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Where the drought has dug in

Darshan Desai

Digging a well may be no way to douse a fire, but the Gujarat Government is doing something similar these days. Faced with public anger over water scarcity in two-thirds of the state, it has gone on a spree of digging borewells. ``We have to give water to the people somehow,'' says Water Supply Minister Narottam Patel.

Patel's desperation is understandable. Many of the reservoirs are almost dry. In Saurashtra region, which is the worst-hit, towns are getting drinking water once in two to nine days. Crops are withering away. Fodder is in short supply. The cattle-rearers are moving out of Kutch with their flocks in search of pastures, and even selling off animals to butchers.

The monsoon began well, but there was little rain after the first few spells. As a water scarcity loomed large, Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel blamed the rain gods before the elections. ``It is nature's fury'', he proclaimed, as the Congress tried to whip up an anti-BJP sentiment on the issue.

But before long, the BJP governmentrealised that its ostrich position could extract a heavy price in the elections. It tried to divert water from wherever it was available to scarcity areas, but the move ran into opposition. A plan to meet the drinking water needs of the Chief Minister's home-town, Rajkot, from a dam near Morbi, had to be given up. There were protests from the local people, who feared that no water would be left for them in summer.

The government then decided to sink borewells to pump out groundwater and supply it to dry areas by pipelines until the next monsoon. So hundreds of borewells are being dug all over the state. Incidentally, the last time the state had a bad monsoon in 1986, water trains were run from Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, both of which are on the banks of Sabarmati river. This time, Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar are also in the grip of water scarcity and borewells are being dug there too.

The water crisis is, no doubt, one of the worst ever, though dry spells are a familiar occurrence. Large parts of Gujarat,particularly Saurashtra and Kutch, are drought-prone. The Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada was conceived as the answer to the state's water problems, but it is still caught in a legal dispute. The water is still flowing into the sea. Last week, when the river was in spate after heavy rain in its catchment area in Madhya Pradesh, 200 lakh acre feet of water flowed into the sea which, according to Narmada Development Minister Jaynarayan Vyas, would have been sufficient for Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat for 10 years.

While the Narmada project languished, borewells became the government's standard response to water problems. The result: water tables have been falling in the state. According to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), in North Gujarat including Ahmedabad water tables are dropping at an alarming rate of over seven feet every year because of over-exploitation. In several areas in North Gujarat, water is to be got only by digging as deep as 500 to 700 feet. How long will even this waterlast?

In fact, in many areas, rechargeable reservoirs of groundwater were pumped dry long ago. Now, water which has collected in the deeper recesses of the earth for hundreds of years is being pumped out. It has a high content of dissolved minerals and is unfit for drinking. The use of this mineral-rich groundwater has led to the spread of fluorosis in Amreli in Saurashtra and at several places in North Gujarat.

A CGWB report entitled Ground Water Resources of Gujarat points to another danger: ``Groundwater withdrawal requires to be regulated so that it does not exceed the annual recharge and also does not disturb the hydrochemical balance leading to sea water ingress,'' it says. In fact, salinity has already become a major problem in coastal areas.

Given this scenario, the sinking of more borewells, that too at a time when there has been little rain and, therefore, little recharging of groundwater, has created apprehensions. Digvijaysinh, former Union Minister of Environment, has expressed the fearthat the digging of borewells in Wankaner to supply water to Rajkot will have a disastrous impact on agriculture and vegetation in the area.

Narottam Patel says he is aware of the problems, but the government has no choice. ``These are only temporary ways till we get a permanent solution,'' assures Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. The permanent solution, on which the government will start work soon, is to bring water to Saurashtra by pipelines from Mahi canal in water-rich South Gujarat.

Incidentally, the project is not an original idea of the BJP government. It was conceived by the Congress government in 1993 but became a political football. Soon after work was started, the BJP came into power in 1995 and scrapped it. Shankersinh Vaghela revived it later, but it was axed again by the Keshubhai Patel government in 1998.

The BJP government alleges that the scheme reeked of an underhand deal and was technically faulty. But former Chief Minister Chhabildas Mehta says it was technically perfect; the PlanningCommission had vetted and cleared it. As for the suspected underhand deal, Mehta remarked, ``If there was corruption, punish the guilty. Why scrap the scheme?''

Had the scheme been taken up in right earnest, it would have been completed in one year, avoiding much suffering for the people and a government expenditure of Rs 153 crore on temporary remedies like the borewells and pipelines, which will be useless once the problem is over.

Not that the Congress is free from fault. Two other ambitious schemes were prepared in 1985 and 1986 to bring water from central and south Gujarat to Saurashtra. Both remained unexecuted. Chhabildas Mehta refuses to discuss these schemes, but Water Supply Secretary Tripathi says these were scrapped for paucity of funds. ``Besides, everyone counted on water from the Sardar Sarovar Project,'' says Tripathi.

Tripathi admits that the long phase of good rains after 1986 had made the government ``a little slack on water planning''. Now, everyone is waking up to the need not onlyof water harvesting and management but also of regulating the use of water. ``We will frame a pragmatic water policy,'' he promises.

Experts like Vidyut Joshi, president of Saurashtra Mitra Mandal, a federation of 170 NGOs, agree that there is no escape from water harvesting and better management of limited resources. Small water harvesting structures, equal to local needs, can be set up with very little money in a short time, says T.M. Shashidharan, executive director of the Development Support Centre, an NGO which finances watershed management projects. But the problem, says Shashidharan, is the politicians' obsession with big projects. ``They are always interested in setting up civil works where they can appoint contractors with an obvious purpose in mind,'' he says.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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