Dying for water

Published : Jul 15, 2005 00:00 IST

The police firing on farmers agitating in Tonk district, Rajasthan, for irrigation water draws attention to the fact that the State's ruling party has gone back on its electoral promises.

T. K. RAJALAKSHMI in Tonk, Rajasthan

THE issue of water has once again gripped Rajasthan politics. It is not so much the availability of water that has become a contentious issue as its distribution. In the 18 months of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule in the State, there have been two major farmers' agitations, and in both cases the police were deployed to suppress them. In October 2004 the farmers of Sriganganagar took to the streets and less than a year later a similar but more concentrated agitation engulfed Tonk district, some 90 kilometres from Jaipur, the capital.

On June 13, Hansa, a pregnant woman, was serving a meal to her little son in her home, close to where farmers had gathered for their protest on the Jaipur-Tonk National Highway. Her aged mother Narayani was waiting for her turn to be served when a police bullet fired from the road below hit Hansa. The Sohela farmers' agitation had claimed its first victim. Hansa's mother barely escaped death as a bullet tore through her neck, and is now under treatment at the Sawai Man Singh Hospital, Jaipur.

The post-mortem report prepared by the Medical and Health Department says: "Uterus of 24 week size containing female dead foetus baby separated from mother and handed over to SHO, Kotwali, Tonk." It also says that the death was caused by the police. The exact words are: "Police bal prayog ke dauraan mrityu hui." The remark of the Medical Officer: "To the best of our knowledge, we ... the members of the Board are of the opinion that the cause of death of Smt. Hansa Devi is due to firearm injury to the vital organ (lung)." Four others were to die later, all felled by police bullets.

This was the second instance of police firing on farmers since the formation of the government headed by Vasundhara Raje Scindia in the State. In the first instance, in Sriganganagar district, where farmers organised a protest in Ghadsana and Rawala tehsils, five persons were killed. At that time too, the agitation was over water and the government continued with its intransigent approach to farmers demanding water to irrigate crops on land covered by the first phase of the Indira Gandhi Nahar Pariyojana.

The BJP, as in Sriganganagar, chose to blame the agitation on the Opposition parties. And there has been little condemnation of the police action by the ruling party. The police action, in almost every case, has been arbitrary and excessive. On June 6, a 10-year-old boy was killed when the Dholpur police fired at a crowd protesting against a custodial death. Where timely police intervention was needed, the administration chose to be indifferent. And where issues could have been resolved by dialogue, senseless killings were allowed to take place. Recently in Mandal tehsil, Bhilwara district, the police watched as shops owned by Muslims were singled out for arson and when, at last they took action, a person who happened to be there was killed in the firing. The partisan attitude of the administration resulted in widening the communal rift.

The State unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was the first political party to realise the gravity of the situation. The day after the incident, on June 14, a five-member delegation led by former CPI(M) Member of Parliament and prominent farmer leader Sheopat Singh visited Sohela and Jiraana; the latter is the village where four farmers were killed in police firing. But the delegation was stopped from going to Bawadi, one of the affected villages.

It was only in May that the district unit of the CPI(M) had successfully pressured the government into purchasing mustard from the farmers of Tonk. That agitation was peaceful. Partly inspired by the manner in which the demands were fulfilled, the farmers of Tonk, Malpura, Todaraising and Peeplu tehsils - all in Tonk district - began organising themselves in early June.

According to farmers in this belt, over the past few years they have been demanding that water from the Bisalpur dam over the Banar river at Todaraising be released to the Todisagar dam, the main source of irrigation in these tehsils, which has gone dry. With the Todisagar dam going dry, the farmers were left with little choice but to agitate, especially when the water from the Bisalpur dam had been promised to them twice by none other than Vasundhara Raje, before the Assembly elections in 2003 and then again before the Lok Sabha elections in 2004. The BJP candidate was elected to the Tonk seat, which is a reserved constituency and a traditional Congress base, with handsome margins. The Congress lost all five Assembly seats in the segment in 2003.

The difference between the Sriganganagar unrest and the Tonk agitation is that while the former was spearheaded mainly by the Left and the Congress, the latter did not have a political leadership. It was led by a local resident, Zakir. Under his leadership, the farmers formed a Bisalpur Bandh Samgharsh Samiti. Now Zakir has gone underground and the police have launched a manhunt. Political parties, barring the BJP, have thrown their weight behind the agitation. The CPI(M) has assured the farmers of its support. Prominent farmer leaders, including Sheopat Singh and former legislator Hetram Beniwal, along with Amra Ram, the party legislator from Dhod in Sikar district, threatened a State-wide agitation if action was not taken against the officials responsible for the killings. They also demanded that the compensation amount be raised to Rs.5 lakhs for the next of kin of each of the deceased. The State Congress, led by Pradesh Congress Committee chief Bulaki Das Kalla, demanded the resignation of the Chief Minister. In a memorandum to the Governor on June 19, the State government's various omissions and commissions were spelt out.

In reaction to the Tonk firing and the uproar it generated, the Vasundhara Raje government removed the District Magistrate, the Additional District Magistrate, the Superintendent of Police and the Additional SP. None of the Ministers, however, thought it fit to accept responsibility for what happened.

The significant aspect is that, barring the local administration, no one outside Tonk had an idea of the extent of farmer ferment in this district, which hardly has any history of agitational politics. Kalla said at a press conference that the party entered the picture only after the firing. It was also learnt that the district Congress unit was divided over who should be the district chief. It was evident that with an indifferent ruling party on the one side and a divided Congress on the other, the farmers had little option but to turn to someone who was emerging as a local leader.

The Left parties, especially the CPI(M), whose electoral presence at the moment is limited in the State, have been rallying farmers in several places. That is one reason why, when the Tonk firing took place, farmers in Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh came pouring out on the streets and threatened an agitation. The government granaries or mandis in Ghadsana, Anoopgarh and Rawala shut down in protest against the Sohela firing. In Khajuwala, farmers organised a massive sit-in or mahapadav.

Explaining the background of the agitation, Bajrang Lal Chaudhary, a leader of the All-India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), who took part in the agitation, said that farmers in this belt had been suffering for a long time and had hoped for some intervention from the government and from the elected representatives. There were arrangements, he said, to supply water from Bisalpur to Ajmer, Sawai Madhopur, Kishangarh and Beaver but this was not available for the farmers in Tonk. "The water is in our tehsil, why is it being given to others?" asked Bajrang Lal. Even within district, there was discrimination, he said. He cited the example of Unniara tehsil, represented by Agriculture Minister Prabhu Lal Saini. "First we got displaced by the Bisalpur dam. And now we are not getting any irrigation or drinking water," he said.

It was not that the Tonk agitation was unplanned. On June 9, the farmers submitted a memorandum to the now-suspended Collector and also to Irrigation Minister Sanwarmal Jat. It indicated broadly that a roadblock would be organised on the highway if the demands were not met. "We said that they should at least begin the process of taking out tenders for digging canals to connect the Bisalpur dam with the Todisagar dam," Bajrang Lal said. The areas that were deprived of water fell within a radius of 40 km in the command area of the Bisalpur dam. He said that canals as long as 70 to 80 km had been dug but the areas closer to the dam had been bypassed. "The tubewells that drew water from the Todisagar dam were useless as the dam itself had dried up," he said. The only option left for the farmer, he said, was to agitate or to commit suicide.

On June 9, street-corner meetings were organised and the next day, a large meeting was held. The government remained unresponsive. "The Collector was unusually indifferent. He did not even come out to take our memorandum," he said. The farmers were ready to meet any government representative for an assurance regarding the commencement of work on a canal for their area, Bajrang Lal said.

Akhtar Jung, district secretary of the CPI(M), said that it was a case of pure discrimination. He said that over the past three months, farmers were angry as they watched the Bisalpur water being given to Unniara tehsil, while Tonk and other tehsils were left out. Angry farmers of Jiraana refused to entertain the MLA from Malpura, Jeet Ram, who, Jung says, was "driven away".

The new Collector of Tonk, Hemant Gera, was reluctant to share any details with Frontline except for stating that four first information reports had been filed; three had been filed by bus owners alleging vandalism and the fourth was about the entire incident. Gera indicated that the antecedents of Zakir were being verified. Asked if he anticipated any more tensions, he said that the administration was "watchful" of developments in the area. But it appeared that the administration was being more than watchful. It was reliably learnt that the new Collector, who had visited Hansa's family and handed over a cheque of Rs.5 lakhs, and advised them about the futility of the agitation. "He is doing the government's job," said a villager.

Local residents of Sohela refute the charges of vandalism made in the FIRs. Tea-shop owner Mathura Lal Prajapat denied that the farmers had anything to do with destruction of property. Neither did they loot his shop and break the plastic chairs. "It was the police who did it. They drank all the soft drinks and did not even pay," he said. He could not understand why the administration, so quick to intervene when there is a traffic jam or a road accident, showed no interest in brokering a settlement with the farmers.

The Bisalpur dam was conceived as an irrigation and drinking water scheme. Its command area extends up to parts of Bhilwara district also, and covers parts of Tonk, Boondi, Nasirabad, Ajmer town, Jaipur and Kekdi. For years, water has been politicised by the ruling parties despite underground water levels hitting new lows every year. Electoral promises relating to water and extending the command areas of existing dams were never fulfilled. Under the previous Congress regime too there was an agitation over the water problem, which the BJP then promised to address if it came to power.

One and a half years have gone by after the BJP came to power, but people's lives have not changed. Vasudev Sharma, CPI(M) State secretary, says that most areas in several districts have been declared part of a "dark zone". The only option has been to divert water and to expand unrealistically the command area. Until five years ago, tubewells needed only 10 horsepower to pump out water; now even 20 HP is not enough.

In the Shekhawati belt and elsewhere in the State, people bathe on cots made of rope, called khaats, and the water, which trickles through the gaps, is collected and recycled for washing clothes.

There are close to eight and a half lakh tubewells in the State. Out of 237 panchayat samitis, 87 are in the "dark zone" where water levels are beyond reclaim.

The budget for irrigation has been stagnating for years. The immediate challenge, according to Dhuli Chand Meena, State secretary of the AIKS, is to conserve water resources and to enhance the budgetary allocation for irrigation.

The 20-year-old Bisalpur project is under strain. And so are the farmers. It is time political parties such as the BJP and the Congress ceased making electoral promises around water, especially the kind that have the potential of creating conflict within the boundaries of a State.

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