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Dealing with drought

Print edition : Jun 09, 2001

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Drought stalks Gujarat once again but the government relies on short-term crisis management measures instead of evolving a long-term, region-specific strategy to deal with this recurring phenomenon.

IN Gujarat, one phenomenon that recurs with unfailing regularity is drought. Every year its arrival is signalled by the migration of hundreds of families from their villages to wherever work and wages are available, at least temporarily. One such family is that of Purshottam Koli, who owns a small piece of land in the northern district of Banaskantha. Along with his two sons, Koli works for a contractor engaged in widening the Ahmedabad-Gandhinagar highway. Leaning on a tree near his roadside home, Koli says his family has a sense of security in the city. "There is always some work to be found here." Until four years ago, Koli relied on projects under the Employment Assurance Scheme (EAS) near his village. The wages were not too bad, but the drinking water situation was. For months he had lower abdominal pain, which was finally diagnosed as having been caused by kidney stones - a consequence of his body being starved of a sufficient quantity of water. This prompted Koli and his family to leave home in December every year and stay until May in places where they get work, wages and water. They return home prior to the onset of the monsoon, hoping to start sowing their land. But drought drives them away again.

The drought this year is far more severe than the one in 2000. But it has not caught the nation's attention, unlike last year when images of vast dry expanses and truckloads of animal carcasses dominated media reports. This year the fodder yield was good and there have been no reports of cattle deaths. The government also prides itself on the way it has handled the crisis, saying that works under the EAS have been provided wherever necessary and that the number of people migrating is negligible. From December 2000 to May 2001, Rs.10,576.26 lakhs was disbursed as wages to people involved in relief works. Learning from the experience of 2000, when water scarcity led to riots in major towns and cities, the administration has pressed into service water tankers. The newly inaugurated Narmada-Mahi pipeline takes water to Ahmedabad and parts of Saurashtra. The pipeline was laid as part of a Rs.392-crore master plan drawn up by the State government to deal with drinking water scarcity.

The criticism, however, is not about the government's response to the crisis but about its total reliance on crisis management measures and failure to develop a long-term strategy to deal with the recurring drought. It has failed to do a comprehensive study to understand the specific developmental needs of regions such as Kutch, Saurashtra and northern Gujarat and draw up plans accordingly.

Water scarcity is a problem that has been worsening steadily in the State in terms of frequency and intensity. This year the government has declared 23 of the 25 districts as affected by water scarcity. In all, 199 taluks and 13,133 villages have been affected. The official figures for 2000 were 17 districts, 155 taluks and 9,449 villages. The State administration has attributed this deterioration to an erratic monsoon. But researchers, scientists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say that meteorological factors are only partially responsible for the water scarcity. The problem, they say, is a cumulative one, caused by the lack of foresight at the level of the political leadership in evolving a region-specific development strategy.

Sudershan Iyengar, Director of the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, says: "There is no doubt that the monsoon has been erratic. But if you compare the average normal rainfall that preceded this drought with the one prior to the devastating drought of 1987, you will realise that the current problem is far out of proportion with the deficit in the rainfall. In 1987, the rainfall was 30 per cent of the normal average, which is considered a severe drought in meteorological terms. This year the rainfall was 61 per cent of the normal average."

Sudershan Iyengar says that 70 per cent of the State is affected by drought but the government has been consistently ignoring two problems: poverty and the scarcity of drinking water. He argues that the Gujarat government's promise to provide drinking water cannot be fulfilled; in fact, according to him, giving such promises is an act of irresponsibility since it creates an atmosphere of political patronage, makes people dependent and kills community initiative. He also believes that the drought is being viewed as an issue of conjunctural poverty (that is, poverty caused by a particular factor). With such an approach the government transfers its resources to the affected. For example, the revenue from profession tax goes towards EAS wages. This means essentially that income from one section is transferred to another. Thus, the government's response to the crisis is entirely oriented towards providing relief and not finding a long-term solution. Sudershan Iyengar suggests that the state view drought as a problem caused by structural poverty. This, he says, will help it address the problems of a particular region as a whole and evolve a development policy that would be specific to the region.

In May, the Institute of Rural Management in Anand organised a meeting of scientists, researchers and NGOs to discuss ways to mitigate the effects and prevent the recurrence of drought in the State. There was consensus on one point: the existing development plan for Gujarat has to be modified in such a way that dependence on industry and agriculture is reduced. Participants representing NGOs suggested that importance be given to economic activities that are not based on land - such as industries based on salt, crafts and dairy products. In these industries, human development took place in conjunction with income-generating skills, they said.

Explaining the current crisis, Sudershan Iyengar says that the major thrust of the present development policy is to use Green Revolution methods, that is, the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and seeds of high-yielding varieties. But these required abundant water. In semi-arid regions such as Gujarat these methods are harmful in the long term. "And we are seeing the results now," he says. Development plans also conflicted with one another, he points out. For instance, the guidelines of the Drought Prone Areas Programme, which was introduced in 1973 with the aim of restoring the ecological balance in arid and semi-arid zones, clashed with the objectives of the Green Revolution. Green Revolution methods give quick returns while the former takes a while to demonstrate its efficacy. Farmers wanted quick returns and water resources were depleted owing to the indiscriminate use of borewells.

Anil Shah, chairman of the Development Support Centre, cites three factors that have aggravated water scarcity: overuse of groundwater resources, unequal distribution of water and the present system of pricing of electricity and water. The depletion of groundwater resources manifests itself in a fall in the level of the water table and an increase in salinity and fluoride content. The fall in groundwater levels is a direct result of the rampant use of borewells, which go as deep as 1,200 feet (360 metres). Indiscriminate drawing of water has led to an increase in salinity. Aquifers that lie 7 to 12 km inland on the Saurashtra and Kutch coasts permeate brine. In some areas, the problem is compounded by the presence of fluoride in the water.

Inequity in water distribution has affected the majority of people who cannot afford sophisticated extraction devices. For them, no year is drought-free. Shah says: "More sins are committed in the name of drinking water than on any other issue. When they foresee water scarcity, District Collectors issue a blanket order that all reservoirs be reserved for drinking water. No norms are followed to work out how much water is required for human and cattle consumption." Shah says that pricing and metering water and electricity supplies should be the starting point of any policy aimed at tackling water scarcity.

At present, electricity is charged at a flat rate in Gujarat. Any suggestion to price it on a pro rata basis is resisted by politicians. Sudershan Iyengar says that about 40 per cent of the power consumed in Gujarat goes towards drawing groundwater and that this water is used for 29 per cent of the total area under irrigation. In 1960-61, the gross area under irrigation was only 7.5 per cent of the gross area sown. The percentage of irrigated area rose to 26.4 by 1984-85. In the arid zones, the extent of extraction used to be dependent on the quantity available at a certain level. But now, with the replacement of old water lifting devices by electric pumps and wells by borewells, the level of extraction has gone up. Between 1979 and 1986, the number of pumpsets and tubewells electrified in Kutch increased by 51 per cent. In this period, the pieces of equipment used to draw groundwater increased by 100 per cent and 165 per cent in Rajkot and Banaskantha districts respectively. The projects to recharge water sources have not been able to keep pace with the rate of extraction.

THE government does not believe that a development plan that is not oriented to agriculture will bring prosperity. An official said: "You must understand that water is a very complex issue in Gujarat. It is a political issue. No one, not even politicians, would dare dictate terms to the rich farmers of Saurashtra."

Considering the geography, the topography, the course of the rivers and their drainage and the geology of the three regions, they are not suitable for agriculture. Dr. P.P. Patel, a hydro-geologist, explains: "Areas like Kutch and northern Gujarat, where the rainfall is low, have good aquifer systems whereas southern Gujarat, which gets a good monsoon, has a poor aquifer system. The natural balance is perfect but we have impinged on it and created this cycle of drought." Northern Gujarat has water tables that are very deep; they are not easily accessible or rechargeable.

Saurashtra has a scanty soil cover. Since all the rivers originate within the peninsular region they are not large and are seasonal.

Kutch gets the least amount of rainfall and lacks plant and soil cover. Vinay Mahajan, who has done research on the water scarcity in Kutch, says: ''The kind of development that is taking place in the post-Independence period is not consistent with the natural resources. The area is arid, the geological formations are saline, the freshwater zone is very small and the rainfall is low. Kutch is not geologically related to any area. If, for instance, it rains in the Aravallis, water seeps down to Ahmedabad. Not so in Kutch. Its only water source is rain. The water in more than 10,000 wells in Kutch is saline. Salinity has advanced 10 to 15 km inland. Furthermore, of the 100 wells from five taluks that we surveyed, 50 per cent were dry."

The damage done in the last 50 years is evident in an area that was once the pride of Kutch: the Banni grasslands. Kutch, like Saurashtra, has an "inverted bowl topography". Rivers originate at the peak and flow north. Originally this northern section, spread over an area of about 3,000 sq km, was known as Banni, known for its grass. Old-timers speak of how ailing animals that were driven to Banni recovered after eating the grass. Banni grass was so tall and lush that a vehicle travelling through the area had to fly a flag to indicate its location. The vast plains of Banni have now been reduced to a dust bowl, and satellite imagery shows that the saline Rann claims 1.6 sq km of land every year. Many villages are now uninhabited.

Among the solutions suggested for the drought in Gujarat are those related to the harvesting and storage of water. Watershed development and the construction of check dams are bywords in rural management. But, as Sudershan Iyengar says, their effectiveness depends on community participation.

One of the proponents of watershed development and check dams is Harnath Jagawat of the N.M. Sadguru Water and Development Foundation, an NGO. In 1974, Jagawat visited the tribal district of Dahod and was shocked by the extent of poverty prevailing there. Forests were shrinking and the tribal people with land had no access to water. Jagawat introduced simple irrigation techniques and over the years expanded the natural resource base by building check dams. Alongside he introduced a social forestry scheme, which now covers about 50,000 acres (20,000 hectares). Jagawat says the success of his watershed development programme depends entirely on community participation. In the last decade Jagawat built about 20 check dams in parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan. All the projects are now managed by the local people.

In Kutch, the 32.7-metre high Tappar dam blocks the flow of the rivers into Banni. The water stored in this dam is diverted for municipal and industrial uses in Gandhidham, which is emerging as an industrial town. Likewise Bhuj, the headquarters of Kutch district, has over 90 tubewells. None of them is less than 300 feet(90 metres) deep. The borewells here are so deep that water extraction is often referred to as water mining. The water table drops by around four metres every year. Water that has collected over the centuries is being emptied out at a frightening rate and there is no attempt being made to recharge ground water, says Mahajan.

Although much has been said about recharging (a process in which surface vegetation holds back rainwater and lets it percolate into the ground thereby restocking underground aquifers) it is not possible to recharge a borewell that is deeper than 90 metres. Shamjibhai Antala runs a forceful campaign for well recharging in Saurashtra, where there are 7,50,000 wells. Using Mahatma Gandhi's principle of "Each One Teach One", Antala has succeeded in persuading farmers to recharge over four lakh wells at an approximate cost of Rs.600 each. Moreover, people of 15 villages in Amreli district in Saurashtra have agreed not to dig wells deeper than 60 metres.

However, Vinay Mahajan says that recharging has to be seen in the context of the extent of water usage. "Recharging is a temporary solution if you do not do something about the demand aspect."

The story is different in northern Gujarat. The area is prone to desertification and the ingress of saline water from the Rann. There has been tremendous overexploitation of ground water in this region. About 40 years ago the water table was 30 metres below the surface. Now bores have to be sunk as far as 240 metres to 540 metres to strike water. Realising the value of water, rich farmers have created a water market in which wells are hired out on an hourly basis.

Many concerned individuals and organisations raise the question of why agriculture is imposed on regions that have a history of water scarcity. According to them, the current development plan which gives importance to promoting agriculture is at odds with the resources available and is not sustainable in Kutch, Saurashtra or northern Gujarat. And yet, there is no move to alter this development model, they say. The reason, according to Mahajan, is the presence of a strong farmers' lobby that is represented by the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, an organisation affiliated to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. "No politician in Gujarat will put his foot down and say 'No more farming'," says Mahajan.

Achyut Yagnik, who is associated with an NGO, sums up the situation: "Earlier, the haves and have-nots were differentiated on the basis of caste. Now a further dimension has been added to this. Urban areas get priority over rural areas. Industry gets preference over agriculture. Cash crops get preference over fodder and food crops. Political clout is everything. Saurashtra gets more water because of its political strength."

Apart from stressing the basic need to alter the development plan for the region, a section of economists, NGOs, hydrologists and village-level workers have, among others, made the following suggestions:

* According policy-level recognition to traditional sources of water such as talavs (lakes), virdas (shallow holes into which groundwater seeps and is collected for drinking) and vavs (stepped wells). Experts say that this, along with check dams and storage dams for harvesting water at the village level, will bring down scarcity.

* Modifying the present structure of property rights over groundwater. Groundwater is not considered to be a common resource. According to the law, it belongs to the owners of the land in which it is located. This law has resulted in landowners trying to capture as much groundwater as possible regardless of the extent of their needs.

* Setting a limit to the depth of borewells. In 1970, an attempt was made to amend the Bombay Irrigation Act so as to set a limit of 45 m. Successive ordinances issued in this regard have been allowed to lapse.

* Monitoring groundwater levels. The State should prevent people from using a well if the water level goes below a stipulated depth. However, this can be implemented only if there are alternative water sources in the area.

* Drilling community borewells. Social realities such as feudalism and caste come in the way of implementing this suggestion. The answer lies in the democratisation of village institutions.

* Fixing power tariffs on a pro rata basis.

* Adopting an extension approach in irrigation. Since this type of irrigation is not suitable for all crops, cash crops that are responsible for straining the water resources would be phased out automatically.

* Adopting dry farming methods and alternating cropping patterns.

* Altering the pricing policy for agriculture. The pricing policy should be such that people are attracted to grow other crops. Groundnut, a water intensive crop, is widely cultivated in Saurashtra, which is the world's largest supplier of this cash crop. Any attempt to make farmers switch to other crops will be resisted by them.

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