In June, after a month-long water conservation campaign — Sujalam Suflam Jal Sanchay Abhiyan Yojana — had come to an end, the Gujarat government had patted on its back, saying that the Rs 345-crore campaign had exceeded its target by 110 per cent. However, the preliminary findings of a study carried out by researches of International Water Management Institute (IWMI), a global non-profit, scientific research organisation, has found glaring discrepancies in the campaign, ranging from politicians influencing the selection of sites for desilting, absence of tenders, misuse of excavated silt and disparity in wages paid to the workers under MGNREGA.
The Sujalam Suflam Jal Sanchay Abhiyan Yojana was launched before the onset of monsoon by Chief Minister Vjay Rupani at Ankleshwar on May 1. The government had claimed that Sujalam Suflam Abhiyan was the “biggest water conservation drive” in the country that would help “tackle shortage of water for irrigation and drinking purposes in Gujarat”. “During the month-long campaign, 1,300 small and large water reservoirs will be desilted and 34 rivers will be cleaned. Irrigation canals with the total length of 5,000 km will be spruced up and air valves in the 5,000-km-long pipeline network of the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board will be repaired,” a release from the state Information Department had quoted the CM as saying during its launch.
The IWMI study, involving 14 economic professors from universities across Gujarat for the field work, mapped 13 of the total 33 districts with the objective to see if the work claimed to be have been done by the state government actually happened on ground.
In its preliminary findings, the study found that the government departments did not issue tenders for desilting work, while local politicians influenced the site for the desilting operation. There was also little technical support or guidelines from the government regarding the depth at which desilting was required to take place, the study found.
“These shortcomings look obvious because the programme was announced and implemented in haste, without any adequate notice or planning,” Harikrishnan Santosh, a pre-doctoral fellow at IWMI involved with the study, told The Indian Express.
The study relied on data collected from 40-odd villages — on an average three villages were chosen per district — that were selected on the criteria like maximum silt excavated, locations with best implementation, places with high contribution from villages, places that had over-exploited underground water levels and salinity ingress.
Misappropriation of silt was also very commonly observed by the researchers. “The silt that was extracted from the sites was sold to contractors involved in construction business by sarpanchs or the gram panchayat. The silt removed should have been taken by farmers to their fields and used as fertiliser, or the gram panchayat could have used it for leveling the school premises or common areas of the village,” Santosh said.
On May 14, The Indian Express had reported how three persons were arrested for trying to “illegally” sell the excavated soil while deepening a pond under this programme in Bibipur village of Daskroi taluka of Ahmedabad district.
According to the researcher, there were several instances in villages of Anand, Chhota Udepur and Tapi districts where as part of the programme the cost of de-silting had to be borne equally by villagers and the government.
Citing a village in Sabarkantha district, Santosh said that there one of the contractors had donated about Rs 75,000 for the water conservation work, but ended up using the silt for his personal business of real-estate development. “The main reason why farmers participated in this campaign was that the state government had decided to make the silt royalty-free. However, it became an opportunity for contractors to divert the royalty-free silt for construction business. This was done to balance out the loss they incurred from the low desilting rate of Rs 30 per cubic metre of silt,” he said, adding that similar desilting schemes in neighbouring Maharasthra charged between Rs 50-58 per cubic metre.
The study also found wide variations in the wages paid to the workers involved in the desilting work under MGNREGA. The wages paid were as low as Rs 126 per day at some place in Anand district to Rs 194 in Chhota Udepur and about Rs 250 in Kutch. The rates of tractors hired by farmers to carry the silt to farms also varied between Rs 100 in central Gujarat to Rs 450 in Kutch, the researchers found.
“The IWMI study also cannot confirm the amount of silt extracted under the programme as farmers or the gram panchayats did not keep a record of the desilting process,” Santosh added.
When contacted, Water Resources Minister Parbat Patel, denied receiving any complaints of discrepancies in the campaign. “You are the first person to tell me something like this. No complaints have so far come to our ministry regarding any wrongdoing in the scheme,” Patel told The Indian Express.
However, a state government official overseeing the scheme admitted to instances where silt was sold to contractors. “The instances of excavated soil being sold to contractors were isolated. Immediate action that includes filing of an FIR was taken when we found such discrepancy,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.
This is not the first time that questions have been raised on the efficacy and conduct of the scheme. In June, former chief minister Suresh Mehta had levelled allegations of corruption in the scheme. “The safest way to hide corruption is to engage in soil excavation. While desilting can be calculated, there is no way anyone can calculate the amount of silting that happens,” Mehta had said.
People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), an NGO, had also claimed that the month-long drive was riddled with corruption.
The researchers involved with the IWMI study plan to revisit the selected sites after the rabi season to find “the impact the programme on the people”. It is to be noted that poor monsoon has already hit the rabi farming this year with nearly 25 percent drop in sowing acreage in Gujarat due to lack of irrigation water.