Monday, October 24, 2011

Land of Three Rivers

We left the south. The sticky coastal heat, the pervasive dosas and parottas for every meal, the incomprehensible Tamil language – all this we put behind us as, in mid-April, we returned to Delhi. Although not for long, because less than 24 hours after arriving we were back on a train chugging east across the dusty plains of Uttar Pradesh on our way to Allahabad, a historic city in the heart of India’s agricultural wheat belt.  

Allahabad, a city of almost 2 million people, occupies a propitious piece of land near the convergence of three holy rivers – the tangible Ganges and Yamuna rivers, and the more mysterious Saravati river.  This third river, although mentioned in religious texts from ancient India, no longer exists as a traditional, surface-flowing body of water. The faithful believe that the river now flows underground and wells up to the surface in the middle of the convergence of the Ganges and Yamuna.  This triple whammy of holy rivers makes Allahabad one of the four sites of the Kumbh Mela, a Hindu pilgrimage taking place every 3 years.  Every 12th year a larger and more significant version of the event takes place, and every 144 years the Maha (great) Kumbh Mela occurs. The most recent one in 2001 attracted 60 million people, making it the largest gathering ever in recorded history.

Our main reason for visiting Allahabad was to participate in a second community farmer consultation with staff from TERI (read about the first one in West Bengal here). While I was doing that, R. made his way to Triveni Sangam, as the river convergence is known. Joining Indian worshipers in a hired boat, he rowed out to the center of the wide waterway. His fellow boaters were young men who had just finished taking an exam to gain admittance to university - for the third time. Each April for the last three years these friends had thrown themselves into the cut-throat battle to gain university admission. Indian higher education is one of the most competitive academic systems in the world, and the best Indian universities have an acceptance rate of less than 1 in 50.  In 2011, in order to be competitive for university admission, students had to score a perfect 100% on the standardized entrance exam. India’s abundance of talented and ambitious youth combined with inadequate university capacity leads to this – young men taking an entrance exam for the third time and then rowing to the holy convergence of sacred rivers to pray for divine intervention. Let’s hope it’s third time lucky.

While R. was learning about the plight of the modern Indian university aspirant, I was shut in a very hot conference room with 25 officials from the Allahabad district Department of Agriculture. After an introduction and discussion of climate change impacts in the region, TERI researchers led the participants in a conversation to suggest locally appropriate adaptation ideas. Agriculture, the primary industry in Allahabad district, is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Grain crops are largely rain-fed, and changes in the pattern of the annual monsoon can be hugely detrimental to farmers. The Ganges and Yamuna (and presumably Saravati) are fed by seasonal melt from the Himalayas, and are thus also susceptible to climate change impacts.

The next day we saw climate change adaptation in action at a rural agricultural extension office an hour’s drive outside of Allahabad. This facility was promoting alternative livelihood activities to supplement agriculture and provide more stable sources of income.  We saw several test projects in action, including intensive chicken farming, making idols and figurines, cow husbandry, and the cultivation of commercially valuable high-grade crops. These activities can provide a critical economic buffer to rural farmers in times of drought or flood.

Community consultation in Allahabad
Figurines cast from a plant resin

Commercial-scale chicken husbandry

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