Bhavanbhai Patel stood facing his farm, as dry and cracked as his hands. The 65-year-old lives in Dayapur village in Lakhpat taluka of southern Kutch, which has been receiving erratic rainfall since 2003. His farm comprises a few hectares of green, bright amid the sunburnt fields all around. “The rest belongs to my family, but now only I’m left here out of 10 brothers. Everyone else has gone,” the farmer told IndiaSpend in early February.
Lakhpat is one of 10 talukas in Kutch, the least populated taluka of India’s largest district spanning 45,674 sq km, covering 22% of Gujarat (196,024 sq km). Lakhpat residents keep leaving because, as Patel said, “there is no way to make a living here”. He said his was a basti (hamlet) of 20,000 that is now down to 1,500 people.
“In places like Lakhpat, there is no water. Not even underground water is left that we could pull out and farm with,” said Patel, weary after working for six hours.
Dayapur is 520 km from the Narmada Main Canal, but has not received any water from the canal in the 71 years since its foundation stone was laid, promising to bring the waters of the Narmada river to the parched Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat regions of the state. Already facing years of drought, these regions have seen no rainfall so far in 2019. The India Meteorological Department recorded that Kutch saw a 99% departure from normal climate conditions, while other regions’ rainfall deficit is 100%.
This story examines the situation in Gujarat’s worst-hit Kutch region, where scanty rainfall and rising temperatures have exacerbated competition for scarce water between farms on the one hand and cities and industries on the other, while raising questions over why the Narmada Valley Project’s raison d’etre–to irrigate farms in Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat–remains unfulfilled 71 years on.
Promises made and belied
When the Narmada Valley Project was envisioned in 1946, the government’s plan was to harness water for irrigation and hydropower through construction of the Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar dams, and over 3,000 smaller dams and canals. The first plan proposed that the Sardar Sarovar dam be built in two stages, 160 ft and 300 ft, which was later increased to 320 ft–the height considered necessary for the water to reach the arid Kutch and Saurashtra regions.
After various disputes over water sharing between the states of the Narmada basin – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan – the central government constituted a Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal on October 6, 1969 to settle the matter. Ten years later, on December 7, 1979, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal determined that 28 million acre feet or 34,537.7 million cubic metre equivalent to 94,623 million litres per day – was the utilisable quantum of water at the time, and awarded nine million acre feet (11,101.4 million cubic metre) or 32.14% of the total water allocation, amounting to 30,414.62 million litres per day, to Gujarat. Madhya Pradesh (65.17%), Rajasthan (1.8%) and Maharashtra (0.89%) would also receive water.
The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal also laid out the power allocation between the states. In Clause VIII of the award, the tribunal allocated 57% of power generated to Madhya Pradesh and 16% to Gujarat. The lower power allocation was meant to balance the extensive irrigation benefits to Gujarat.
Till date, only 36% of the project has been completed, covering only parts of central Gujarat, which includes more urban districts such as Ahmedabad and Kheda.
The Gujarat government also made a provision that only 11% of the total allocated water, i.e. 3,582.17 million litres per day (1.06 million acre feet or 1,307.5 million cubic metre), would be used for drinking water and industrial use in 135 urban centres and 9,633 villages in the state, including villages in Kutch, North Gujarat and Saurashtra regions.
However, between 2013 and 2016, Gujarat has utilised for non-agricultural use more than 11% of the water it withdraws, according to the annual reports of the Narmada Control Authority, set up in 1980 to implement the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal’s orders. As of 2016, the state was utilising more than 18% of its allocation to provide water for industrial and domestic use.
Kutch, as well as Saurashtra, remains dependent on rain. And rainfall has been so scanty since 2017 that Gujarat is in the throes of a drought. In 2018, Gujarat saw an overall rainfall deficit of 19%, while the Kutch region saw 75%. Kutch declared a drought in 2011-2012 and 2014-2015, according to the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare’s 2015 Drought Crisis Management Report.
Though 2018 was declared the worst monsoon season since 1901, Gujarat insisted it was not drought-hit until three months after the rainy season had passed. After months of terming its arid conditions as “water-scarcity”, the state government declared drought in 51 talukas in 16 districts in a press conference on December 17, 2018. The declaration came two-and-a-half months after the state revenue department had declared drought and pointed out that conditions in five of 10 talukas in Kutch, including Lakhpat, had been assessed as “severe”.
Of the 401 villages in Gujarat facing drought, the maximum number of villages with 50% or more crop loss are in Kutch district, as per the State Level Bankers’ Committee report released on December 13, 2018.
The rainfall deficit continues into 2019. Villagers are leaving for cities for survival, while farmers and activists are starting to ask questions.
It was in response to one such set of questions, filed by activist Sagar Rabari under the Right to Information Act between 2014 and 2018, that the state government admitted that industries in Mundra and Kutch received 25 million litres per day of water from the Narmada Valley Project, and the cities of Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar received 75 million litres per day of drinking water – an amount that would irrigate 22,502 hectares of farmland for a day (calculated by farmer and activist Bharat Jhala), nearly twice the size of Chandigarh.
While the quantum of water is within the 11% limit set by the state government, during this time no water from the project was released for agricultural purposes for Kutch, which was the project’s original mandate. “Ahmedabad is not part of the Narmada Main project,” Rabari told IndiaSpend, referring to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal 1979 award on allocation of water between the four states.
Lakhpat taluka, where Patel lives, is not part of the Project’s Command Area, SS Rathore, the chairperson of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, which executes the irrigation and power generation project, told IndiaSpend. This could mean Lakpat may never receive water from the project, say activists. However, they insist that the taluka and many other villages were initially part of the project’s “command area”, but have been removed after numerous revisions that are not reflected in the updated Command Area map currently available on the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited website.
“The revisions [of the project’s command area] are ad-hoc and not systematic,” environmental activist Rohit Prajapati told IndiaSpend. “If an individual brings it up with the government or if there are industries coming up near a town, the government will revise the command area, saying it is to bring drinking water to people.”
The revisions are not disclosed to the farmers and the people of Gujarat as they should be, Prajapati said, adding, “Today there is a water crisis so [the revisions are] coming to the surface, otherwise this would not even be known.”
Worst drought since 1985
Agriculture and animal husbandry are the predominant economic activities in Kutch. About 72% of land holdings are with small and marginal farmers such as Patel.
Three decades of relentless water extraction have left farmers with little by way of groundwater, and Kutch, a dry zone, has no other natural water source. “Earlier, at least we had some groundwater though we had to bore deep for it. Now, even that has dried up and the water we get by boring deeper is not usable for farming,” Patel explained.
Farmers like him are questioning why cities and factories, and not farms, are receiving water.
Industries in the Kutch and Saurashtra regions are taking water amounting to 844.85 mld (0.25 million acre feet) against their allocation of 675.88 million litres per day (0.2 million acre feet). All the industries set up in these regions show the Sardar Sarovar Dam as their main source of water supply, while farmland remains parched.
“Industry and factories get water. Mundra, Mandvi...where there are factories, there is water, there is a pipeline,” Patel told IndiaSpend. “But for farmers, there is never water. The government doesn’t want to give it.”
Now, with the drought situation in Kutch so dire as to be called “possibly the worst since the drought of 1985 in Gujarat” by Kutch District Collector Remya Mohan, activists say the state government must answer why a project conceived primarily to provide irrigation is serving factories and cities.
Kutch has witnessed a record heatwave over the last 15 years. In 2016, the temperature reached 50 degrees Celsius, the highest in 100 years.
At the same time, rainfall is becoming increasingly erratic. “The monsoon patterns have changed throughout Central India, due to deforestation and industrialisation. The monsoons winds have shifted eastwards to Western Ghat Sahyadri range. This has severely affected both Maharashtra and Gujarat,” Kiran Kumar Johari, physicist and meteorologist working at KTHM College in Nashik, told IndiaSpend.
District-Wise Rainfall Departure In Gujarat, March 1-April 14, 2019
Kutch received only 25% of its annual average rainfall, according to the State Emergency Operation Centre data, in 2018. In 2017, Kutch was 56.58% deficit in rainfall on average, according to the IMD. Rainfall was sporadic and uneven throughout the year. During June and July, peak sowing season for kharif (monsoon) crops, Kutch saw only 58.9 mm and 295.4 mm of rainfall, respectively–averaging to only 5.9 mm of rainfall per day or 65% of the the entire summer rainfall in the area.
The district also saw disastrous rainfall patterns during the rabi (winter) crop sowing months of October and November, with no rainfall in October and a 99% rainfall deficit in November. The district declared droughts in 2012-13 and 2015-16. Historically, Kutch has a drought-frequency of two-and-a-half years. This year, as early as April, mercury has soared in the district’s cities. Bhuj, the district headquarters, saw a heatwave with temperatures soaring to 42°C on April 3.
Since 2003, at which time there was an anomalous spike in rainfall, Lakhpat taluka has received erratic rainfall. The changing rain patterns are causing havoc for farmers. The arrival of the monsoons are getting delayed from June to July, and in recent years peak rainfall is occurring towards the fag end of the rainy season, in September. For farmers who sow summer crops during the months of June and July, the changing patterns of rainfall mean crop loss and increasing debt.
The speed at which the monsoon patterns are changing can be seen in the graph below. It is worth noting that Lakhpat taluka saw good rain in August 2011 (177.079 mm), while in August 2018 there was a 58.57% deficit and in June 2018, there was a 49% rainfall deficit at Lakhpat.
Rainfall Pattern At Lakhpat in Kutch, Gujarat, 1979-2018
Back in Lakhpat, Patel, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, served as president of the RSS-affiliated farmers’ union Bhartiya Kisan Sangh for 20 years, opined why providing adequate water to Lakhpat taluka’s farmers is important for India. “Lakhpat and Rapar are [Pakistan] border towns. If they get water quickly, it’s in the nation’s interest to keep these areas populated with Indians,” he said, adding, “At the same time, it will finally become possible for local farmers to make a living.”
But for years now, farmers have been leaving, and industries have been taking their place.
Lakhpat taluka hosts three cement factories including one of Sanghi Cement, India’s largest. Two power plants – one owned by the Adani group and the other by Tata Power–have been set up in the nearby district of Mundra.
The state-owned Gujarat Water Infrastructure Ltd was constituted as a special purpose vehicle whose mission is to provide drinking water to Gujarat. Because it is an special purpose vehicle, it does not come under the RTI Act, Rabari told IndiaSpend, but he found that Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited supplies Gujarat Water Infrastructure Ltd with water, which then distributes both drinking and industrial water, which is contrary to its mandate to supply only drinking water. “This is a big game that the government has played with the farmers,” Rabari alleges.
Project delays, financial irregularities keep Kutch dry
The Narmada Valley project had a target of irrigating 1.79 million hectares through a 74,000-km canal network. However, 40 years after the tribunal award, only 36% of the network – 27,189 km – has been constructed. Even with a dam height of 138 m, enlarging the water reservoir to its maximum, in 2017-’18 Gujarat could only supply irrigation water to 628,000 hectares–less than half its target.
Chief Minister Vijay Rupani blamed the opposition Congress party for delaying the project.
However, Rupani’s Bharatiya Janata Party has been in power in Gujarat for over 20 years, Rabari pointed out. “The full drawing [Layout of the Project Command Area] and schemes and allocations had been done on the ground. Even farmers knew which khet would get water and which wouldn’t. That’s how much knowledge there was. So what happened?” he asked.
Launched in 1961, the Narmada Valley Project aimed to harvest the waters of the Narmada with 30 major, 136 medium and 3,000 minor dams, the main ones at present being Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh. The main benefit of the project was to provide irrigation to 1.79 million hectares land of Gujarat covering 3,360 villages of 62 talukas in 14 districts.
The Rs 56,000 crore Sardar Sarovar project (by 2017 figures) met with strident opposition from local people and activists in Gujarat, which the government countered by arguing in the Supreme Court in a writ petition filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1994, for the necessity to bring water and prosperity to the parched farmlands of North Gujarat, Kutch and Saurashtra regions.
The World Bank, which funded the project until March 1993, canceled its loan after activist Medha Patkar, one of the founder members of the NBA, raised concerns about its environmental and human costs. The matter went to court in 1994, and by two orders in 2000 and 2005, the Supreme Court allowed the Sardar Sarovar dam to be constructed subject to conditions including rehabilitation of displaced persons.
The Sardar Sarovar dam was finally inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 17, 2017. The main Narmada canal to carry water from the dam has 42 branches across Gujarat, but construction of branches to take the water to Kutch, Saurashtra or North Gujarat is incomplete.
On September 8, 2018, Rupani laid the foundation stone of the Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation Yojana link-4, which is expected to fill nine dams with Narmada water and provide irrigation water to Saurashtra. Within Kutch, a 59,934-hectare area has been set aside for the Kutch Branch Canal, but the pipelines have yet to be connected to form a viable network to deliver water.
The slow pace of work on the Narmada Valley project was censured by the government’s auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, which found that the state government had fudged its accounts of expenditure incurred between 2014 and 2016 to the tune of Rs 213.17 crore.
The government had included expenditure on power projects in its statements even though the Central Water Commission had explicitly stated that this cost would not be born by the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme funding programme, the CAG report (22 of 2018) said.
The report further pointed out that the Narmada Main Canal and its tributary channels (minor canals) were subject to water theft “by nearby cultivators who illegally lifted water from canals to irrigate their fields by using motor pumps”.
“Farmers are desperate. They are looking at consecutive years of crop failure because of lack of irrigation facilities, which means their debts are increasing and cannot be paid, so there are people who install diesel-fuelled pumps to divert water,” farmer and RTI activist Bharat Jhala told IndiaSpend.
The CAG report chastised the state government for inaction towards these thefts. The state had conducted a three-day raid from April 28 to 30, 2016 to remove illegal motor pumps and other encroachments from the Narmada Main Canal, the CAG report found, but had done nothing to curb water theft from minor canals.
Cattle rearers leaving
Kutch’s other large economic activity, animal husbandry, is also in a state of terminal decline, according to the villagers in Bhuj and Lakhpat taluka.
Sura, a 62-year-old man who like many elderly in his village goes by only one name, resides in Sayana village of southern Kutch, and says cattle rearing is all he has ever known. With a growing number of industries competing for scarce water resources and increased climatic variability, water levels in the area are severely depleted.
With a record heatwave and a prolonged drought, water scarcity has hollowed out the animal-rearing economy. Broken, empty houses dot the entire village.
“Only 25% of our population is left. We who are left are just waiting for rain...You know how Sabri-bai used to wait for Ram, that’s how we wait for the rain,” Sura said, alluding to the legend of Sabari, a local tribal woman whose guru told her that she would be visited by Lord Ram, a promise on which she waited for decades, setting out plates of berries every day in hopes of his arrival.
The few young people left in the village get odd-jobs driving trucks. Mostly only the aged are left behind.
To alleviate distress among farm animals, the government brought “5,000 kilos of grass from outside”, District Collector Mohan told IndiaSpend.
Sura and others said they have seen little of it. While the state provided subsidised fodder at Rs 2 per kg, the delivery came only once every two months. “We need 30-50 kg for every animal per month. The government gives 100 kg every two months, which is not enough to feed more than two-three animals. Every day a cow dies here. If you look around, you can see their carcasses scattered everywhere.”
The government issues grass cards that allow animal rearers to pick up subsidised fodder, but for only five cattle at a time. Any villager with more has to move the extra chattel to a “neela gaon” (blue village, meaning one where there might be rain) in north Kutch. Since 2018 was a particularly bad year for the seasonal monsoon rains, most families took half or more of their chattel towards north Kutch in search of greener pastures.
The situation of other villages that are dependent on animal husbandry for income is the same as of Sayana.
The nomadic Muslim tribe known as Jats populates the village of Ravareswar. Every June-July, the Jats migrate to find better pastures for their buffalo, their only means of income being the milk they sell. This year, the tribe had migrated earlier than usual, in February itself, because of the lack of grass, 30-year-old Ramzan Jat told IndiaSpend. An age-old cycle had thus been disrupted and the Jats found themselves in hostile farmland that would otherwise have been empty.
“In the village, everyone has 5-10 buffaloes, so the village has about 10,000 animals. There’s barely any water here so we can’t grow grass and so we can’t feed our animals. To keep them alive, every family takes half or more of the cows and buffaloes and migrates towards the northern areas of Kutch where there is more change of finding water,” he explained.
Kutch’s fisherpeople, already suffering due to climate change and overfishing, are now also contending with the pollution that comes with industrialisation.
“First there’s the power plants – Adani and Tata. Then there are the mining operations. All the hot water goes into the sea. So at Kutch border, the fishermen are not getting fish anymore. They have to keep going further in boats that are not safe for beyond 15 nautical miles. And they have to go 40 or so nautical miles to get fish,” Rabari said. “Often this is how our fishermen are caught in the Pakistani area. Sometimes without realising and sometimes as a risk they have to take. Some fisherman are dying like this.”
To launch a fishing boat costs four to five lakh rupees, one villager told IndiaSpend, not wishing to be named. “So what can a fisherman do? If we don’t catch something, we have no way to pay back the loans we take. So wouldn’t anyone have to take the risk when the fish have migrated further?” he said.
Pipelines not maintained
While the region waits for canals to be constructed, Kutch receives drinking water from a 91 km pipeline going to the district from the Maliya Branch Canal of the Narmada project.
Dependent on piped water supply, Kutch district is affected every time a line breaks down due to lack of maintenance or due to climate variables. “We depend on the [pipe]line, but that also breaks every few weeks. Right now it’s been broken for four days and so we have not gotten any water. It’s a regular thing,” Sura told IndiaSpend.
Gujai Pani, an Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited employee in charge of overseeing the supply of water through these pipelines to 86 villages including Sayana, confirms Sura’s statement. “In the last four days the pipeline has broken down twice,” he told IndiaSpend.
Alternative work, but wages late
Some villagers supplement their income by performing manual labour under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. They walk several kilometers along a tiny forest path where they dig squares in exchange for money.
“We dig squares of four [cubic] metres and get paid Rs 200 for this. The wages are not paid daily but on the basis of work done, after it’s inspected,” 30-year-old Hajiani Jat explained. She and another woman Surmi Jat had not gone to work on the day IndiaSpend visited as they were feeling unwell and were frustrated because they had not been paid for 15 days.
“We live hand-to-mouth here. Right now I am taking loans to feed my family. Hopefully I will pay these back when my wages come,” she said, nervously folding and unfolding her coarse hands.
Surmi’s story is confirmed by a district administration functionary responsible for revenue collection, expenses, etc. of Kutch, deputy district officer Prabhav Joshi, who says her name appears on a list of persons who have not been paid wages. “We are trying to pay everyone as quickly as possible and in most cases we have managed to. But, there are sometimes unforeseen problems due to which a small number of villagers may not get wages on time,” Joshi said.
He shared the district’s muster roll report from December 18, 2018 to January 1, which clock villagers’ person-hours to calculate their wages. The list showed that, on average, some villagers from Ravareswar were owed more than Rs 2,500 each – enough to feed a family of four for eight days.
CSR projects of little benefit
Kutch district houses many factories belonging to a range of industries, such as lignite (brown coal) mining and clay processing.
“Many corporates are doing very good work and have contributed to our fodder and water situation. They are also giving water to desalination plants etc.,” says District Collector Remya Mohan.
Villagers and activists, however, disagreed. “Most industries make charitable trusts and then they misuse the funds for personal use and show it as a CSR [corporate social responsibility] expense,” Rabari said, “Then they donate to government projects like the Statue of Unity and that’s where the CSR ends.”
Villagers showed IndiaSpend a different picture from the one Mohan had painted. The barren land around Lakhpat taluka, for example, is rife with signs of over-mining. Gaping holes from mining explosions are visible across the flat terrain.
“There are factories nearby, such as Sanghi Cement. They don’t employ people from the village. The company had said that it would give the villages meetha paani [desalinated water] but instead they’re taking all the water for their own use,” said Pragji, the village sarpanch’s brother, who goes by only one name. The sarpanch was away visiting another village under his jurisdiction.
Villagers said they were willing to work in the cement companies for as little as Rs 100 a day – a third of the minimum wage of Rs 312.2 per day for such work in Gujarat – but the corporates only hire people living close to their factories, Vishwanathan Joshi, a senior reporter for Kutch Mitra, a local Gujarati language daily, told IndiaSpend. The National Voluntary Guidelines on Social, Environmental and Economic Responsibilities of Business say companies should provide employment to residents of villages within a 15-20 km radius of their property.
“There are grey areas,” said Mohan, “We tell corporates not to give us an eyewash, old photos and so on… [There] are people who are doing a lot of good work; there are people who are doing some but need to do more; and there are also people who are not doing anything.”
Intentional disregard for Kutch, say farmers
Farmers and activists say the state government is intentionally driving farmers and cattle-rearers out of Kutch to make way for industries.
“They [the state government] want to divert the water [from farmers to industries], and once the water reaches the farmers, to take it back will be political suicide. They understand that. So, they’re delaying it so that water doesn’t reach the farmers so ultimately they can say that no one is living there so why make a canal?” Rabari told IndiaSpend.
“On paper, Gujarat is a great state, it’s really growing, but that’s only true until you look at the actuals,” Rabari said.
“The government’s intention is that if water reached Kutch then the people who have left will come back to farm and then there will no place for industries to build their factories in this area,” Lakhpat farmer Patel said.
Despite numerous farmers’ agitations, the government has failed to provide irrigation. Farmers’ rallies are often met with police lathi-charges (beatings with batons). Last year in February, farmers from 36 drought-struck villages who launched a 60-km march were beaten up.
Patel had just returned from an andolan (protest) at Nakhatrana village during the first week of January 2019 when IndiaSpend met him. Farmers belonging to his political outfit, the BKS, had also been lathi-charged, he said.
“We have both big rallies and small protests regularly and the farmers get lathi-charged by the police. We also have no choice and neither do they, I feel,” Patel said, “If no one is listening to the farmers then where will they turn, what will they do? They’ll get frustrated and they’ll take to the streets and the traffic stops. Then the cops come and lathi-charge us until we disperse.”
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.