A deserted home of Maldhari community in Patna Bhal village, Bhavnagar. | Images courtesy: Damayantee Dhar
Gabrubhai Chogabhai Kangad, a farmer of Chotila village in Rajkot district of Saurashtra region, owns 35 bigha of land along with his family but nonetheless has been working as a labourer for the past eight months. Last summer, instead of Rabi crops, the family had to sow wild grass due to lack of irrigation water.
“The wild grass is fodder for cattle and is bought by Maldharis (pastoral communities). It doesn’t fetch as much money as crops so we (men of the family) had to look out for alternate jobs,” says 32-year-old Kangad.
“There is no sign of rain and Narmada minor canal doesn’t reach till our land so the land has been lying arid,” he adds.
In villages of Maliya taluka of Rajkot district bordering Kutch, farmers have staged multiple protests so that the Gujarat government releases water for the last leg of irrigation for the cotton crop that they had sown last winter.
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“In three months, we staged four protests to save our crop. After about ten thousand farmers gathered to protest, the state government finally relented and released the Narmada water. But it was too late, the crop had dried up by then,” said Rohit Savjibhai Sanjha, a farmer of Khirai, Maliya taluka.
Noticeably, water for irrigation from Narmada dam was stopped by end of February, much ahead of the March 15 deadline announced by the Gujarat government. Notices were issued to farmers informing them of the cut in irrigation water and advising them not to sow summer crop. However, farmers had been protesting as the winter crops needed one last leg of irrigation water before being harvested in March end.
Unlike last year, water level has been surging in the Sardar Sarovar Dam, taking the water level to 119.48 metres, just two metres short of its overflow mark. Despite that, farmers in rain-starved Gujarat – who depend on Narmada water for irrigation – are facing a severe water crisis.
Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd. (SSNNL) have resorted to deploying personnel of State Reserve Police Force on guard lest the farmers siphon water from the main and branch canals.
The SSNNL has justified the decision of not releasing water for irrigation saying that as per policy norms, Narmada dam is not “meant to supply water for irrigation in summer” and that deployment of security forces along the main canal and the branch canals is a routine exercise as farmers illegally draw water from the canals during this time.
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Saurashtra and Kutch regions of Gujarat are largely dependent on rain that has been scanty since 2017. In 2018, Gujarat saw an overall rainfall deficit of 19% while Kutch region saw deficit of 75% that was declared drought-hit in 2011-12, 2014 and 2015. As per Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) data, Kutch endured a deficit in rainfall even during the Rabi (winter) crop sowing months of October and November with no rain in October and 99% rain deficit in November.
However, in 2018, despite an almost failed monsoon season, Gujarat government insisted it was not drought-hit until three months after the monsoon had passed. The state government, after months of terming arid conditions across Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat simply as “water scarcity”, finally declared 51 talukas in 16 districts to be ‘drought hit’ with several being ‘severely hit’ (with 50% or more crop loss) that included 10 talukas in Kutch alone.
With the rainfall deficit continuing into 2019, some parts of otherwise rain-fed South Gujarat, have been hit with drought too. In Dang district of South Gujarat, tribals are being forced to travel at least 3 kilometres in search of drinking water and women are forced to climb down the water wells as water level has gone down drastically. Severe water crisis has also forced locals to drink polluted water.
Water for Industries But Not for Irrigation
In response to an RTI filed by Gujarat-based farmers’ rights activist Sagar Rabari, Gujarat government stated that industries in Mundra in Kutch had received 25 mld (million litres per day) of water from the Narmada Valley Project while Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar cities had received 75 mld of drinking water between 2014 and 2018.
In accordance with the annual reports of the Narmada Control Authority, Gujarat had utilised more than 11% water for non-agricultural purposes and by 2018, more than 18% water was being used for industrial and domestic purposes.
However, Gujarat government’s own provision states that only 11% of total water (9 MAF or 30,414.62 mld amounting to 32.14% of the total water allocation) allocated to Gujarat by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) would be used for drinking and industrial use in 135 urban centres and 9,633 villages.
The NWDT had laid out extensive irrigation benefits to Gujarat while allocating more (57%) of the power generated to Madhya Pradesh. However, till date only 36% of the Narmada canal project has been completed, most of it restricted to districts that are predominantly urban.
In Patna Bhal village of Bhavnagar district, as one passes through the incomplete minor canal and dried up fields, an eerie silence greets as one reaches the basti of Maldhari community. A basti of about 50 families of Maldhari, a pastoral community, stands deserted as all of them have migrated in search of greener pastures, water and fodder for their cattle.
Haji Mustaqsad Sarada, a resident of Mota Sarada village in Banni grasslands of drought-hit Kutch is one such Maldhari who had to migrate to Sanand, Ahmedabad with about 100 other Maldharis and around 1,200 cattle.
Migration is usually a heavy expense as Maldharis have to sell their belongings to raise the cost of travelling. In the last eight months, post migration, their situation has only worsened with only 900 cattle alive and milk being their only source of sustenance and income.
Haji Khan claims that this is one of the worst droughts he has faced and that about 250 Maldharis, both Hindu and Muslims have had to migrate from Kutch along with around 10,000 cattle.
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