Groundwater decline and the associated quality problems in India during the past couple of decades have resulted in severe challenges to the primary productive systems, namely agriculture and dairy. As much as 60% of India's geographic area is under semiarid and arid conditions where the agriculture-based and dairy-based livelihood often gets jeopardized due to long spells of drought conditions.

A study on 400 households in three locations in arid and semiarid regions of Gujarat found that people's response to such drought conditions is not uniform. It varies from a reasonably well-thought-out strategy to ad hoc measures, from household-based to community-based institutions. This variation is found to be dependent upon factors such as social and kinship networks, awareness and education levels, ability to diversify within the primary productive systems and beyond, and non-land-based income options. This is in addition to the economic status of the family and the cohesiveness of the particular caste.

However, it is also found that in spite of the social, economic, caste and gender differences, the presence of a strong and robust institutional mechanism (e.g. dairy, village and ta/uka-level co-operative societies and a committed NGO) goes a long way in providing a complementary, enabling support to families in their adaptive efforts. In particular, during drought conditions, people often made desperate efforts to corner whatever groundwater was available to sustain their kharif and rabi crops. But long dry spells tended to erode even local seeds and biomass, placing the affected in the hands of the market forces.

Although perceptional differences exist among communities from the three areas as to the causes of drought, a majority believed in the lack of adequate and timely water availability, including from groundwater sources, as a key reason for the livelihood woes. As part of their adaptive strategy, people resorted to borrowing money, selling away jewellery, migration and dairy business. Extreme cases of selling away topsoil for brick making were also identified; farmers who did this were fully aware of the long-term implications on future crop yields. However, they perceived this as a better option than selling away the land, which is linked with the family's social status.

What then is the way out? The study indicates the need for viewing through a livelihood lens, and not through a pure economics lens. The study underlines the dire need for enabling policies and, more importantly, their effective implementation to complement and supplement people's own efforts and adaptive strategies at local level. It also highlights some policies and programmes that have made positive contribution, intended or unintended, to the adaptive strategies of the people. Examples include tribal job reservation policy, free education for girls and the joint forest management programme. Significantly, the regenerated forest cover in Bhiloda has also helped maintain environmental flows that delayed the effects of drought compared to Satlasana and Bhuj areas where such a programme was absent, primarily due to non-availablity of forest land.

Finally, the study emphasizes that adaptive strategies of the people do need to be embedded in the larger conventional resource management systems and welfare measures.

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