Until the rains come,dry spots on the Tawa,Narmada and Tapti riverbeds provide a part-time farming option to villagers in Madhya Pradesh
In a corner of the vast riverbed,where hardly any water remains at this time of the year,a few men,women and children are meticulously plucking cowpea beans and lowering them into a dupatta tied skillfully around the body of each to form an improvised sack.
Unmindful of the harsh sun,members of Rooplal Babarias family have been working in the bed of the Tawa,one of the largest rivers in Madhya Pradesh,for several hours now,and will return home on the bank only late in the evening.
This has been the 30-year-olds routine for some months. These forays on the riverbed will end with the onset of the monsoon when his badi will be flooded by rainwater.
The part-time farmer,who does not own the land he cultivates on,will go back to hard labour to supplement his income from riverbed farming. Like hundreds of landless people who live in villages on the bank,he will be back months later,when the riverbed is dry,to occupy his badi (his portion of the field).
Riverbed cultivation comes with unique challenges. It is as much at the mercy of nature as other traditional forms of cultivation,though its scale is small. Cucumber,cowpea beans,bottle gourd,bitter gourd,water melon and musk melon are the staple of riverbed cultivation in the Tawa,Narmada and Tapti rivers.
The land belongs to the government but the small and marginal farmers who cultivate on it were given leases years ago for as little as Rs 1 to Rs 30. It is an amount the cultivators dont even pay the government,which never bothers to collect.
The lease records are difficult to find but the growers and their families rarely fight among themselves over the farm size or produce. Each knows where his badi begins and ends,having mapped it in his minds relative to bridges,overhead wires or on-field markers like rows of crops.
Rooplal started accompanying his father when he was barely six and is carrying on the tradition in his family. Today he is joined by his son and others in the family every time he takes the walk from his village to his badi.
The family sells vegetables either to local traders or to wholesalers in Bhopal. Rooplal earns hardly Rs 5 for a kilogram and the same vegetable sells at prices at least six to seven times higher in the retail market in urban areas. He is not complaining because he has not paid anything for the land.
There are times when we dont earn a single paisa and all the hard work goes in vain when the riverbed gets flooded,either due to unseasonal rains or release of water from the dam, says Dhaniram,who took to this cultivation three years ago after retiring as a government peon.
The cultivation begins with the making of trenches,followed by sowing,and involves use of manures and pesticides besides the routine of shooing animals away.
This cultivation is successful only if the water level is maintained, says Dhaniram,who begins work after the Diwali festival.
Babai Tehsildar Rajesh Soni says hundreds of villagers are engaged in cultivation and the government provides them cash relief only on rare occasions. Since all cultivators are essentially small,they cant afford individual trips to towns where their produce fetches much better returns. So,they pool in resources to send one person to town.
Like the unique markers for their badis,parcels carrying vegetables are also tagged by special pieces of cloth that decides the identity of the owner. Whoever goes to the cities distributes the proceeds on coming back at an agreed place.
There are cultivators such as Dinesh Kahar whose family lives on the riverbed for the whole season,unlike others who go back in the evening and return the next day. It ensures that their crops are protected round the clock and the money they make provides for more than their basic needs.
What fear? The poor are not afraid of anything, says the 26-year-old when asked about living on the riverbed.
Male members of the family work as labourers during the off-season and claim they earn hardly Rs 50 a day,much lower than their income from riverbed farming.