Vote and drought

Published : Dec 28, 2012 00:00 IST

A bad monsoon highlights Gujarats water woes and makes the BJP mildly anxious about the rural vote.

in Saurashtra

IF there was one thing that Narendra Modi must have prayed for this year, it would have been a good monsoon. In an election year, water, a commodity which politicians normally gloss over, suddenly assumes significance, especially when it comes to courting the rural voter. And in the case of Gujarat, where agriculture is still the predominant economic activity in vast areas, the point is even more pertinent. This year the State had its worst monsoon in a decade.

The worst affected regions are the already water-starved Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat. Coincidentally, these are also regions where Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have a strong following.

For decades the farmers of Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat have harboured a resentment against successive governments for their failure to build a canal network in their region. When Modi came to power in 2001 and took a strong stand on the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Project canals, these farmers hoped they would no longer have to rely on borewells (which were turning saline because of overuse). But as the years passed the hope died. The canal network, though extensive in central and south Gujarat, is incomplete in other areas.

It was inevitable that this year the kharif crops in the water-scarce areas would be badly hit. The yield from cotton and groundnut was especially poor, and since these are the economic staples for the regions farmers, it was equally inevitable that there would be debt and, sadly, deaths in farmer families. Eleven farmers killed themselves over issues relating to agriculture. Their families were given Rs.1 lakh each as compensation (a meaningless word in the circumstances), but apart from this the ruling party handled the matter callously. The suicides caught the party off guard and its reaction betrayed insensitivity to rural matters. At a press interaction, BJP State president R.C. Faldu reportedly said that if a farmers son does not take up farming and instead does some other work and then fails in it and commits suicide, then it is his destiny. The bizarre statement caused an uproar, and Faldu later denied having said any such thing.

With a mere 20 per cent of the normal rainfall received this year, it was expected that the losses would be heavy. Even then, farmers were appalled at the more than 75 per cent loss that was recorded until the end of October. According to officials in the State Agricultural Department, farmers anticipated the drought and some of them had sown less water-intensive crops. As a result, 1.2 million hectares was sown with groundnut as opposed to 1.4 million ha last year. And 2.3 million ha was sown with cotton, against 2.9 million ha last year.

Both these crops are water-intensive and depend largely on rainfall, though private water sources are used heavily, especially in Saurashtra. A district agriculture officer in Amreli said the crops that survived probably owed it to borewell or surface water irrigation.

Canal irrigation in the largely agricultural area of Saurashtra has literally been a pipe dream. The Sardar Sarovar Project, promising Narmada water for Gujarat, started under a Congress regime, but Modi took it on with such fervour that it is now associated with him. He does not seem too bothered about the fact that he has not been able to make good his own promise of taking Narmada water as far as Kutch.

When it became clear that it was going to be a poor monsoon this year, officials of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited were told to tour Rajkot and other areas of Saurashtra and see what could be done to keep people happy. A plan to provide an additional 30 crore litres of water from the Dhrangadhra branch canal to Rajkot, Jamnagar and Kutch was put into action, but it was a temporary measure.

The Modi government knew that people were desperate for water, and so State Reserve Police platoons were stationed along the canal to prevent water theft. Eighteen farmers were arrested and booked for water theft during the dry monsoon months.

Ever since Modi came to power in 2001, he has been pushing for the completion of the Sardar Sarovar Project canals. But it has not happened. Some years ago, Gordhabhai Zadaphia, his former party colleague, said that this was a source of anxiety for Modi. Branches of the crucial Kutch and Saurashtra networks lie incomplete. It is hard to justify this because these areas were meant to get priority. While drinking water does reach some areas of Saurashtra, irrigation water is still not available from the SSP canals.

For Modi, the SSP is a heavy cross to bear all the more because Kutch and Saurashtra are politically vital for him. These areas account for 58 of the 182 seats in the State Assembly. Fortunately for Modi, the regions overall political inclination will probably ensure it votes in the BJPs favour, yet the party is cautious in its expectations. The issue of water makes this election more challenging than the ones of 2002 and 2007. As Keshavbhai Bhimani, a farmer from Amreli district, commented, Congresswallas will die of shame if they realise that Modisaheb is more afraid of the rains than of them! The reference was to the Congress ineffectual role in the past two elections. This time, however, the Congress campaign has Modi on his toes.

Sonia Gandhi kick-started the Congress campaign in October with a public meeting in Rajkot, where she brought up the issue of water. She said the Gujarat government was a failure because it had not been able to bring Narmada waters to Saurashtra via the Narmada Yojana (a project initiated by the Congress). The speech was the first indicator of the direction of the Congress campaign. Instead of the usual attacks on communal politics, the Congress had chosen development as a plank and, specifically, rural development. With the thrust on development, the Congress has boldly taken the war right into the rivals camp.

It was a good move, says Ramjibhai Patel, an 83-year-old agriculturist from Rajkot and a die-hard BJP voter. But he is also a die-hard khedut (farmer) who says the flesh and blood in his body is made of the soil and water of Gujarat, and it is this part of him that grudgingly admires Sonia Gandhi. She brought rural issues to the forefront. If she had not, Modisaheb would have kept talking of his infrastructure and his roads and what he has done for industrialists. I dont deny any of that, but his promises to us [farmers] have been lies.

Modis old rival Keshubhai Patel, who heads the Gujarat Parivartan Party, exerts a certain degree of power in this region, primarily because of his clan affiliations and because of his former position as Chief Minister. But age and his Congress ties are against him.

Water management has always favoured the rich over the poor. Even while farmers were risking arrest in Saurashtra by stealing water from the SSP canals, water was being released into the Sabarmati river for Ahmedabad. Further south, the Ukai dam on the Tapi river, which should also be benefiting the tribal people in the region, actually sends water to industrial Gujarat. Even though a court order in August said the waters must be shared, the BJP government has gone ahead with an MoU for a project linking the Par, Tapi and Narmada rivers. This will submerge large areas of the same tribal land that the court order was intended to benefit.

Water is an overused and much abused commodity in Gujarat. In the industrial regions of south Gujarat and in areas around Vadodara and Ahmedabad, it is quite common for groundwater to be stinking and coloured with all kinds of pollutants (Stink of development, Frontline, May 20, 2011; Poisoned beach, Frontline, July 29, 2010). Such water is used for irrigation and for household purposes such as washing and bathing. The visible consequences of this are skin irritations and sick livestock.

Rohit Prajapati, an environmental activist, has been campaigning hard for years to get Modis attention drawn to issues of health and water pollution. He says, The groundwater of about 14 districts and about 74 taluks of Gujarat is critically affected by pollution. The quality has reached a critical stage, and yet it is being contaminated continuously.

Prajapati has consistently challenged the development model adopted by Gujarat and says the destruction of natural resources and livelihood has resulted directly from this. In his latest written salvo against the Chief Minister, he said: Vatva to Vapithe Golden Corridorit is clear that 70 per cent of the groundwater is contaminated and it has reached the irreversible level. When are you going to act on this serious issue of contamination of groundwater? Prajapatis colossal documentation and relentless, comprehensive field and laboratory work have not drawn any meaningful response from Modis office.

Though the Congress, the official opposition to the BJP in Gujarat, has been weak, citizens protests on communal questions, environmental matters, health-related issues and agricultural themes have been vociferous. But the BJP machinery has managed largely to steamroll protests. Even the ominous rumblings from the farmers community are unlikely to be translated into Congress votes. Though the BJP was mildly anxious after the failed monsoon, it regained confidence quite fast as the Congress initial energy sagged.

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