Students learn about local food plants in Thar desert
Santosh Gupta, Centre for Enviroment Education
The Great Indian Thar Desert represents a unique desert eco-system. The weather is hot and dry and the annual average rainfall is between 20 and 40 cms. The landscape is mostly a dry, flat plain of hardened sand and stones. Some parts are covered by shifting sands, forming sand dunes as high as 70-80 meters and spreading in patches of up to 10 Km.

The rural economy is largely pastoral. Most communities practice some form of subsistence agriculture and semi-nomadic animal husbandry. Much of the arable land is mono-cropped, mostly producing rain fed crops like bajra, kharif pulses and guar. This supplements the incomes from sale of milk, wool and meat. These livelihoods are constrained by severe drought, impoverished soil, saline water sources, and an extreme climate. The productivity of the fragile natural resource base is adversely affected by increasing population density, and intensification of agriculture based on canal or tube/bore-well water. Subsidies in irrigation and agriculture are pushing farmers towards unsustainable farming practices.

Nearly 700 species of plants are recorded from the area. Most of these form part of the regular diet for people (see coloured text). Part of the impacts of natural resource base degradation is a reduction of plant biodiversity. This in turn impacts nutrition and availability of medicinal plants to people. Sufficient quantities of various species of vegetation are also needed for the survival and well-being of livestock in the Thar.

In 2006, Centre for Environment Education developed a programme to address these issues through school children. The programme aimed to enhance awareness about the linkages between a healthy natural environment and human health, occupations, healthy livestock and agriculture, ecology and culture.

Twenty-three government schools, from eighteen villages of Bikaner district were part of the programme. These schools were in regions not touched by canal irrigation and not in canal-fed areas. These schools were especially chosen to be part of the programme as they retain the natural vegetation patterns. The vegetation patterns tend to change in irrigated areas.

In the beginning, in order to assess the students’ knowledge and perception about their local environment, the students were engaged in informal conversation about their local environment. Nature walks were conducted to learn about their ability to identify various plants and animals and their relationship with each other and with water, soil, air and mankind. A questionnaire was prepared based on concepts given in the text books and local environment for the students. This was circulated to about 1200 students in nearly 15 schools. It was found that students didn’t remember definitions and other basic information given in the text books.

However they knew much about the local biodiversity in their region. For example they knew about flowering and fruiting season of local shrubs, the common medicinal plants of the area, the plants growing in their school campus. They could identify the common birds and the relationship between certain birds and cattle. They knew that camels can survive without drinking water for nearly a week.
Based on this understanding, the content focus of the education programme for schools aimed to make students aware of
  • Linkages of locally available biodiversity and biomass to health and well being
  • Importance of consuming sufficient quantity of dairy products for good health
  • Disappearance of local biodiversity and ways to mitigate that loss

Youth and Teacher Orientation
A two-day workshop was organized for orienting teachers towards the issues of biodiversity, natural resource management, and questions for sustainable development in the Thar. The role of teachers in enhancing understanding about these aspects was discussed. The teachers made an action plan for activities to be carried out over a year.

One teacher from each school was appointed as the nodal teacher for that school. The activities were structured around the school time-table, the capacities of teacher and the interest of students. Apart from school-based activities, Bal Sabhas after school were planned. The project activities were interconnected and drew from one another.

Feeding ants was an interesting activity for school children. To build the ant house, first an ant-home was selected away from the play area of the campus. Four bamboos/wooden sticks were put in a square formation around the ant nest. This prevented student from treading upon the ant-home. Some creative students made ‘ant home’ labels on the sticks to indicate that this was ant home. Some got sugar, flour etc. to feed the ants.
Bulletin Board
Environment-related news and features from the local papers were picked up daily and circulated to the schools. This formed an information base for them. Selected portions from the news were read to all children during morning prayers and then pinned on school notice board or some other suitable place.
Vegetation Display
The activity was aimed to help students learn and know more about local vegetation. Students were asked to gather different parts of plants like leaves, flowers and fruit of the local plants from the fields, grazing lands etc. They were encouraged to share their collections with elders and to ask them for more information about each plant species. About 15 to 40 students were engaged in the activity from each school. They were to make a report on the plant find and bring it in to showcase to the entire school.
Learning to Observe and Record Observations
Each school was provided a ‘Nature Education Book Series’ which has four books related to birds, mammals, invertebrates and vegetation of Rajasthan. This series is designed to start a process of self-learning among the user. Food Plant charts were also produced for the programme. This was mounted on school boards and walls.
900 saplings were planted in the selected schools. The forest department helped provide the saplings. Care was taken to select saplings of local trees as they were easy to grow, required less care and attract more life around them. Students took care of the saplings right from the plantation to protecting and watering.

Paryavaran Bal Sabhas

Paryavaran Bal Sabhas involved activities conducted in village, after schools hours, by the educated unemployed youth of the village for school children of standard VI to VIII. These Sabhas provide opportunities for intensive learning and group formation of children keen on learning more about environment. At the beginning of the programme, the CEE team initiated the Paryavaran Bal Sabhas in a few villages to learn about various strengths and constraints of activity after school time. Simultaneously, interested youth who could help in leading the Bal Sabhas in various villages were identified. Such interested young people became the nodal points for all Paryavaran Bal Sabha activities. They were supported and trained by the CEE project staff.

For each village the Bal sabhas were organised nearly four times every month. In the beginning, the Bal sabhas met in the school campus immediately after the school time. Later on it was preferred to assemble outside the village so that the students could do their nature studies and observations. The number of students varied from just a few to about twenty-five.

Mostly the Bal Sabha met for about two hours. Some of the activities included:
o Nature observation activities and recording their observations (including drawings) in a notebook
o Gathering/finding out the traditional knowledge about vegetation of the region
o Environment-related activities and games
o Collection and exhibition of herbarium, seeds and dried vegetables
o Drawing competition
o Environment related news and features in local news paper
o Helping students in improving their reading and writing skills
o Preparation for the Camel Cart Yatra in schools

Paryavaran evam Swasthya Chetna yatra on Camel Cart

Towards the end of the year, as a culminating activity, a day-long camel cart yatra was organised with the students. The Paryavaran Bal Sabha members and other children were also informed about the Yatra and related activities. They were encouraged to prepared slogans, placards and banners with relevant messages. The path of Yatra was selected within the village, villagers were informed, arrangements were made to send Food Plant charts and other displays and activities were sent to the school on camel cart or in a bus or jeep.

The one-day programme at each school started with an early morning camel cart Chetna Yatra. Some students sat on the camel cart with colourful food plant charts; other students walked behind the camel cart with placards. In all places a few teachers and the principal / headmaster and local village youth involved with the project also joined the rally.

In most places villagers came out of their houses to enquire about the commotion in the street, some of them also enquired from the accompanying teachers and youth. In some places the Yatra stopped at the place of village elder or Sarpanch, while they addressed the children about importance of Food Plants and other related topics. This Yatra took one to two hours to complete in various villages. Afterwards, the Bal Sabha members set up an exhibition of food plant charts, medicinal plant charts, and collections of dried vegetables, seeds, plants done by children.

For more details contact:
Santosh Gupta
Centre for Environment Education
Thaltej Tekra, Ahmedabad - 380 054
Ph: 079-26858002

Some Local Food plants of Thar
A wide variety of local food plants are found in the Thar area. Different areas within the Thar have different set of local foods depending upon geography and microclimate of the area. Some of these plants are described below.

Prosopis cineraria Local name : Khejri
One of the most common tree species of the region. A medium to small tree with somewhat compressed conical prickles, leaves 2 - pinnate. Flowers - spikes with small yellow flowers. Fl. & Fr. : March to June.

Food: Unripe fruits are dried and cooked as vegetable either alone or as part of other vegetables. Dried fruits are also sold commercially. The mature dried fruits are eaten. Gum of the tree is also eaten.

Calligonum polygonoides Local name : Phog, Phoglo.
A rigid, branched, almost leafless (leaves are linear, small and short-lived) shrub; Commonly found on sand-dunes in western Rajasthan; Flower pinkish; Fruit oblong, clothed with reddish-brown bristles. Fl. & Fr. : April-June.
Food: The flower – buds, locally called as “Lasson” in the desert area, are eaten by the tribals with buttermilk (whey).

Capparis decidua Local name : ker, kario, karil, karia, kair.
Leafless (except in young plants) spiny shrubs or small trees mostly found on hard surface throughout the state. Young branches are green; Flowers brick red; Fruit scarlet-red when ripe. Fl. & Fr. : March to June; sometimes also September to December.
Food: Unripe fruit is pickled and has good commercial value. They are also cooked as vegetables with the fruits of Prosopis cineraria (sangri) and seeds of Acacia Senegal (Kumat). Ripened fruits are also eaten by locals.

Cenchrus biflorus Local name: Bhurat
A tufted annual grass which has prickly husk. Common in sandy desert. Fl. & Fr. : August – December.

Food: This is known as queen of cookery grasses in the desert and people value it next only to Pennisetum ( Bajra ) due to high percentage of fat and proteins. Usually the grains are powered and made into bread – locally called ‘Khankara’. A delicious dish – locally called “Malad”, is also prepared by the locals after cooking ‘Buhrat’ flour in ‘ghee’ and adding sugar in it. Cenchrus setigerus ( Dhaman ) seeds are sometimes used as a substitute for this species. Both of these grass species also serve as good fodder for cattle.

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