Farmers' agitation for irrigation water in Rajasthan takes a violent turn and leaves the BJP government isolated.T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Sriganganagar
GHADSANA is a dusty, nondescript tehsil 150 kilometres away from Sriganganagar town in the district of the same name in northwest Rajasthan. There is nothing there for visitors apart from agricultural land, huge state-owned granaries and the Indira Gandhi Irrigation Canal. But beneath the blas exterior lies a discontent that has simmered for the past couple of years. Ghadsana has now emerged as the epicentre of an agitation by farmers for their share of irrigation water.
The Vasundhara Raje Scindia government used force to quell their protests in 2004 and 2005, and it was no different this time. But Ghadsana 2006 is in many ways more belligerent. One farmer died after he was discharged from hospital despite having head injuries and fractures sustained in police action.
It began on September 30 when farmers, traders and agricultural workers under the banner of the Kisan Mazdoor Vyapaar Sangharsh Samiti (KMVSS) announced a struggle for water. In December 2004, the Samiti and the government had reached an agreement under which it was decided that, among other things, the same quantity of water as before would be released for irrigation in Ghadsana's villages. But in mid-2005, the government reneged on its promise, arguing that there was not enough water in the Pong dam on the Beas river and that farmers in the second phase of the Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) also needed water.
Informed sources said the argument was untenable as the water level in the dam had not gone below the minimum mark at any time. Much of the crisis was because of the indiscriminate increase in the IGNP's command area in Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh districts for purely political reasons, the sources added. The worst sufferers as a result were the small and marginal farmers under Phase I of the IGNP. Production of cotton and wheat, the main crops in the region, has begun declining but successive Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments have turned a blind eye to the crisis.
Villages in this region have names such as 17 KD and 10 LM, which refer to the minor canals or distributaries of the IGNP along which they are located. For instance, in 17 KD, K refers to Kodi village and D to distributary. On September 30, the Samiti announced its decision to launch a struggle if water was not released by October 10. The government reacted by arresting Samiti leaders such as former Communist Party of India (Marxist) legislator Hetram Beniwal and Sahib Ram Punia, while other leaders went underground.
On October 9, as farmers from Sakhi village proceeded towards Ghadsana for the mahapadaav (mass protest) the police stopped them. In the skirmish that followed, some police equipment was burnt and farmers were beaten up. Ghadsana and Rawala were placed under curfew but what happened next was unprecedented. Defying the curfew, thousands of farmers poured into Ghadsana from all over Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh districts and their demands now included the release of their leaders. The Army was called in to keep the peace.
The Samiti comprises not only farmers but also traders, agricultural workers, lawyers and everyone else who gains from agriculture. The District Bar Association said it would take up all the cases registered against the agitating farmers. Said a lawyer: "We have to support this struggle. Our profession depends on the survival of agriculture here."
The agitation has upset the State BJP leadership, particularly because several local leaders have pledged support to the Samiti's agitation, which is led by the CPI(M). All the 11 legislators representing Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh districts, one from the Congress and the rest from the BJP, support the agitation, many of them openly. For instance, Surendra Rathore, who represents Sriganganagar, has been critical of the Chief Minister for being indifferent.
On October 16, events took an unexpected turn. That morning, farmers began to assemble at the Ghadsana dhanmandi (granary) to participate in a public meeting organised by the Samiti and about which it had informed the administration. By 4 p.m. around 10,000 farmers had assembled peacefully and were preparing to march to the Sub Divisional Magistrate's office. According to eyewitness accounts, all of a sudden stones were flying around and some hit the police barricades. The police retaliated with stones, teargas and rubber bullets.
Farmers claimed that policemen in plainclothes had infiltrated the assembly in order to create chaos. The administration denied this and claimed that some drunken youth had started the stone-throwing. That a huge assembly should go amok after displaying immense discipline for more than five hours baffled many.
But that gave the police the excuse they were probably looking for. Members of the Rajasthan Armed Constabulary and the Special Task Force descended on the farmers with a ferocity that was unwarranted, the sources said. Hundreds, including women, were injured. Durga Swami, Rajasthan State secretary of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), was hit on the head and her hair was ripped out. Superintendent of Police Vineeta Thakur is alleged to have instigated the police to beat up the farmers and throw them into waiting police vehicles.
In the Sriganganagar Civil Hospital, Durga Swami said she was aghast that a woman police officer could be so vicious. She said no policewomen had been deployed despite the presence of so many women in the crowd. "I had only heard that such things happened. I saw it with my own eyes that day," she said. Another farmer, Brijlal, who had been hit on the foot by a bullet, said the doctors stitched up his foot without any anaesthetic. "I was screaming in pain but they didn't listen." He said the District Magistrate, Kunjilal Meena, who came visiting asked him sarcastically, "Have you got your water now?"
Brijlal, who is from the neighbouring Anoopgarh tehsil, said the government released water only once in 15 days and that was inadequate for the forthcoming rabi crop and for the last phase of the kharif crop. "Why should we agitate unnecessarily and get beaten up? It is a life-and-death question for us," he said.
Brijlal survived, but Chanduram Saran did not. He was taken to the Ghadsana Civil Hospital with serious injuries and then referred to the Sriganganagar Civil Hospital. For some unexplained reason he was discharged on October 23 and he died two days later. The local administration claims that Saran, who was in his mid-30s, died of a heart attack, but the farmers demanded a post-mortem. They also demanded a compensation of Rs.5 lakh for his family and refused to cremate the body. The government rejected both demands and reimposed curfew in Ghadsana. The standoff continues as of October 31 and so does the curfew.
In what was seen as an attempt to crush the agitation, early in the morning on October 20 the police swooped down on unsuspecting residents in 17 KD and beat up women and children when they could not find the men. They burst teargas shells, one of which hit 75-year-old Kalawati on the chest. She survived, but the shock of the assault caused 23-year-old Anju, three months pregnant, to suffer a miscarriage. Hearing the commotion and the cries of people, Anju went into premature contractions and lost the foetus. The police spared them the blows, but chased and beat up even schoolgirls, two of whom, Anu and Priyanka, were traumatised by the incident.
Vasudev Sharma, CPI(M) State secretary, said that the farmers were faced with two options: suicide or agitation. In Ghadsana they took the path of agitation. He said the farmers were aware that there was enough water in the reservoir. As for farmers under Phase II of the IGNP, he said most of them were absentee landlords and that was why there was hardly any agitation by farmers in those areas. He said: "We do not for a moment say that they should be denied water. The problem here is more acute and all that we are asking is that we get our share that was agreed upon three decades ago. What will a farmer do with excess water anyway?"
Nearly half the irrigated area in Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh districts comes under the IGNP. Following the construction of the Pong dam and with the availability of water for irrigation, the region underwent a qualitative change. After comprehensive consultations it was decided that water would be distributed at the rate of 5.23 cusecs per thousand acres in the areas coming under the first phase. As the soil in the second phase was sandy and infertile, it would get water at the rate of 3 cusecs per thousand acres. This was the pattern until the mid-1980s when the command area began to be gradually expanded. Lift irrigation canals to feed certain constituencies in Bikaner were constructed, thus creating chaos for farmers in Sriganganagar and Hanumangarh. This affected production as well.
All sections of the farming community suffered, but the worst hit were farmers with small landholdings. They were forced to migrate to Haryana and Punjab. Today, several homes in villages lie desolate and unoccupied. Talks have failed as the government smells a political conspiracy led by the Left. It does not realise that the BJP's own base in these areas is gradually shrinking as many of the party's local leaders have lent support to the agitation led by Hetram Beniwal, who has spent a good part of the last three years in jail. Despite his frequent incarceration, he retains his hold on the farmers. Says Nathu Ram Bishnoi of 17 KD: "Beniwal is not even from Ghadsana. Yet he gets thrashed and goes to jail for us. We are going to support him at any cost."
The Congress, too, has now come around to supporting the agitation more vocally than it did in the last two years. Perhaps it has realised that as the main Opposition party in the State it has a role to play after all. With two more years to go before the next Assembly elections, it is becoming increasingly evident that the outcome of the farmers' agitation will be different, but to what extent is the question.