The Desert Context

Why deserts need to be understood?

Deserts cover a quarter of the earth. The peculiar geology and climate of deserts have engendered survival strategies, cultural codes, social relations and resilient ecosystems that can seem both odd and fascinating to anyone living outside of it. Over countless millennia, desert communities everywhere have fabricated indigenous knowledge systems from unique models of self-sufficiency, artistic pursuits, man-animal equations, native wisdom and folklore—all rooted in sustainability and judicious use of land resources.

As landscapes go, the significant role that deserts play in protecting the planet has gone vastly unrecognised. For instance, the vast aquifers under deserts protect the earth from the full-blown assault of greenhouse gases by absorbing the carbon dioxide emitted by human activity. Also, deserts hold 13 of the 15 mineral deposit types found on earth. On deeper explorations, desert biomes could possibly uncover huge learnings in environmental tolerance.

The Thar

The Thar in Western Rajasthan, also known as the Great Indian Desert, is the country’s largest desert—a stark sprawl of arid land dotted with sparse vegetation that speaks of a dramatic arc of weather conditions. Summers here scale past 50 Celsius; winters plummet to 1 Celsius. However, survival here is most brutally tested by fickle monsoons and the resulting threat of droughts. The austere terrain is also a contrasting backdrop to the region’s vibrant cultural heritage, which is mostly threaded with rich traditional wisdom on sustainability, hardiness, and an evolved consciousness towards Mother Nature. The sheer remoteness of the Thar also means social and tech advancements made in the larger world trickle in at a slow place. This may well explain why archaic traditions continued to perpetuate orthodox social structures that resisted change and normalised patriarchy, child marriage, female infanticide, violence against women, poor literacy, purdah system and low sex ratio.

The beginning of the millennium also saw the region daunted by a fresh legion of challenges: climate change; mechanised farming and restrictions on grazing land that made camels redundant and set herders adrift; development of new livelihood avenues in urban areas; limited employment in rural lands; unchecked commercial transgressions on desert environments; and a rapidly altering socio-economic milieu. Already lagging behind on all key indicators of progress—education, healthcare, enterprise development, infrastructural growth, digital literacy, livelihoods, gender parity—the Thar remained mostly passive in its embrace towards modernisation.

Today, deserts everywhere are teeming with similar challenges and opportunities that call for urgent responses. These responses should be shaped by a consummate understanding of the desert value system; should connect insular desert communities to the advantages of the evolving socio-political and technological spaces; and should be fertile with a generous exchange of know-how between different desert regions/communities around the world. However, such responses can only steer effective change when they are invested with a multiplicity of ideas and actions that work at the micro and macro levels to nurture desert ecology, culture and economy.

The Desert Resource Centre based in the Thar aims to be a vanguard think tank and action force at this critical intersection, and strives to serve as an exhaustive knowledge platform on deserts and as a catalyst at the policy level to bring progressive changes in desert communities.