Farmers in Gujarat's Saurashtra seethe over being made pawns of electoral politics over water

Located at the border region of Rajkot district in Gujarat, Madhapur village has been battling a brutal summer, all on its own.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Madhapur: Located at the border region of Rajkot district in Gujarat, Madhapur village has been battling a brutal summer, all on its own. This is one of the worst-affected villages in the state when it comes to water scarcity. The Saurashtra region has given three chief ministers to Gujarat, including sitting chief minister Vijay Rupani and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who won his first election from Rajkot. Yet, not a single government scheme connected to water has been implemented in this village. With a population of over 35,000, Madhapar does not have a reservoir or water storage facility.

The entire village gets “illegal” water from a pipeline that runs through the region supplying water from the Narmada. Officials at the Madhapur panchayat office said, "Drinking water is always an issue here. We illegally take water from the pipeline that passes through our village. We have already informed the government about this.”

Once known for its farming community, Madhapar now has only around 40 people actively involved in agriculture. In the past one-and-a-half year, around 15 agricultural plots have been converted to non-agricultural land. Today, farming is not seen as a profitable business due to various reasons, including water scarcity. Most second-generation villagers have given their lands for farming on a contract basis and moved to the cities to work or operate businesses.

The Saurashtra-Narmada Avataran Irrigation Yojana (Sauni Yojna), an ambitious dream project of Modi to supply water to Saurashtra has not reached the village. Launched by Modi during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat ahead of the state elections in 2012, Sauni Yojna was to fill 115 major reservoirs in Saurashtra. The scheme involves diverting flood-water overflow from the Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada river to drought-prone areas in Saurashtra. While Narmada water has reached Rajkot city, several surrounding villages and Kutch district, Madhapar continues to survive without water supply and pipelines.

On 17 May, around 200 million litres of water got wasted after a pipeline in Rajkot district developed a leakage. Masuma Bharwal Jariwala/101Reporters

On 17 May, around 200 million litres of water got wasted after a pipeline in Rajkot district developed a leakage. Masuma Bharwal Jariwala/101Reporters

That a severe crisis was going to hit the state was apparent when the last monsoons were less than spectacular. Saurashtra received only 72.20 percent of average rainfall in the 2018 monsoons. Despite this, Madhapur village wasn’t declared drought-one as it was deemed to have received enough rainfall. Just a year ago, however, water politics played out quite differently.

In summer 2018, anticipating a water crisis, the state government announced a clampdown on the water for irrigation and industries and also rationed drinking water supply to cities including Rajkot, Surat, Ahmedabad and Vadodara. Just a few months ago in 2017, before the Gujarat elections, the Sardar Sarovar dam was inaugurated (56 years after Jawaharlal Nehru had laid the foundation for it) and BJP promised it would end people's water woes forever. But soon after, the government hit them with the bad news. The state government announced that Narmada water would not be available for irrigation, farmers were advised to not sow crops in the summer unless they had other sources of water like borewells, built at their own expense.

This coincided with state elections in Madhya Pradesh, where the 15-year-old BJP government, fighting anti-incumbency, farmer unrest and weak monsoons, took the decision to not release any excess water to Gujarat. Farmer leaders allege that the government knew about the impending shortage but hid it with the elections in mind. Farmers who could have planted rabi crops had they been warned early on were caught by surprise and were at a loss. Meanwhile, the Opposition accused the government of diverting water so that Modi could campaign via a seaplane. In 2017, the Opposition was keen to capitalise on the ire of rural voters regarding water scarcity in Saurashtra, and sentiments against the BJP have only strengthened post the last kharif season.

Over-dependence on the Narmada

According to a panchayat member, Pruthvisinh Jadeja, in 2018, Rs 14 lakh was spent in four villages of Rajkot including Ghanteshwar and Madhapar to supply water using tankers. "This year, the cost will be more. The government spends around Rs 800 for a 10,000-litre tanker. We ensure that water reaches everyone who needs it,” he said.

Politicians have always been promising to bring the Narmada to every corner of Gujarat at the cost of developing and preserving local water bodies. Minister for Water Resources, Kunvarji Bavalia said, “There are some issues at places which do not have local water resources. I visited areas in south Gujarat, Kutch and north Gujarat, and held a review meeting last week about the complaints from locals. The district collector has been asked to address these complaints at the earliest.”

When asked about the feasibility of existing water supply schemes to meet the water requirements in Gujarat, Bavalia said, “The schemes that are being implemented are based on the 2011 census. The population and water consumption has since increased.”

Vitthal Dudhatra, president of the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh said, “The state government has spent crores on water schemes, but none were planned well. Along with ensuring proper water supply, efforts should be made to implement rainwater harvesting to raise groundwater levels. When Keshubhai Patel was the chief minister, he had launched a scheme to build check dams, but it soon became a business for contractors and officials. In Madhapur, around half the youth have left villages, many sold their farms and switched to running businesses.”

Mukesh Jalawadiya, a farmer in Madhapar sold his six-acre land five years ago and set up a factory. "What can one do without water? I was not earning enough from agriculture, so I sold my land and started a hardware factory. It gives me enough income to support my family.” Like Mukesh, Bhadabhi Bachubahi of Madhapar sold his two-acre land last year and now works as a labourer. He said, "We never got good prices for our crops. Water was always an issue. What can a farmer do?”

Every house or building in Madhapar has a borewell. A filter is fitted in every house for water purification and those who cannot afford this, buy 20-litre cans of filtered water. Madhapar sarpanch Chaganbhai Sankhavara said, “No matter which party or person comes to power, nothing seems to improve in the villages or for farmers. This village has been deprived of basic facilities for so long. Once water would be available if we dug about 100 feet, but today, even after digging to 2000 feet, there is no guarantee we will find water here. In summer, the situation worsens. Daily, over 10.30 lakh litres of water is supplied to the villagers using tankers. This year, the supply of water via tankers started on 11 March.” Sankhavara added.

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Heenaben, a woman from Krishnanagar is fed up with the water shortage situation. "I work as a domestic help and I cannot afford proper water storage facilities in my house. I manage my work timings according to the time the tankers bring water to our area. There is much physical strain involved in filling water and carrying the pots to our homes, but we have no other option,” she said.

Shankersinh Vaghela, former Gujarat Leader of Opposition, submitted a letter to the Governor, Om Prakash Kohli on 17 May, 2019 outlining the water shortage issues in Gujarat and asking for government intervention. His letter was based on visits by his party members to around 12,000 villages. The letter stated, “Access to drinking water is still an issue for around 70 percent of the population of both urban and rural Gujarat. Earlier north Gujarat and Kutch-Saurashtra faced droughts, but this year, Ahmedabad city and south Gujarat are facing water shortage. Despite 25 years of BJP rule in the state, the water situation has worsened. The government has only marketed themselves in the name of Narmada and Sauni Yojna.”

Questioning the Vibrant Gujarat model, the letter further stated,” The inefficient Narmada water supply scheme has forced women to walk miles to fetch water. Adivasi women in some areas are forced to get down inside wells to fetch water. Many areas receive water at a gap of three to seven days.” Vaghela has requested the governor to form a committee comprising people from different walks of life to help address the problem of water shortage in Gujarat.

According to Mansukh Suvagia, the pioneer of bringing Jal Kranti (water revolution) by constructing check dams at nominal costs with people’s participation, all is not lost yet. He said, "The government should stress on water conservation schemes to handle water shortage. I have constructed 3,000 check dams in total and 51 check dams in Jamka village of Junagadh. While the government spent Rs 5 lakh for one check dam, I spent Rs 10 lakh for 51 check dams. The Jamka model can be replicated across the country. I have constructed 25 check dams in Bhekhadiya village of Chotta Udaipur. The check dams constructed tend to last for 100 years and even today, the ones we constructed 20 years ago in Jamka are standing strong and the entire belt has no water issue."

(The author is a Rajkot-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)


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