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Power of Vision and Might

Scorched Land Now Verdant Campus
Purba Kalita Jodhpur

Varun Arya, director of the Aravali Institute of Management (AIM) in Jodhpur, wanted a new, spacious campus for his institute. All he had were 100 barren acres without a blade of grass 46 km away. The land was a vast stretch of salt and granite with a hillock. No chance of any trees growing there, for sure. As for water, the area was steeped in salt.

“In my 20 years of service I had not come across such saline land,” says Pradeep Chaudhry, conservator of forests of the Arid Forest Research Institute (AFRI), Jodhpur, “The tanks had been dug up. I saw yellowish water at the bottom. It was an unpleasant sight. I put a drop of that on my tongue and it tasted like concentrated hydrochloric acid.”

Today, the same land has six lakes gurgling with water. Three thousand trees are planned. Species that can survive harsh conditions have been short-listed. AIM’s new campus will be constructed with old, forgotten techniques that used lime, sand and coal tar to withstand salt ingression.

Arya spent his childhood working in small shops and pulling a cart. But he did well in school and that trajectory took him to IIT, Delhi and then to IIM, Ahmedabad, where he paid his way through with a loan from the State Bank of India. In 1999, he chucked his Rs 2 lakh per month job at DuPont to set up AIM.

“When I was in the corporate world, I wanted to recruit people from Rajasthan but compared to other students, they fell behind. To bring them to the level of competence, I decided to start AIM,” says Arya who also helped begin the Amity Business School in Noida, considered one of the better private B-Schools in India.

At the new site Arya plans to establish, besides the management school, an engineering and science college, a commerce and arts college, a 10-plus-two school, a prayer and meditation centre as well as residential complexes. “One year from now my students will be learning at this site,” declares Arya. The entire project will be completed in 10 years, he says.

The salinity of the land will be turned into its strength. “We will set up a salt factory. Management students will work there in shifts and get hands-on experience about the industry,” says the indomitable Arya.

And how did 100 acres of hopeless land change overnight?

Arya called in India’s waterman Rajender Singh, to spin some magic. Singh, leader of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, is famous for transforming parched lands into wet zones through rainwater harvesting. “When I visited the site, I realized how anyone could be intimidated seeing white layers of salt on the surface,” says Singh.

But he surveyed the land and pronounced there was hope. Salinity was maximum on the surface, he explained. “I tasted the water on rocks below the surface and found that at some places it did not taste so salty. Therefore I decided to dig deep (12-15 ft).”

This monsoon the lakes are overflowing with rainwater, enough to last till the next year’s monsoon. “It took less than an hour for the lakes to get filled,” recalls Arya. “It’s such a different feeling now. When we came to the site last year, we felt like running away unable to bear the terrible heat,” recalls site architect, Rajesh Sharma. “Now it’s become a picnic spot,” adds a delighted Arya.

The excitement is infectious and you quickly taste the water. And bingo! There is no trace of salinity.

Pessimists say after four to nine months the water will turn saline. But Singh dismisses such ideas. “Paani khaara bilkul nahin hoga (the water will not turn saline). A composed Arya says, “Let’s wait and watch. With problems come solutions.”

Arya has spent close to Rs 20 lakh on the lakes but Singh says for neighboring villages to replicate such structures the cost will be lower. “The design will be different. The ones for the institute have been planned keeping aesthetics in mind.”

A green blueprint has been drawn up. “I would have advised against any plantation on the land had it not been for an educational institute,” says Dr Ranjana Arya, senior scientist and head, non-wood forest product at AFRI. She explains that the soil depth is only between 25 cm and 40 cm. For forestry a soil depth of 60 cm is required.

But scientists are tiding over such snags. Both AFRI and the Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI), Jodhpur have selected salt tolerant species. These include the indigenous Salvador persica (Khara jaal), Cassia siamea, Pongamia (Karanj), Tamarix (Pharash), Bougainvillea, the exotic Australian Acacia ampliceps, Acacia nilotica, Termenallia catappa, Parkinsonia and Neem.

Pits measuring one cubic metre have been dug and filled with soil of good quality. Vermi-compost, farm manure and gypsum, say scientists, could help balance the saline soil. Saplings have been planted at a one metre distance from each other. The peepal saplings failed. Others are braving it out. Dr Arya says it is difficult to predict which trees will survive. “Which plants should be grown more will depend on success rates,” she says.

Arya and Sharma have been undertaking a lot of exploration. “We went to Sambhar Lake and Phagi in Jaipur to study the kind of structures that could withstand salt ingression. We saw a building fall apart in Phagi because of salt,” recalls Arya.

Villagers, Arya says, advocate the use of mudia, a mixture of lime and sand. It was used to build the 500-year-old Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. So Arya and Sharma got lime from Nagore, 150 km from Jodhpur. Since this ancient form of construction is almost non-existent because of its high cost and the presence of newer and quicker technologies, the machine to process mudia has to be made to order. Earlier, camels ran such machines. Arya uses a tractor. The foundation will be built with mudia up to plinth level.

For the building, an ‘arch foundation’ is being considered to minimize areas of contact. A visit to Swami Maheshwarananda’ s Ashram at Jadan in Pali district provided great insight. “There we saw how liquid coal tar formed a barrier wherever construction came in contact with the ground,” explains Sharma. In addition, measures like DPC or damp proof course, they say, will also be carried out extensively.


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