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Drought and deja vu

Governments in Gujarat have proposed and disposed of schemes that couldhave alleviated much of Kutch-Saurashtra's misery, says DARSHANDESAI

There's an all too familiar ring to Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel'swords that the drought the state is facing will be the last. After all,hadn't similar promises been held out by the Congress which ruled the statebetween 1985 and 1988? In those years, the state had similarly suffered adrought because of failure of monsoon for three consecutive years.

Just as the BJP government now says that it is ``taking steps'' to makeGujarat drought-proof, the Congress governments had then promised apermanent end to the frequent water shortages in the state. Various schemeshave either remained on the drawing board or are painfully plodding on. Allalong, the pumping out of groundwater for agriculture and drinking purposeshas continued unhindered, facilitated by a subsidised power supply.

The facts are there for all to see: erratic rainfall, averaging 15-20inches, and absence of perennial rivers in Kutch and Saurashtra. It was thusclear that there was only one way to quench the thirst of these parts: tapwater-surplus central and south Gujarat, where perennial rivers like theNarmada, Tapi and Mahi flow.

One such scheme to bring water from the Mahi in central Gujarat toSaurashtra is the Saurashtra Pipeline Scheme. The BJP government, which ismarketing this pipeline as the answer to Saurashtra's water woes, says itsfirst phase will be complete by June 15 and the entire project by October,covering 1,600 villages and 35 lakh people in Saurashtra and northGujarat.

Ironically, the BJP itself had tried to block this pipeline in its initialstages. Conceived by the Chimanbhai Patel government in 1992-93, the projectwas initiated and stalled twice, both times by the BJP. The project wasfirst cancelled in 1995, when Keshubhai Patel first became chief minister.

In 1997, the Rashtriya Janata Party government of Shankersinh Vaghelarevived the scheme, only to see it being scrapped by the BJP in 1998.The BJP government alleged corruption in the project, and claimed that theuse of pre-stressed cement pipes was technically unsound. But theallegations of corruption were never investigated, and Congress leadersnever tire of pointing out that the project had been cleared by the PlanningCommission. Despite its misgivings, the BJP government started work on theproject last year, but only after the monsoon failed to deliver andSaurashtra was up against a crisis. Now, the project continues with steelpipes instead of cement ones. The project cost has shot up to Rs 700 crorefrom Rs 500 crore.

Congress leaders like former chief minister Chhabildas Mehta blame the BJPfor the sufferings of Saurashtra. Had the BJP not delayed the project, theregion would have been getting Mahi water now, they say. But Water SupplyMinister Narottam Patel claims that they are executing a brand new scheme.``The pipeline being used in this project is of steel and would cover alarger area. This will be quality work, unlike the Congress, which wanted tomake money out of the scheme,'' he says.

Congress leaders are still hard-pressed to explain why they could notexecute the project between 1988 and 1992. Or, why other schemes conceivedin the late '80s never took off. Among these are the Dahej-Bhavnagar scheme,which envisaged making a bridge-cum-pipeline across the Gulf of Cambay, anda scheme to carry water from Narmada to Jamnagar which was recommended bythe Raj Committee.

In fact, work was started on the Dharoi scheme to feed 550 villages ofMehsana and Patan from Sabarmati, but it progressed in ``typical sarkaripiecemeal fashion'', say observers. ``For instance, the laying of a simpleintake well took four years,'' points out a senior bureaucrat.

In any case, all these schemes had an inherent flaw: they were based onprojections which turned out to be wide off the mark. For example, theSaurashtra pipeline was initially planned to carry 250 million litres perday. Today, the demand is in the vicinity of 1,800 to 2,000 MLD, say sources.And what about the smaller wonders, those water-harvesting structures andcheck dams about which reams are being written about today? Between 1991 and1999-2000, various governments set up only 1,341 check dams. Today, even asit nitpicks over the severity of the drought, the BJP government claims thatit will construct 10,000 check dams by the end of June and over 16,000 byyear-end. Only time and the government's whim will tell.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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