Kamlaben Makwana bears two large scars on her wrinkled arm, reminders of the day she was beaten up by the Gujarat police. She has other bruises too, in places she is too embarrassed to name.

Makwana comes from a farming family in Upardal, a village in the water-starved Sanand taluka of rural Ahmedabad. On February 14, she joined around 3,000 other farmers from 32 villages in a 60-km protest march from Sanand to the state capital Gandhinagar, to demand what they had been promised for long: irrigation water from the Narmada dam project.

The march, however, had not been granted police permission and the farmers were stopped before they could move beyond Upardal. In the violence that ensued, seven policemen and 50 protestors were injured. The police claims the farmers started pelting stones and the forces only resorted to lathi-charge and tear gas shelling when the district’s superintendent of police was hit on the head. But Makwana and other farmers say the violence was unleashed by the police.

“We were walking unarmed and all of a sudden they began to hit all of us – men, women, young and old – without mercy,” said Makwana, sitting with a group of women farmers under a marquee in the middle of an arid farm in Upardal. “The policewomen were not doing anything but the policemen even beat us on our private parts. They kept saying, ‘you want water? Here, take water!’”

Elusive water

The villagers of Sanand and its neighbouring talukas say they have patiently waited for Narmada water, since the time it was first promised to them at least two decades ago. But the drought-like conditions over the past three years made them desperate for the water, leading to a series of protests.

The crushing of their protest in February, that too just months before the Gujarat Assembly election scheduled for November this year, came as an unexpected snub from the state government.

But the bigger shock is that officials managing the Narmada dam project now claim that the 32 protesting villages of Sanand, Viramgam and Bavla talukas may never have been eligible for the water in the first place.

Kamlaben Makwana still carries the scars from the beating by police in February. Photo credit: Aarefa Johari

A promise not kept

Rural Ahmedabad, prone to drought like Saurashtra to its south, has historically been dependent on the monsoon for agriculture. Irrigation water from the Sabarmati river’s Fatehwadi canal has been insufficient, leaving out many villages located further away from the towns. In the past 30 years, farmer leader Rajesh Patel said, water shortages have been growing more frequent and more acute, and the drought of the past three years, although never officially declared, has severely depleted groundwater reserves.

All through these years, the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river – controversial since the 1980s for its environmental impact and the displacement of lakhs of people – was marketed as the beacon of hope for districts in Kutch and Saurashtra regions.

Rajesh Patel, president of the Aam Aadmi Party’s Gujarat Khedut Sangathan, claimed that the talukas of Sanand, Bavla and Viramgam have been banking on the promise of water from the Narmada for years, but the water has still not reached thousands of farmers in those blocks.

Standing in a farm after the a farmers’ satyagraha organised by the party in Upardal on May 8, Patel pointed to the horizon in the west. “Ten kilometres from here, there is a Narmada branch canal that provides plenty of water to the Nano factory and other GIDC industries,” he said, referring to the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation’s estate in Sanand. “And on this side, seven kilometres away, another Narmada canal near Sanand town has still not been extended towards our farms even though government officials have given us several assurances that branch canals will be built.”

According to Patel, the narrow last-mile connector canals could easily be built in about three months but the government is not undertaking the work. “After all these years, they still have 27,000 kilometres of canals to build across Gujarat,” he said. “And they do not even give us permission to protest.”

A pamphlet distributed at the AAP farmers' satyagraha depicts some of the villagers injured in the police crackdown violence on February 14.

Not eligible for water?

Building canals to take the Narmada’s water across Gujarat is the responsibility of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, a state government undertaking. Its office in Gandhinagar displays posters describing the Narmada project as the “lifeline of Gujarat” that aims to irrigate 1.8 million hectares of farmland, supply drinking water to 9,490 villages and create one million jobs in rural areas.

To accomplish this, it has built India’s third highest dam on the Narmada near the Gujarat-Rajasthan border to divert the river’s water eastwards through the wide, 485-km long Narmada Main Canal. Off the main canal, a network of “branch”, “distributary”, “minor” and “sub-minor” canals are being laid to take the water to the command area of 17,920 sq km across 12 districts. Command area refers to the total land that can be irrigated from a dam.

On a map of Gujarat in the office of Mukesh Joshi, the general manager of Narmada Nigam, the command area is highlighted in green. Pointing to a white patch in the midst of the green, Joshi claimed that the villagers of rural Ahmedabad who protested on February 14 were probably not entitled to Narmada water at all.

An official map of the Narmada command area, provided by Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd.

“Districts like Anand, Kheda and parts of rural Ahmedabad, including Viramgam, are not in the command area of the project,” Joshi said. “Obviously villagers have been demanding water. We keep receiving representations from all over Gujarat but not all of it can be in the command area.”

But when Scroll.in marked Ahmedabad district onto the map provided by Narmada Nigam, it appeared to entirely fall within the command area of the Narmada project. By extension, the talukas of Sanand, Viramgam and Bavla within Ahmedabad district would also fall within the command area, thus entitling their farmers to irrigation water from the project.

Ahmedabad district seems to entirely fall within the command area of the Narmada project.

Scroll.in provided Narmada Nigam’s officials with a list of the villages in the three talukas that have been demanding Narmada water, so they could check if the villages are within the project’s command area. The officials did not respond to follow-up emails and phone calls about the list.

However, speaking with Scroll.in on May 9, Joshi admitted that the construction of at least 26,000 km of canals was yet to be completed. Most of these are “sub-minor” canals, the narrowest last-mile connectors taking the water into villages. “But often we are not able to build the canals because farmers are not willing to part with their land,” Joshi claimed. “This is why we are now building underground pipelines instead.”

Joshi also refuted the farmers’ claims that Narmada water was being provided to the industrial estate in Sanand. “Gujarat’s share of the Narmada water is 9 million acre feet per year, of which only 0.2 million acre feet is meant for industrial use,” Joshi said. “So far, the actual industrial use has been less than half of that so it would be factually incorrect to say that Narmada water is being diverted to industry.”

Impact on the ground

Farmers of Sanand, Viramgam and Bavla are not too familiar with the term “command area” but they do know two things for certain. One, Narmada water has been repeatedly promised to them over the years by the government’s representatives. Two, towns and industries just a few kilometres from their villages do benefit from the Narmada canals.

Poor monsoons and lack of irrigation facilities have led to at least three successive years of agricultural decline for farmers in the region. In the village of Zaap in Sanand, Govindbhai Gohil claimed that 90% of their winter wheat crop failed this year. “The government did not provide us irrigation water when we needed it. And when our crops failed, we did not get any of the crop insurance that the banks took premium for while giving us loans,” said Gohil, a farmer and member of the Zilla Parishad panchayat from the Congress. Many farmers, he said, have had to cope with the drought by selling portions of their land to various industries coming up in the area.

Govindbhai Gohil, a farmer and politician from Sanand's Zaap village.

Three months after the protest march was disrupted, on May 8, Kamlaben Makwana was in the Upardal farm for the protest organised by the Aam Aadmi Party. The aim was to demand justice for the police action of February 14, which the protestors claim left more than 200 farmers injured. They also demanded withdrawal of the “false” cases of attempt to murder against 22 farmer leaders, who were allegedly arrested even before the protest march had begun.

After the police’s violent crackdown on the February 14 rally, leaders of several political groups expressed their support and sympathy for the farmers of Sanand, including the Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakor. The Aam Aadmi Party, which is trying to establish its presence in Gujarat and plans to contest the Assembly election in November, claimed that it has been mobilising the affected farmers for the past three months and even held a relay hunger strike in April to demand justice and water for them.

The farmers’ satyagraha organised by AAP in Upardal on May 8, however, saw a poor turnout, and was cut short soon after lunch. According to the party’s leaders, this was because the police was still issuing veiled threats to the farmers for holding protests.

Makwana, who was at the AAP satyagraha, attested to the police threats. “We are very scared of the police now,” she added. “Even yesterday they drove through our village and warned us against going to this AAP rally.”

In Sanand and neighbouring talukas, farmers now feel hostile towards the police and let down by the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. But will this affect the way they vote in November?

“If this was a local district election, maybe,” said Gohil, the Congress leader. “But in Assembly elections, everyone simply votes based on caste.”