, however, is now being seen in the context of mounting climate risks.

​Almost three-quarters of the work undertaken under MGNREGA is meant to manage natural resources, a critical intervention, given that nearly two-thirds of the area in India is drought-prone, with Rajasthan being among the most vulnerable states, studies show.

The scheme’s potential to build resilient structures can be unlocked further by implementing it in convergence with other government programmes such as those on groundwater security. This would bring in more funding for material and scientific guidance to build stronger structures. Also, given the erratic rainfall and groundwater crisis India is facing, it becomes important to have indicators that monitor the impact of these structures on the community, said Suchiradipta Bhattacharjee, policy engagement specialist at research nonprofit International Water Management Institute.

Women who worked on the wall pose for a picture in Surajpura village, Rajasthan, Feb 23, 2024.

Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story


Surajpura’s 110 registered households received an average of 60 days of work under MGNREGA to build their wall. In Baldarkha village, about 10 km away, 1,000 villagers also registered under the scheme. They dug contours and trenches on an eight-acre barren land from 2021 onwards, turning it into a grazing field, an annual task that generates jobs for 400 people for about four months.

The grazing land appears like a fenced oasis amid small ponds and water harvesting structures that are bone-dry on account of zero rainfall last year. “But we had enough fodder for our animals despite the lack of rain,” said farmer Radheshyam Kumavat, 32, walking through the grazing land and pointing to the grass and shrubs that have sprung up in the trenches.

About 120 km away in Makarya village, home to around 500 people, the villagers have created another pastureland spread over 50 acres. Their trenches and check dams to arrest rainwater runoff, medicinal herbs and local tree species such as babul and neem have inspired a neighbouring village to utilise its wasteland in similar fashion. Roy of FES, which was the partner organisation of MGNREGA and oversaw the transformation of both Baldarkha and Makarya, said the returns in creating these water structures were far greater than the investment made, including expenditure on fodder and buying water in tankers.

For most villagers of Makarya, the government jobs programme is also their only livelihood option. “Every household in the village got paid to work on this pastureland. There is nothing else here apart from this scheme,” said Shaitanji Rebari, a local farmer.

To be sure, there are also some concerns about MGNREGA. Researchers said that its budgetary allocations were now lower, and its new digital attendance system, a stumbling block in villages with bad network, was exacerbating payment delays that have impacted both job creation and demand for the scheme.

India’s ministry of rural development and Panchayati Raj, however, has denied poor fund availability, saying that MGNREGA is a demand-driven programme and has been granted additional funds in the last three financial years. The ministry also stated that more structures have been built as part of the jobs programme in the last few years as compared to the years following the scheme’s launch.

Water gushes into a farm from a nearby well, clean enough for a farmer to drink from it in Surajpura, Rajasthan, Feb 22, 2024. Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story


Back in Surajpura, the farms are lush this February. The wheat crop sways gently in the breeze as villagers gather to tell the story of the wall they built—yet to be noticed by local officials but the stuff of folklore already.

Among those who built the wall was Sayari Kumavat, 50, a farmer. “I worked very hard on it,” she said. “I did get paid for each day’s labour but I also volunteered to work for free. This was going to benefit the village and me. I got water in my well.”

The February data for the groundwater level in the Biliya village council where Surajpura is located shows a 0.5 metre improvement from June 2023. More rainwater seeping into the earth has recharged aquifers and improved groundwater quality, which has ensured that women of the village no longer undertake four-hour treks to fetch water from a distant well, a responsibility they have traditionally shouldered.

But success didn’t come easily to the villagers of Surajpura. They had first built a four-feet mud wall that collapsed like a sand castle with the first spell of rain. A delegation of villagers led by farmer Hemraj Sharma then went to the village council head, Ramlal Jat, to build a stronger wall.

Billya village council head Ramlal Jat poses for a picture in front of the revived farms of Surajpura village in Rajasthan, Feb 22, 2024. Roli Srivastava/The Migration Story

Jat, a trained lawyer who peppers his sentences with both poetic couplets and dry legalese, took on the task with steely determination. Apart from MGNREGA, he tapped other government programmes for rural development and groundwater resources management. He then called in experts from FES and local government to plan the structure, check dams and the shape of the trench.

Construction began and generated work, with many other villagers volunteering to work for free. And then the straight wall hit a tricky bend. A nervous village, fearing it would collapse again as clouds began to hover overhead, gathered around their local deity Bhairon Maharaj — who they worship in the form of a vermillion-smeared stone under a tree near the wall—to pray and promise an offering of the local delicacy daal-baati-choorma if the wall stood firm this time around.

It did. The village held a feast with the promised offering.

Last year, the community welcomed back painted storks, migratory birds that had disappeared years ago, as well as a few male migrants who had moved to work in Bhilwara’s textile mills or to dig borewells in other states.

One of them was Mahavir Jat, 28, who worked in Jammu for six years and made about 10,000 rupees a month digging borewells. He now leases a farm and rears two buffaloes, earning 3,000 rupees every day from selling their milk. “I don’t see the need to migrate now,” he said.

The village council head, Jat, said that nearly 60 percent of the people who migrated from the village had returned. “In the last two years, the water level has improved as has its quality,” he said. “People are investing in animals, since water and fodder are now available. We are working together on new agriculture techniques to improve farm incomes so that more people return. We want to revive agriculture-linked livelihoods in our village.” Jat is now seeking funds to strengthen the wall.

Meanwhile, those like Hemraj Sharma have found a rare, playful calm on their fields.

He plucks a carrot from a friend’s farm and chews on it lazily as he speaks about the 50 quintals of wheat he reaped on his three-acre farm, a first such yield in over two decades.

“Gajab hariyali hai (It’s amazingly green),” he said.

Edited by Radha Rajadhyaksha

(This reporting was supported by the CGIAR Initiative on National Policies and Strategies)


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