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Monday 15 May 2000

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Gujarat drought mismanaged

By Kamlendra Kanwar

AHMEDABAD: There are lessons to be learnt from the mismanagement of the recent drought in Gujarat, but it is inconceivable that they would be absorbed given the we-know-it-all attitude of the Keshubhai Patel government and the confusion at the Centre stemming from the multiplicity of authorities dealing with the subject.

It is indeed a sad commentary on the system that while the catchment areas of the Narmada were flooded after last year's monsoon, over 9,400 villages in Saurashtra and Kutch, that would have had water aplenty if the project had been commissioned, are faced with a drought of ghastly proportions.

The Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat governments must be held responsible for fighting over the height of the Narmada dam, while this national resource goes waste. No less culpable is the Narmada Bachao Andolan whose leader has been obsessed with scoring points in international fora with little genuine regard for long-term public good.

A whopping Rs 10,000 crore (including interest) has so far been spent by Gujarat, but while the upstream dam on the Narmada is bogged down by resettlement problems, the downstream project, though nearly complete, is awaiting the SC's verdict on the dam's height. Significantly, the downstream project itself has the potential to give 16 million acre-feet of water a year.

While the state reels under drought, the politicians are failing to look beyond their nose. Take the case of the Wankaner-Rajkot pipeline, which is slated to sink 120 borewells in the rich grasslands of Wankaner to feed the taps in Rajkot. The Rs 75-crore project is being seen as a manifestation of the ``politics of water'' being played by CM Keshubhai Patel to the detriment of the people of Wankaner. There are calls for a mass movement against it and muscles are being flexed for a ``water war''.

Another problem area is that all traditional water harvesting forms have been given up. The practice of desilting ponds, tanks and wells in villages, so crucial to the normal supply of water, is now being revived after it virtually went out of vogue. Even on recharging of groundwater, there have been only half-hearted measures and little governmental help to private initiative. Recently, a khadi-clad simpleton from Saurashtra, Shamjibhai Antala, who has, with his band of volunteers, helped recharge 3.5 lakh of the 7.5 lakh borewells with rainwater in Saurashtra and Kutch over a decade, was wooed away by the MP government for similar work in Jhabua district.

In an interview, he rued that the Gujarat government had not responded positively to his proposal to recharge one lakh wells.

Another ill that has contributed to the drought has been the over-extraction of water. This has been the direct consequence of the low power tariff in rural areas, which encouraged people to use tube or borewells beyond their prudent needs, is another manifestation of appeasement of an important votebank.

At the Central level, there is the problem of multiplicity of authority even though water supply is essentially a state subject. The ministry of water resources, the rural and urban development ministries, the agriculture, environment and health ministries often cross each other's path and files are typically passed on from one ministry to another.

Evidently, the governments in the state and the Centre have a major responsibility to set things in order at least with the benefit of hindsight but there are few takers for long-term correctives. While the governments ``know it all'', the opposition gets a vicarious pleasure in an attitude of ``we told you so''.



The Economic Times


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