Rajasthan polls: Politics, climate and a bitter fruit in Sawai Madhopur
Sawai Madhopur, known for its tigers and guava orchards, highlights the impact of politics and environmental policies on its impoverished residents.
For most people in Delhi, Sawai Madhopur district in Rajasthan is synonymous with the tigers of Ranthambore national park, several of which are known and admired by name. However, for farmers such as Rukhsar in Karmoda village near the Sawai Madhopur town, Delhi is not about the tourists who come to see the tigers. Delhi, for them, means the Azadpur fruit market. This is where the bulk of their guava production goes. Between the tigers of Ranthambore national park and the guava orchards in the district lies the story of how politics and environmental policies have left a bitter taste in the mouth for the voters of one of the poorest districts in Rajasthan.
According to data from the Rajasthan government, Sawai Madhopur was ranked 26th out of the 33 districts in Rajasthan in terms of GDP in 2020-21, the latest year for which this data is available. In per capita GDP terms, the district was ranked 21st out of the 33 in the state in 2020-21. It is clearly, among the poorer districts in the state.
The share of agriculture and allied activities in the district’s GDP has actually increased from 33.6% in 2011-12 to 39% in 2020-21. Industry, on the other hand has seen a decline from 26.5% to 12.7% during this period. Services, and this would include some of the most premium hotels near the Ranthambore national park, are the major driver of the economy.
For the people in Sawai Madhopur district and even the town, services are not the most exciting part of the economy though. The real money from the big hotels goes to big companies running them and we do not get anything, a shopkeeper in the town said. Now there is an oversupply in the hotel market, he added. Most of the big resorts do not employ local people and young men have to either migrate in search of jobs or do manual work, added Rukhsar.
While the national park has not given much to the local residents, it has taken things away. Because of concerns around protecting the eco system at Ranthambore, a lot of industrial activity is not allowed in the district. While new investment does not come, old industries have shifted out. It was (the late PM) Rajiv Gandhi who ordered the closure of a cement factory in Sawai Mdhopur, Rukhsar told HT. Employment is a big problem because there are no factories here, the villagers in the group around Rukhsar claimed in one voice. While there can be no disagreement about the need for protecting ecosystems such as Ranthambore, it is clearly a failure of policy if local population does not gain from such conservation efforts.
To be sure, the villagers in the district have done more than just complain to get around this problem. One of these responses has been focused on guavas. Driving to the district, one comes across women selling guavas for as low as ₹20-25 a kg on both sides of the road. Data from the National Horticultural Board shows that around 40 thousand tonnes of guavas were grown in Rajasthan in 2021-22. More than half of Rajasthan’s guava production comes from Sawai Madhopur , locals told HT. That is hundreds, perhaps thousands of crores worth of produce in one district.
This is exactly why Azadpur fruit market in Delhi -- it is believed to be Asia’s largest fruit and vegetable market -- is the most important place for residents of this district. Guava production really picked up in the 1980s and more farmers took to it in the hope of making some extra money from the practice.
Things, however, have not been good for the last few years. A new disease which has been destroying plants has afflicted the crop in the last two-three years and many orchards have suffered because of it, farmers told HT. Guava trees are extremely sensitive to the climate too. If there is cloud cover rather than dry winter, when the fruit is yet to ripen, there is a lot of damage and premature dropping of fruit. The climate has been turning more erratic in recent years and crop losses have mounted. Guava is also not a crop which can be preserved via standard cold storage type facilities. Neither are there any fruit processing industries which could facilitate value addition for the farmers. No government has paid attention to these issues, the locals complained.
To be sure, guava farmers in Sawai Madhopur are not the only ones who are facing a threat to their livelihoods because of the worsening climate crisis. What makes them unique is the fact that they have faced a double whammy from the intersection of environment policies and politics. First, because (valid) concerns around environmental protection has entailed an economic cost in terms of curbs on industrial activity and now because of the threat to their main cash crop. Neither of the issues, however, are relevant, as far as the current elections are concerned. This gap between livelihood, environmental sustainability, climate crisis and day-to-day politics, is not something which is limited to a district in Rajasthan or India. Whatever be the results in these elections, this crisis is not going away as far as the people in Sawai Madhopur are concerned. This is where this place holds a mirror to all India.