Glossy brochures aimed at enticing prospective visitors to Rajasthan are littered with images of turbaned men perched atop majestic dromedaries winding their way across gigantic sand-dunes. But that’s just for tourist consumption. With the most interior parts of Rajasthan—like the rest of India—now swamped by ‘development’, centuries’-old ways of life are being rapidly destroyed and replaced by the monotonous trappings of ‘modernity’.
Motor-bikes, pick-up trucks and, now, the latest models of cars, have now replaced the camel, even in little hamlets deep in the Rajasthan desert. ‘Some years ago, we had two dozen camels in our village, but now we have just two,’ says 74-year Sola Ji, a resident of a village in Ajmer district. ‘Twenty years ago, no one in our village possessed a motor vehicle, but today the village has some fifty motor-bikes, a dozen cars and twenty tractors.’
Being heavily dependent on electricity and fossil-fuels, the lifestyle engendered by ‘development’ has wrought a complete transformation in village people’s relationship with their ecology. Traditional Rajasthani village life was based on a symbiotic relationship between humans and animals, explains Sola Ji. ‘We looked after our animals, and, in turn, we depended on them—camels and bullocks—to travel from place to place, transport goods and plough our fields, but not so now. The motor-bike, bus, jeep-taxi and tractor have rendered these animals practically defunct. Only some very poor communities, who can’t afford tractors and motor-bikes, still rely on camel-carts. And I know of no one who still has a bullock-cart. Why travel by camel or in a bullock-cart when you can reach your destination much faster and more conveniently by motor-bike, jeep or bus?’
Adds Sola Ji’s neighbor Nara Singh, ‘Earlier, we used camels and bullocks to draw water from wells. But now it’s much cheaper, faster and easier to get this done by electricity-driven pumps. That saves people the bother of looking after animals and the cost of fodder. In the past, people made clothes out of camel’s wool, but now hardly anyone does that. It’s much cheaper and more convenient to buy factory-made clothes. Camels definitely aren’t as useful for most people as they once were.’
‘When I was young, no one in our village had a motor-vehicle, and we didn’t have electricity either, but we weren’t unhappier then than we are now,’says Sola Ji. ‘At that time, we bought only a little kerosene for our lamps, which we used very sparingly as it was costly, but now the whole village buys and burns up tens of thousands of litres of diesel every year and consumes who knows how much electricity. This must have a devastating impact on our environment.’
The motor-bike and the jeep-taxi, which have taken the place of the once ubiquitous camel-cart, have wrought other major changes in rural people’s lifestyles, not all of them welcome. ‘When I was young, we used to travel by bullock-cart or on camel-back, and for those who couldn’t afford either of these, then on foot,’ says Sola Ji. ‘Several times, I walked all the way to Jaipur, more than a hundred kilometres away, in just a day. All that walking kept us very fit. In those days, there weren’t any roads here, and so we walked on sandy paths and through the fields and forests. But no one would ever think of doing that today. Even to walk from our village to the next one, hardly two kilometres away, most people will simply refuse to go on foot. They’ll travel by motor-cycle, if they have one, or by jeep-taxi.They’ll wait two hours for a taxi, rather than spend twenty minutes walking two kilometres. Young people definitely aren’t as physically active as we were. They hardly walk at all. And because of that, they aren’t as healthy and strong as people were before.’
‘When I was young, cycles were a new thing,’ adds Nara Singh. ‘We used to cycle to school, which was located in the neighbouring village. But today hardly any child does that. If they have to go out of their village, they travel by jeep-taxi, bus or on motor-bike. If their school is located in the neighbouring village, they’d rather miss school than walk or go cycling.’
‘At one time,’ Sola Ji explains, ‘it was considered a prestige symbol to have a cycle. Only the more prosperous families could afford one. But not anymore, today, most people who still have cycles don’t use them any longer—they’ve left them in their yards or terraces to rot. With so many lending agencies operating now even in remote villages, village folk can easily take loans to buy motor-bikes or even cars. They don’t mind paying the high rates of interest that these agencies charge. Many people can also now afford to buy second-hand motor-bikes for just around twenty-thousand rupees. Even though they know that cycling is good exercise, why would they want to travel on cycle when buying a motor-bike is now so easy?’
‘Young people see heroes in films they watch on TV zipping around on motor-bikes, not trundling on cycles, and so they start wanting to do the same,’ adds Nara Singh. ‘They start pestering their parents to buy them a motorcycle or they save up to buy one themselves. They think cycles are old-fashioned, used only by the poor. Wielding a motor-bike is now considered the symbol of manliness, wealth and power, which owning and riding on an elephant or camel once was.’
‘I’ve never been to school, but I’ve heard that the pollution that vehicles emit will one day bring about the ruin of the world,’ says Sola Ji. ‘Maybe that’s one reason why it rains much less here than it used to when I was a child, when we had no motor-vehicles, and why the desert continues to spread, taking over land that was once green.’
‘Perhaps that’s the price people have to pay for abandoning the camel for the motor-bike,’ muses Nara Singh.