In rural Gujarat, water woes drive anger against BJP, but Modi is saffron party's trump card

Amidst the incessant focus on GST and demonetisation influencing businessmen in the upcoming Gujarat elections, a demand made by Nilesh Jetpriya has largely gone unreported. Jetpriya, the president of the Morbi ceramic association,  has written to the Gujarat government for access to Narmada water. “There are 700 ceramic factories in Morbi,” he says. “Close to 2 lakh workers live alongside the factories in residential quarters. We need more water for the industry.”

The state government, he says, has asked for an estimate, and the ceramic association is in the process of gauging their water requirement. However, it looks like they will have to wait a bit, for the state’s priority is to address the shortage of irrigation water in arid Saurashtra, of which Morbi is a district.

Narendra Modi, ahead of the 2012 Assembly elections, had launched the Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation (SAUNI) Yojana to end the region’s persistent water woes. Under the scheme, Machchu 2 dam in Morbi district is designated to supply water to 40 other dams in Saurashtra. Yet, about 40 villages in Malia taluka - 45 kilometers from Morbi city— continue to depend on monsoons for irrigation water, and farmers are not impressed with it.

Puriben Dangar, an elderly woman in Moti Barar village of Malia, claps the hardest when the Congress candidate promises to address the water paucity faced by villagers. “We have to go to a nearby pond to wash clothes,” she says, as two other elderly women nod along. “Water availability is constantly at the back of the mind while preparing food. Our farmlands remain parched if there is no rain. The BJP has neglected rural areas.”

Morbi, which shares its northern border with Kutch, has certain similarities with its neighbouring district of Jamnagar. The former is a ceramic hub, while the latter is a brass hub, thereby significant presence of businessmen. Both the districts have a heavy Patidar population as well, and the Hardik Patel factor has struck a chord, particularly in the rural areas.

At the Agriculture Produce Market Committee in Kalavad, about 50 kilometers from Jamnagar, farmers across the constituency from several villages have arrived on a hot sweaty afternoon to sell their groundnut produce, and their testimonies are identical.

Jayatibhai Patel, 52, has travelled 11 kilometers with sacks of groundnut, and he is angry, to say the least. “A few years back, 20 kilos of groundnuts would be sold for 1000 rupees, and the fertilisers cost 700 bucks,” he says. “Today, I sold 20 kilos for 650 rupees, while fertilisers’ price continues to inflate. I have never voted for the Congress in the last 30 years. But this time around, it is time to do so. Modi is not bothered about us.”

 In rural Gujarat, water woes drive anger against BJP, but Modi is saffron partys trump card

Jayatibhai Patel. Image: Parth MN

Not only are the farmers upset with falling crop prices, but they also remember the horrible drought of 2016, when the state failed to provide water as promised. Jayashree Patel, an onion cultivator a few kilometers away from Kalavad, says farmers had to work as labourers during the drought, because their own farmlands had gone dormant due to lack of water. “It has been a while since the government pledged to end the water scarcity,” she says. “Farmers cannot survive if they solely rely on rainwater. We have only been hearing about the canals entering the farmlands. What happened to that?”

While Jamnagar endured the drought of 2016, the floods that transpired three months ago are still fresh in the minds of Morbi. Machchu 2 dam had overflowed, and it devastated miles of cotton crops in neighbouring villages.

Bharat Mauji, a cotton farmer in Rasangpar village of Malia, says in jest that no canal brings water to their village, but “when we get water, we get so much it takes our crop with it”. “We have still not received the compensation for the loss,” he says. “The village has a large Patidar population, and we voted for the BJP. But we are thinking of voting against them because of Hardik. He is speaking for us, and he has endorsed the Congress. Rahul Gandhi may not be an impressive politician, but his heart seems to be in the right place.”

Bharat Mauji. Image: Parth MN

Bharat Mauji. Image: Parth MN

Considering the anti-incumbency in key constituencies like farmers and rural Patidars, any decent opposition should run through the elections. But the biggest factor going against the Congress is that they have been an invisible opposition in Gujarat for 22 years, and Modi, on the other hand, continues to be BJP’s trump card, reflecting in their campaign slogan “Gujarat ki jeet, Modi ki jeet”.

As one moves towards the city, the anti-incumbency wanes, and the lotus blooms, even though Jamnagar city gets water only on the alternate days, that too for 45 minutes. With the city expanding with vigour, there are societies, which are not even covered by the underground pipelines.

But the urban Patidars, who are mostly businessmen, remain loyal to BJP. Jetpriya might have asked for more water for the industries but he is quick to point out the community is set to back Modi yet again. “The reduced GST rate of 18% from 28% is no cause for concern,” he says. “Whether it is Modi, Anandiben or Rupani, they have all been supportive of us.”

Local journalists, however, in private conversations say the traders and businessmen are keeping their cards close to their chest. Having been BJP’s core vote base for years, they cannot afford to be seen siding with the Congress, but are definitely not as satisfied with the government as they pretend to be.

Nonetheless, the calls for a change in government are certainly not as pronounced as they are in the hinterland. Bharat Boricha, 35, who runs a paan shop at Khakrala, merely 8 kilometres from Morbi city, says Modi is working hard for the betterment of the country, and we should support him. “I have been a BJP supporter since Modi came to prominence,” he says. “He ended corruption through demonetization. He is respected by world leaders. When he goes abroad, he makes us proud.”

Boricha’s customer, Jitendra Patel, intently listening and nodding, chips in. “Modi is someone who thinks of the poor,” he says. “There is no need to bring him down, like Hardik is trying to do. He was doomed to fail the moment he endorsed the corrupt Congress.”

Upon asked why the government has not changed in 22 years, Jitendra says, “I am a farmer. We received water in this village 10 years back. I farm, and tend to the animals. I look after my family. Why fix when it is not broken?”

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Updated Date: Nov 30, 2017 22:26:36 IST