“Why don’t you irrigate your crop when there is water nearby?”, asks Kalu Sutariya, stopping his moped. “How can I? I have no diesel engine or electric motor pump to bring the water” is Hanu Chohla’s prompt reply, as he maintains a vigil against nilgai (blue bull) and stray cattle that might damage the standing cotton on his field.
The 65-year-old Chohla’s three-bigha (0.5 hectare) plot is part of a 10-bigha holding belonging to a cooperative society of Bharwads, a cattle-herder community to which he belongs. Ironically, the Bhojpara distributary, which branches off from the Limbdi Branch Canal (LBC), cuts straight through this 10-bigha land at Ratanpur village in Vallabhipur taluka of Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district. But there’s no water flowing through the distributary, simply because a section of it has not been completed. That, in turn, has to do with the State Highway-36 connecting Bhavnagar to Ahmedabad. Bhojpara is among nine of the LBC’s 26 distributaries, whose construction is facing hurdles, as there is no forest clearance to cut the trees on both sides of the highway.
LBC is part of an elaborate canal network to take the Narmada river waters to the parched agricultural lands of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region. The Narmada Main Canal is near Kadi in Mehsana district of North Gujarat. Water from it is conveyed to the Saurashtra Branch Canal, which then supplies to LBC and six other such sub-branch canals. The sub-branch canals further supply to distributaries, followed by minor canals and finally the sub-minors that take the water to farmers’ fields.
While the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) – which is implementing the massive Narmada project that seeks to irrigate 18.45 lakh hectares of land in Gujarat, including five lakh hectares of Saurashtra – has completed all the branch and sub-branch canals, the missing links in the distributaries and below is what’s preventing the waters from irrigating the fields of farmers like Chohla. While the distributaries and minors are conventional open canals, the SSNNL has opted for underground pipelines for sub-minors to overcome the hurdles of land acquisition.
One such sub-minor canal of the Bhojpara distributary touches Sutariya’s three-hectare farm in Ratanpur. “They have laid the pipeline and even fitted a valve, but I haven’t still got the water”, complains Sutariya. His farm is only one km west of the Vallabhipur Branch Canal (VBC), a sub-branch canal like the VBC with 33 distributaries. “With a couple of irrigations, my cotton yield can double to 18 quintals per hectare. There is groundwater here, but it is salty. The only option is surface water from Narmada, but I don’t have the machinery and pipeline to draw it from the VBC”, notes Sutariya, whose two sons work as migrant labourers in Surat.
The black cotton soil in this belt is highly suitable for cotton cultivation. That potential is now being realised by farmers in neighbouring Mevasa, which is east of the VBC and whose sub-distributary-4 (SD-4) is already watering around 1,300 hectares of the village. Dahya Limbani, who cultivates eight hectares, has sown cotton in six and fodder sorghum (jowar) in the remaining two. He is waiting to give his first irrigation, having already built dykes and installing a diesel engine on the SD-4 that borders his farm.
“Will we get water today from the canal?”, Limbani asks Bhikhabhai Bagadiya, the sarpanch of Mevasa. “No, it’ll take a couple of days. The VBC deputy engineer says if we open the head of SD-4 now, there will be back overflow into the branch canal where the water levels are already high. Once the VBC’s vulnerable patch is fixed to prevent overflow, they will release water”, the sarpanch tells him over phone.
But Mavji Chauhan, the deputy engineer in charge of SD-4, offers an interim solution. Limbani’s farm is hardly 200 metres from the VBC. “Why don’t you install a couple of diesel engines and pump water into SD-4? If you just lift the water from the canal, it can flow to your farm with gravity”, Chauhan suggests. “But I don’t know if my neighbour will allow me build a channel on his farm to bring water to my cotton field. So, I’m waiting for SD-4 water”, Limbani shoots back.
The SSNNL has been releasing water into the VBC for roughly a decade now, whose value farmers like Limbani understand. “I have another two-hectare farm near a stream, into which the VBC water is released. I have been giving a single irrigation to my cotton crop for the last five years by drawing water from it using a diesel pump. My yields are now 20 quintals per hectare”, points out Limbani. He has one son working as a diamond polisher in Surat and another, who helps him in the farm.
According to the sarpanch Bagadiya, who owns 20 hectares land, out of Mevasa’s registered population of 2,200, hardly 700 live in the village. The rest have migrated to Surat, as they cannot depend on rainfed agriculture. But the arrival of Narmada waters has initiated a trend of reverse migration.
Madhavji Moradiya, who has three hectares land at Hadmatiya village in Bhavnagar’s Umrala taluka, migrated to Surat 20 years ago. His two sons are diamond traders in Mumbai. Till recently, Moradiya was giving his three hectares land to share-croppers for cultivation. But this year, he decided to do farming himself. He and two other farmers have installed a diesel engine at the tail of the VBC. “My cotton crop is already ready for the first picking. I expect to harvest at least 20 quintals per hectare”, says the 58-year-old, whose has studied only till Class II.
Vallabh Sakariya has planted cotton on his entire 28-hectare land at Kanthariya village in Vallabhipur taluka. That includes six of his own and 22 hectares he cultivates as share-cropper. Sakariya has installed a diesel pump at the tail distributary-1 canal of LBC, which has raised his irrigation cover to about 13 hectares. “I had no irrigation facility before the canal water arrived in 2015. Since then, I have been harvesting 400 quintals of cotton on an average, which is more than twice what it used to be”, he says.
It is stories such as these that offer more than a ray of hope.