Last July, a flash flood had swept away his life, killing 17 members of his family and destroying his cotton crop in Khariya village of Banaskantha district of north Gujarat. This year, 70-year-old Desraji Thakor is battling for survival. Water, the abundance of which had played havoc in his life six months ago, the same water — now its scarcity — has made Thakor’s life miserable again.
Struggling to reap his first crop after the devastating flood of last year, a desperate Thakor family has to draw water from the adjacent Narmada Main Canal using a diesel pump, an act outlawed by the government. Last month, farmers were warned by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) against “illegal lifting” of water from the canal, and some of them were even issued notices.
“We have sown wheat and castor on six bighas. This is our very first crop after the last year’s flood. Last year, we had sown cotton at the beginning of the Kharif season, but the flood washed it away. We could not sow anything later in the year as our land was full of mud and slush,” says Thakor, resting on his cot under the shade of a neem tree in his backyard and surrounded by the remains of his houses that were swept away by the flood.
Banaskantha, the potato capital of the country, reaps harvest round the year — kharif, rabi and summer crops — because of its fertile land, and has the highest harvest of summer crops. This rabi season, farmers in the district have sown crop in over 5.71 lakh hectares, the highest among all the 33 districts of the state. Most of the farmers in the district have sown mustard in over 1.57 lakh hectares, followed by wheat in 74,000 hectares with canal irrigation facilities and cumin in 70,500 hectares. But at the beginning of this year, the BJP government said that it will not be able to provide Narmada waters for irrigation after March 15, citing very low rainfall in the catchment area of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, and warned farmers against sowing summer crops.
“We spent at least three months cleaning our farmland and making it cultivable. Now, when we are in the middle of the Rabi season, we hear that the government has disallowed lifting of water from the Narmada Main Canal. How will our crops survive,” asks Desraji’s nephew Pradhan as he joins him on the cot.
“We spend at least Rs 1,000 on diesel, every time we irrigate our fields. This is the only way, we can irrigate our fields as our borewells were damaged in the floods,” adds Pradhan who is hopeful that the state government will not act harshly against the farmers of the village, which was one of the worst-affected areas during last year’s monsoon.
The political allegiance of the Khariya village can be gauged by the BJP flags fluttering on most of the rooftops. In the recently concluded Assembly elections, distribution of Rs 1,500 crore of flood relief had become a major political issue in the district as parties pitched for votes.
In the adjoining farmland, 33-year-old Mehraj Desai has just finished watering his mustard crop that he has sown in two of the three bighas he owns. “My one bigha of land is not yet suitable for cultivation. You can see, nothing grows in this patch of land,” says Desai pointing to an area where the rich loamy soil has been swept away.
For farmers like Desai, who are still in the process of rebuilding their homes destroyed in the flood, the Narmada Main Canal, which cuts through the Khariya village, carrying water to Rajasthan is the only source of irrigation.
“Our families cannot survive by reaping just one crop in a year. We will have to go for the summer crop as well,” says Desai who plans to sow bajra in an adjoining piece of land once the rabi crop is harvested.
According to the the agriculture department figures, over 8.3 lakh hectares of land was sown under summer crop in May 2017, which largely included crops like Bajra, groundnut, sesame, sugarcane and vegetables. Last year, most of the summer crops were sown in Banaskantha, Patan and Mehsana districts.
The situation of the families living on western side of the Narmada Main canal — that breached at several places last year, compounding the flood-situation —- is even worse.
Shravan Vaghela and two of his brothers, whose 22 bighas of land was completely inundated after the canal got breached, live in tents on a piece of land that resembles a dried-up riverbed. Six months after the floods, the damaged wall of the canal has been rebuilt, but the Vaghela family has managed to rebuild only one of the three houses that once stood at a corner of their farm.
“We cannot starve to death, and so we have sown wheat in one bigha of land that we have managed to cultivate using water from the canal. The rest is full of sand and gravel. It will take several months to restore them,” says Vaghela as children play cricket in an empty plot of land behind the rebuilt house.
“Not a single government official came to inquire about our condition after the floods, but now officials from the Narmada Nigam (Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd) come in droves to tell us to remove our diesel pumps which we use to irrigate a small portion of our land. Isn’t this unfair?” asks Vaghela whose borewell still lies buried in two-feet of sand. Nearby, the work of repairing the damaged canal is still underway.