Gujarat's thirst

Print edition : May 13, 2000

Distress migration of people and large-scale death of livestock have peaked. And this time the urban segments are as badly hit as the rural areas.

IT is an irony that the regions of Gujarat that are closely associated with water either geographically, as in the case of peninsular Saurashtra, or by nomenclature, as in the case of Kutch (in Sanskrit kutch means tortoise), are not only arid and desert -like but also prone to drought.

Since January, Gujarat has been reeling under severe drought conditions but it was only when reports of riots over unfair diversion of water to urban areas appeared in the media that the situation was taken seriously. Three persons were killed when the p olice opened fire in Phalla village in Saurashtra on a group of farmers who objected to water from their village being piped to Jamnagar city. Women in Junagadh attacked the town's Mayor following prolonged non-supply of water. Rajkot residents attacked municipal workers, accusing them of deliberately shutting off water supply. In Porbander, a man allegedly killed his father in a dispute over irrigation water. Riots broke out in Surendranagar, Rajkot, Bhavnagar and Jamnagar after the residents were de prived of water for as long as five days at a stretch.

At Kasturbadham in Rajkot district of Gujarat, women line up with pots to collect water supplied through tankers. Inequitous distribution of water has led to riots in the Saurashtra region.-N. SRINIVASAN

Official statistics have declared 9,421 villages as drought-affected in 17 districts of Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat. Presenting an overall picture of the prevailing conditions and the relief works under way, Dr. P.K. Mishra, Principal Secretary, Revenue, told Frontline: "Thirty-four taluks received less than 50 mm of rainfall during the last monsoon with the result that most districts had a long dry spell in which they relied on stored water. There are 174 medium and small reservoirs in t hese regions, of which 84 per cent have less than 25 per cent of the required level. Some 2,000 villages are supplied water through tankers. Water is also expected to arrive by train. There has been a 38 per cent kharif crop loss which, in monetary terms , amounts to Rs.4,250 crores. Some 2.5 crore people and livestock numbering one crore have been affected. In order to combat the situation, five lakh relief workers have been employed and 2,500 relief works (of these 1,100 to 1,200 are budgeted works) st arted. Adults receive doles of Rs.10 a day and children below 12 Rs.5. The cattle camps accommodate about three lakh animals and five crore kg of fodder have been supplied to them. Maharasahtra, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana are sending in more supp lies."

The relief distributed in cash has been insufficient. There is an upper limit on cash compensation of Rs.1,000 a month per family. There is also a stipulation that prevents more than three people of a family from being employed in relief work. These fact ors, combined with subsistence-level provision of water and fodder, have resulted in distress migration of people and large-scale death of livestock.

The tragedy was made worse by two factors. One is that the drought did not come as a surprise: it was expected as far back as October. Mishra said: "In August we realised that there was going to be a dry spell ahead since the region received less than 12 5 mm of rainfall. We had to be prepared. We put out tenders for grass in October. When we conducted the annevari (an eye estimate of the quality and quantity of the harvest) in October, our fears were confirmed. It was less than six annas, which i s classified as scarcity level."

As part of preventive measures, the government increased the powers of the District Collectors to carry out directly water conservation and storage plans. Contingency plans included the allocation of Rs.272 crores to 15 districts and Rs.30 crores to 28 t owns.

The second factor that heightened the tragedy was the lack of long-term planning. Droughts of varying degrees have been a norm in these arid regions. On each occasion, the government has reacted with crisis management techniques. There has been no compre hensive study of the specific development that the regions require.

WATER scarcity has highlighted the inequities present in distribution for a long time - not only the disparity between classes but the priority given to urban municipal areas vis-a-vis small towns and villages. The unfair practice is illustrated b y a development relating to the tiny town of Wankaner in Saurashtra.

Last October, when the State administration foresaw a dry spell, the authorities in Rajkot used satellite imagery to locate the nearest water sources. The obvious choice lay 100 km from Rajkot in the Jambudia forest reserve, 5,500 acres (2,200 hectares) of grassland and trees that had been declared a reserve by the erstwhile Raja of Wankaner after Independence. The royal descendant, Dr. Digvijay Sinh, former Union Deputy Minister for Environment, described it as a place that has "a beautiful symbiotic r elationship between flora and groundwater...'' - a relationship that gave Wankaner town a degree of security in terms of water needs by keeping the water table high. In October, 125 borewells were dug in Jambudia.

Rajkot and some villages en route have so far benefited by the 125 lakh gallons of water a day that has been piped from Jambudia's tubewells. Resident Deputy Collector R.H. Gadhvi admits that initially the water table did fall by 12 to 15 metres, but it later stabilised at this level.

Appalled at the drop in groundwater levels, Digvijay Sinh filed a writ petition in the Gujarat High Court seeking a stay on further drawing of groundwater. The court refused to grant a stay and ruled that while his concerns were valid, the needs of Rajko t city had to be addressed.

Digvijay Sinh complains that "more than half the water in the irrigation reservoirs in Saurashtra is not being used for irrigation. It is tapped for urban municipal use. The drought cannot be blamed on the failure of the rains. Even if these arid regions receive their average level of rainfall, urban water shortages will continue and water from places like Wankaner will be piped to cities. The demand there is just too much."

Another example of unfair diversion of water was given by Hasmukhbai Patel of the M.G. Patel Sarvodaya Kendra, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in north Gujarat. "Fifteen years ago, a Netherlands-funded project, called the Santalpur Regional Water S upply Scheme, was devised to supply water to drought-prone northern Gujarat. But political pressure resulted in the water being diverted to the town of Radhanpur. All the hotels on the Kandla port highway have taken connections from this pipe."

Achyut Yagnik of another NGO, Setu, which works in Saurashtra, takes the question of rural-urban inequities in water distribution a step further by saying that the drought attracted national-level prominence primarily because the urban areas were affecte d for the first time. "The drought has been an on-off phenomenon for decades. But this time the amount of water diverted for municipal use was too much. Farmers could not tolerate this anymore.

Distress migration and movement of truckloads of carcasses are an all-too-familiar sight on television news bulletins.

"You ask if the coming days will be worse? Let me tell you, tomorrow has so far proved worse than today," said Lakhaji Jethaji Kohli, a landless labourer in Jaloia village, speaking of the loss of three buffaloes from his herd of eight in the space of tw o months. He has resigned himself to losing the remaining animals. Cattle camps are not an option for buffaloes since these animals require large quantities of water.

The land-man-cattle relationship is strong in these areas. Seeing their animals perish is unbearable for a people raised in a culture that traditionally sees animals as wealth and objects of worship.

Ganeshbhai Sadubhai Rajput is a farmer in Suigaon in Banaskantha district. He accepts the vagaries of the seasons, saying: "This area is known for crop failure and poor rains. We are used to this and we survive by moving away. But what happens to the ani mals? They are dependent on us and we have nothing to give them."

The government does not run cattle camps, preferring to restrict its activities to providing fodder at subsidised rates to camps run by NGOs. Three lakh animals have been housed in camps. The total estimated number of cattle in the three affected regions is one crore. The existing camps have already exceeded their capacity. The fate of almost 97 lakh head of cattle hangs in the balance.

Cattle camps are given cash subsidies at the daily rate of Rs.8 an animal. The government disburses 15 to 16 crore kg of fodder a day. Each animal receives a subsistence-level quota of 4 kg a day. Only three cows from a family are allowed in the camps. O ne member of the family accompanies the animals and stays nearby. The rest of the family survive by registering themselves with relief programmes such as road building.

One cow requires 400 kg of grass and 180 kg of sukil (wheat chaff) for 15 days. The government provides 100 kg of grass and 60 kg of sukil per family (not per animal). Sukil is often adulterated with sawdust. Landless labourers who o wn cattle are issued "grass cards", against which they are given fodder at a subsidised rate of Rs.1 a kg. Says Gadhvi: "This is not even 25 per cent of the original cost." Others can purchase fodder at Rs.2.50 a kg.

As days pass, the families find it more and more difficult to purchase fodder. Lakhaji was employed in road building work. The road works progressed to such a distance from his village that he could no longer walk to work and back daily. He, like many ot hers from his village, opted out. Lakhaji says he has no idea how he will purchase fodder or food now. He is considering migration until the drought abates.

Gadhvi says the government plans to provide "some sort of transport for daily workers so that they can continue to earn."

The cattle camps, despite their shortcomings and a high mortality rate among the animals, have provided a degree of relief which was not available in earlier periods of drought. Achyut Yagnik recalls the sight of cattle wandering with a red string tied a round their neck. Unable to feed the cattle, villagers would let them loose in the hope that their natural instinct would lead them to a water source. The red thread was a parting gesture and a prayer, a prayer that was seldom answered.

National Highway 15 is noted for the heavy truck traffic to and from Kandla port in Saurashtra. For the most part, the drivers of the heavily loaded trucks have an unhealthy disregard for life: they leave behind an abnormal number of dead animals. But si nce December, they have been more alert, coping as they are with a new kind of traffic. Vast numbers of people and animals from Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat and also Rajasthan have moved out of their villages.

Tulsibhai Rajput has travelled this road for the last 15 or 20 years. His pregnant wife hopes the baby will not be born en route. She hopes to return to their village with the child but she has no access to medicare. She is equally prepared to bear its l oss.

The family owns a piece of land on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border. It takes them a month to walk from there to this place near Deesa town in Banaskantha district in north Gujarat. Their new home is a sandy patch by the highway. Trucks whiz past, throwing d ust on a few potatoes drying on a newspaper. Deesa is known for its potatoes, and Tulsibhai's family relies on them for their nutrition.

Tulsibhai last cultivated his land two years ago and had to migrate because the crop was meagre. That year was particularly difficult since the family stayed on in the village three months longer than usual in the hope that they would not have to travel in search of food and work. But the rains failed them and the crop was meagre and they had to move out. This year they did not want to take a chance and so set out on the journey in December.

"People do not die of disease here. They die of a hard life," says Karsanbhai Kumbhaji Rajput, a village sarpanch in north Gujarat.

It is almost impossible not to experience the dryness and parched sensations caused by lack of water. On the drive down from Vav in Banaskantha district to Kundaliya village, 30 km from the border with Pakistan, it becomes clear why Vav taluk is referred to as Gujarat's Kalahandi (the district in Orissa known for starvation deaths).

Every eight to 10 km, a hideous stench fills the air. Pariah kites circling the sky signal a carcass. Animals, their hide stretched against their bones, stand listlessly in the sun as the pens created for them often have no shade. But, even close to deat h, cattle belonging to the Kankrej breed, a tall grey variety with a stately bearing, maintain their dignity.

Kundaliya is on the edge of the Rann of Kutch and is populated by about 4,000 people and about 3,000 animals. Karsanbhai Kumbhaji Rajput, the sarpanch, says, "We live in perpetual drought. Even if the rains come, a drought will follow since we have no me ans to store water. Even if it is stored, there is a chance that it will become saline with the Rann desert advancing. We can make no plans for the future."

Kundaliya relies on three sources for its water needs - village wells, water tankers and the pipeline that brings water from Deesa town.

At one time there were three usable wells in the village, but the salt desert has turned the water saline. The village receives 30,000 litres of water a day from government tankers, which works out to a daily ration of seven litres a person.

The search for water dominates the lives of women. The Deesa pipeline water outlet in Kundaliya is crowded with women who wait for their turn to collect water, which trickles from a pipe without a tap. The water line, part of a giant network sourced from the Banas river 250 to 300 km away, caters to more than 300 villages.

The value attached to water is reflected in the people's perception of it. The sarpanch talks about "seven lakes" that used to surround the villages. Water is treated as a gift, as evidenced by the fact that the village schoolteacher is not grudged a wee kly bath; something considered sacrilege for any of the other inhabitants.

Water plays a big role in marriages. The most-sought after bridegroom or bride in these parts of Gujarat is the one who comes with the promise of a borewell or a well that provides sweet water.

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