A Long Tradition of Eco-Sensitive Agriculture Helps Bishnois Preserve Groundwater


In the late 15th century, much before our country’s environmental laws were formalised, 34-year-old Guru Jambeshwar from Nagaur, in present-day Rajasthan, laid down 29 tenets of a new sect that he had founded — Bishnoism. Out of these, eight were focused on protecting the region’s wildlife and its thick green cover. Ever since then, the Bishnoi community has been at the forefront of fiercely preserving the environment.

The Bishnois are environmentalists by tradition. They bury their dead instead of cremating them to restrict unnecessary chopping of trees. Moreover, they only use dead trees for feeding their stoves and making furniture. With a legacy dating back to 500 years, this vegetarian sect with an estimated population of close to ten lakhs is concentrated in present-day states of Western Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh.

In Bazidpur Bhoma, a village in Punjab, just on the border of Rajasthan, the Bishnoi community has steadfastly stuck to their sustainable indigenous cultures. Here, their eco-friendly social practices have continued over six generations. This formerly arid land is now home to around 3,500 people, who have together turned their lands lush and bountiful.

The majority of the Bishnoi community is engaged in the local economy, working as agriculturists. While Punjab’s water-hungry agriculture practices heralded by the green revolution have wreaked groundwater distress across the state, the Bishnois in Bazidpur have wilfully kept up with their sustainable agricultural practices. This has resulted in balanced groundwater levels, profitable agriculture, healthy living standards, and rich grassland ecology.

The Bishnois are environmentalists by tradition who are extremely conscious about their impact on their surroundings. (Image: Puneet Poonia)

Saving the Khejri: A community effort through the ages

One of the most significant reasons the community has strived to preserve the groundwater levels is to protect their sacred Khejri tree (Prosopis cineraria) that grows in a short period and is vital in maintaining the ecosystem of dry regions.

“Khejri trees add immense nutrient value to the soil and ensure a good yield. The crops grown in the periphery of these trees are also protected from microbial infections and diseases. The dry barks of the trees have great antibacterial properties when burnt as firewood for cooking. The green leaves add a lot of oxygen to the air and are rich in lactic acid. The tree produces very nutritional fodder for our cattle. All of this tree’s parts have some or the other medicinal value. In addition, we prepare a local dish called ‘Sangri’ from its fruit on special occasions,” said Ajay Pal Bishnoi, a renowned conch shell (shankh) blowing practitioner from Bazidpur Bhoma, and winner of multiple recognitions, including the Limca Book of Records for longest non-stop blowing of the conch shell.

The efforts of the community to save the Khejri have continued through the ages. In September 1730 AD, Maharaja of Marwar, Abhai Singh’s men reached Khejarli village near Jodhpur to cut down Khejri trees to construct his new palace. In protest, 363 Bishnois laid down their lives by hugging these trees as a way to protect them. This inspired the famous Chipko Movement of the 1970s.

Now, the Khejri trees appear to be in danger once again. A 2015 report by the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) claimed the fast decline of Khejri trees in Rajasthan was due to indiscriminate groundwater use.

Responsible agriculture

In Punjab, the crisis of water table levels is infamously credited to the green revolution induced practices of transplanting rice three to four times a year. This conventional practice requires flooding of fields for almost three continuous months by pumping out the underground water through tube wells.

To control this, the state government passed the ‘Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act’ in 2009, restricting farmers from planting paddy before the notified dates. The farmers breaching the law are liable to a penalty of Rs 10,000/hectare/month. “However, the government continues to promote excessive pumping of groundwater by often providing 100 per cent subsidies on electricity and water bills,” claimed Naveen Poonia (27), a former photographer who now works full-time as an agriculturist in his ancestral fields in Bazidpur.

Intercropping of kinnow and cotton in the fields in Bazidpur Bhoma. (Image: Puneet Poonia)

Well aware of how the green revolution has been impacting ecosystems through the rest of the state, Naveen, like others in his community, decided to grow their native rice variety called Jonna instead of the water-guzzling hybrid types found across Punjab. Even that is planted only once a year closer to the monsoons, therefore, reducing their dependence on groundwater.

“If we ever need to use the groundwater, we only have to dig 30-40 feet down, unlike the rest of the state where one has to go down to as deep as 130-140 feet. Moreover, one has to use a lot of fuel such as diesel or hydroelectricity to pump this water out,” said Naveen.

Given climate change and erratic rainfall patterns, it might be impossible to replenish groundwater at this depth. Moreover, when pumped out, this deep underground water severely affects soil fertility and damages the old-growth trees as it’s rich in salts.

Native crops and community livelihoods

For Bishnois, cotton is a significant crop. The community uses cotton thatches for building houses and cooking purposes. Burning of the stubble is strictly prohibited in the village.

The majority of Bishnois continue to grow the native variety of cotton. Though this variety produces a lesser yield, it sells for a 50% higher price and involves no use of chemical pesticides as compared to the widely used hybrid variety.

The practice of intercropping with water-resilient crops such as kinnow, mustard, sesame, grams, maise and pearl millet has been consistent among Bishnois. They generate more profits through the cultivation of multiple crops and enrich their soil in the process.

Despite not being highly profitable, the community continues to indulge in traditional crops instead of cash crops to support the village’s local economy. “If we grow non-native crops such as paddy, not only will it have a dangerous effect on our natural ecosystem, but we would also be required to hire daily-wage labourers from other states such as Bihar who have the right kind of skill-set for [cultivating] paddy.

Then the underprivileged demographic of our community, particularly women, who rely on [agricultural] daily-wage for their livelihood will be forced to migrate for work,” explained Kalawati Devi (58), a Bishnoi woman from Bazidpur, who, like her fellow land-owning farmers, hires local women for cotton cultivation each year. “We aren’t going out of our way to support people; this is simply how our social system works,” she added.

Also read: Living Inside a Wildlife Sanctuary, This Community Marries Conservation and Co-Existence

The legacy of Bishnoi’s traditional knowledge systems

These sustainable social systems are being carried forward by the next generations who have returned to Bazidpur to work from home during the pandemic.

The young professionals are combining traditional knowledge with contemporary interventions that save water and effort. They are developing intercropping practices that will utilise the soil better and yield more profits. Puneet Poonia, 36, a software engineer, who has been working remotely from Bazidpur since March 2020, has been successful in experimenting with growing broccoli, beetroot, and plums through the intercropping approach.

“We try to store whatever water we get from the government for agricultural purposes and rotate our crops in such a manner that no additional water is required to be pumped from underground. We have also switched to the drip-irrigation method wherever necessary to preserve water,” said Puneet. Like other young returnees, Puneet has reconnected to his homeland, his people and aspires to encourage the Bishnoi community’s sustainable practices through innovative approaches.

“Along with declining levels of groundwater, its quality has degraded too. Therefore, we have recently started digging underground tanks to preserve the rainwater for drinking. The government is providing subsidies on some of these sustainable practices, so we thought to capitalise on that,” he added.

In order to maintain the shelf-life of the crops for a longer duration, most houses in the village have traditional inbuilt storage facilities with natural temperature regulating and pest-control mechanisms. This way, the community also remains empowered to hold on to their crops for longer durations instead of selling at the ongoing demand prices set by the middlemen in the supply chain.

As the community keeps progressing with the practices centred around resource conservation, one of their challenges remains a lack of market linkage for the traditional crops, which are not listed as cash crops by the government.

(The author is a Dehradun-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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