On February 15, the Gujarat government left farmers fuming when it cut off irrigation water supply to four districts dependent on the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada. The move was both sudden and unexpected: it had been announced in a small newspaper advertisement barely a week earlier and was enacted one month before the scheduled date for cutting off water supply from the Narmada across the state.

The Narmada crisis hit the headlines in January, when the state government alerted farmers that reserves in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir had dropped by 45% – the lowest in 15 years – because of poor rainfall in the Narmada river basin in Madhya Pradesh. In view of this unusual shortage, the state announced that irrigation water from the river would not be supplied after March 15, and instructed farmers not to sow their summer crops.

Even as farmers began to demand clarity and compensation for looming losses, a newspaper notice on February 9 brought more grim news for Surendranagar, Ahmedabad, Botad and Bhavnagar districts. The notice stated that irrigation water supply would be stopped from February 15 until the end of the summer season and that the state government would not be responsible for any crops sown in those four districts during this period.

The decision has now been rolled back in response to protests by farmers: on Friday, a day after the water supply was stopped in the four districts, farmers were supplied with water from the Narmada river’s Maliya branch canal to irrigate their nearly-ripened winter crops. “We protested because winter crops are almost ready for harvest at the moment and farms need just a few more rounds of irrigation,” said Sagar Rabari, a farmer leader and general secretary of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj. “Now some water has been released and winter crops can be saved.”

The question of summer crops, however, still looms large, with the irrigation water supply set to be cut off on March 15. While the government has assured citizens that drinking water supply will not be affected through the summer, farmers groups and water resources experts have several questions for the state.

Why were warnings given so late?

The Gujarat government has attributed the water crisis to an unexpected deficit in rainfall in the Narmada basin in Madhya Pradesh. “If this is the case, then the water shortage in the reservoir should have been evident at the end of the monsoon itself,” said Himanshu Thakkar, a coordinator at the non-profit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Instead, the state government started raising alarm bells about depleting reserves only in January, several months after the monsoon of 2017. The government claimed that instead of the usual 9 million acre feet of water that Gujarat is due to receive every year, it has received only 4.71 million acre feet this year, which needs to be preserved for drinking water supply.

Many farmers, however, had already begun sowing seeds for the upcoming summer season and they now stand to lose a whole season’s worth of income.

How come there was no water shortage during the election?

The timing of the government’s warnings to farmers has also come into question in the context of the state’s Assembly election that the Bharatiya Janata Party won in December 2017.

During and after the monsoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders liberally used river water for their election campaigning, said Thakkar. One occasion was the seaplane ride that Modi took from Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati river to the Dharoi dam in Mehsana district in December, for which the Narmada waters were diverted to the Sabarmati. Water was also diverted to the Sabarmati during the visits of foreign dignitaries such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September. Farmers groups have also alleged that the government has diverted the Narmada waters to fill up the Aji dam near Rajkot, the hometown of Chief Minister Vijay Rupani.

“Now suddenly after the election, they are saying they don’t have water,” said Thakkar. “If they had known about a rainfall deficit in Madhya Pradesh, they should have used the water accordingly. The Gujarat government has possibly indulged in wasteful use of water.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a seaplane ride on the Sabarmati river as part of the Assembly election campaign. Photo credit: Narendramodi.in

Some commentators have linked the water shortage in Gujarat to the fact that Madhya Pradesh – where the Narmada originates – has an election coming up this year, and the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government is wary of angering its already disaffected farmers. On February 6, the Gujarat government appealed the Centre and the Narmada Control Authority to direct Madhya Pradesh to release more water into the Narmada reservoir. But the Madhya Pradesh government has turned down Gujarat’s request to release 800 million cubic metres of water into the Sardar Sarovar reservoir.

“Most hydrologists agree that the Narmada basin will always have surplus water in any year of average rainfall, so this year seems to be an aberration,” said Shilp Verma, consulting researcher at the International Water Management Institute in Anand, Gujarat. “The shortage of water could also be because of political reasons like the election in Madhya Pradesh this year, but it is hard to say without evidence.”

What about compensation?

Farmers organisations in Gujarat are incensed at the government’s refusal to take responsibility for the summer crops they have been asked not to sow this year.

But officials at the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam – a state-owned corporation that manages the dam – claim that the Narmada dam waters were never meant to provide irrigation for summer crops. “This project has been designed for irrigating the rabi [winter] crop and for protective irrigation of the kharif [monsoon] crop, not for the summer crop,” said Mukesh Joshi, the corporation’s general manager. “Drinking water will always be given top priority.”

This argument runs counter to the state government’s promotion of the Sardar Sarovar dam as the “lifeline of Gujarat” whose primary focus is on irrigation in drought-prone regions. “Farmers have been instructed not to grow any crops for this whole season, but they still have not made any announcements regarding compensation for our loss,” said Sagar Rabari of Gujarat Khedut Samaj. “They have also not announced any alternate livelihoods for people who will lose their income.”

With growing unrest among farmers across the state, Rabari is hopeful that the government will make provisions for some monetary compensation to farmers before the onset of summer.