Saturday, November 25 (Coonwar):
At Coonwar in North Gujarat's Patan district, farmers gathered at a panchayat meeting are discussing water. They have spent years waiting - with some concern, enormous restraint and fairness - for the mythical, magical Narmada.
In fact, farmers of the entire Saurashtra region have pinned their hopes on the Sardar Sarovar dam to ease the water scarcity that they face. But studies show that much of the water will not reach these areas. Yet, there is a complete lack of all other alternatives to resolve the water problem.
Some of the typical responses from the farmers of Coonwar went, "The Gujarat government must ensure that people displaced by the dam are rehabilitated. Each and every villager should get his due. These families must not suffer." Another villager said, "The waters of Narmada should come to the drought prone areas of Gujarat - Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat - as there is acute shortage of water here. This is a desert area. It has no rivers and there is no industry either. So logically, we should get a much bigger share than South Gujarat. They have a river, a dam and more rainfall than us." Yet another farmer said, "Twenty years ago, someone had come to take measurements. They said it was for the canal. But so far nothing has happened. I have grown tired of waiting for the Narmada to come. Now, only when I see the water will I know it is here. I will not believe anyone or anything till then."
In village after village in the region, man and beast share the small pool of brackish water for bathing and washing. Even this pool will dry up with the approach of summer. Water tankers stop coming with the approach of the monsoons--for the last two years the rains have not come at all.
The borewells drilled by the panchayat or the government provides drinking water for only two hours a day and is the sole source of water for more than a 1,000 people. It will be replaced by the Narmada, as yet only a distant promise. "For years I have been hearing the authorities say, 'The Narmada is coming'. This is the excuse they have used to do provide no wells for us. How will we survive?" one angry villager asked, while another revealed, "My own tubewell failed 2-3 months ago. But I decided against investing in a new one because the Narmada is coming. So why should I waste Rs. 10-12 lakh on a new tubewell?"
The farmers here have been ruined by the desert, which is slowly creeping upon agricultural land located near the small Rann of Kutch, and the scarcity of water. "Farmers are forced to send their children out to work as labourers. There is large-scale migration from the villages in search of jobs. If the waters of the Narmada come, there will be no need for this. People can cultivate and live off the land itself", one farmer said hopefully, while another said, "If there is no water our crop suffers. We grow cotton but are not able to compete in the market - either in terms of quantity or quality."
Till 15 years ago there was not a single tubewell in the area, but with the cultivation of jeera, which is a water-guzzling crop, hundreds of wells were drilled. Now water is found at more than 1000 ft below ground level. Local officials have never been interested in stopping this abuse of groundwater as their money comes from these wells. The villagers are now apprehensive about the concentration of the entire waters of the Narmada in the hands of one single authority. According to one of the farmers, "Officials take money from each tubewell owner - at least Rs. 2000 - and give electricity only for eight hours. How can a farmer work like this? With the Narmada project corruption will increase."
For years, successive governments have exploited the emotive power of thirst by convincing villagers in the region that the whole purpose of the Sardar Sarovar project is to bring the waters of the Narmada to the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra, which lie at the very end of the canal network. But long years of suffering and an indifferent administration have made the farmers wonder if the waters will ever reach them, and whether their distribution can ever be just and equitable.