ADIVASI CULTIVATOR Bijla Lilka has made her peace with the fact that an irrigation dam built with funds from the Maharashtra government’s tribal sub-plan submerged her paddy fields in Sava village, Palghar taluka, and led to her family’s slow impoverishment. They had 25 acres of fragrant basmati, Bijla says. “Then the dam was built, we lost our land, my sons had to work as daily wagers for years before we started cultivating 2 acres of forest land.”
Last year, under the Forest Rights Act, Bijla received the patta for her forest land, a now-meagre paddy field she irrigates with a pump in a stream of the Surya river. “And now they’re saying hundreds of adivasis like me could lose our irrigation because the government wants to give this water to Mumbai?”
The Lilkas, belonging to the Malhar Koli tribe, are among hundreds of tribal families from nearly 50 villages in the Palghar and Dahanu talukas of Palghar district who have joined a movement to oppose a 403 MLD (million litres a day) water supply project by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority to provide water to Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayander, two rapidly growing satellite towns of the financial capital, already home to over 20 lakh people.
The project is set to draw water from the Dhamni dam and the Kawdas pick-up weir across the Surya river, which were to have irrigated 14,696 hectares of farm land, an area that will reduce by 46 per cent if the MMRDA’s project takes off, according to activists of the Surya Pani Bachav Sangharsh Samiti that has resisted the project through a hunger strike and multiple delegations to local officials, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and also to Maharashtra Governor C Vidyasagar Rao.
The anger among the 90 per cent tribal residents of this belt is on account of the fact that the dam, built originally for tribal farmlands and from funds meant for tribals, never met its stated objectives but will now supply water to Mumbai’s satellite towns 80 km away from the dam. According to data from the Palghar divisional office of the Water Resources Department, while 14,696 hectares of farmland was to be irrigated by the Kawdas and Dhamni dams, water will now be available for only 7,015 hectares. Also, while the department claims “irrigation potential” has been created for 12,490 hectares, locals disagree — there’s a 13-km missing link in the main left bank canal, the minor canal network is overgrown with weeds in the absence of any maintenance for over a decade and lift irrigation schemes for farmland located higher than the canals were never built.
“The big cities’ thirst never ends, but how can the state government divert water for municipalities until the promised 14,696 hectares is irrigated?” asks Prakash Hadal of Veti village who participated in a hunger strike in March outside the Palghar Collector’s office.
If the canals dry up, it would be insult added to injury, say those who were displaced in 1990. “The rehabilitation of those whose homes and lands were submerged was messy, and in that process families ended up migrating repeatedly, looking for work on other people’s land or in the cities,” says Hadal, Lilka’s nephew. In Veti-Varoti, a group gram panchayat comprising 12 hamlets that with a 95 per cent tribal population, at least half the families now send out able-bodied people into nearby cities for summer employment. “The promise of the Surya dam was irrigation – we should all be able to take a second crop every year. Instead, more and more residents are becoming slum dwellers in Vasai,” says Shivram Kakad, sarpanch of Veti.
Vikas Dokphode, 39, spends 12 to 15 days at a stretch in a large slum colony opposite a festering lake in Vasai, 70 km north of Mumbai. Then his rice stock runs out, and he spends Rs 200 to return home to Veti. “We sell our rice for a maximum of Rs 8 or Rs 10 per kg. Buying rice in a city at Rs 40 per kg is unthinkable.”As labourers, Vikas and his wife earn Rs 300 and Rs 250 per day respectively. “Nearly half is spent daily on water, food and shelter in Vasai. If our land had been irrigated, I might be able to sow a second crop instead of going to Vasai,” he mulls. A landless tribal, Vikas tills 1.5 acres of forest land, barely a couple of km from the Kawdas weir. He depends entirely on the monsoon for irrigation.
The big city and its fringes where Palghar’s tribals find work for subsistence-level wages are seen as a many headed hydra – the pollution, the grisly living conditions in its slums, its out-of-reach prices of essentials and, above all, its insatiable appetite for water. “Whether it’s the dam on Pinjal in Wada or Damanganga in Nashik district, water for Mumbai’s suburbs is set to come from farther and farther away. It’s unsustainable,” says Brian Lobo of the Kashtakari Sanghatana which is leading the tribals’ protests. And while infrastructure built for tribal lands is appropriated for the financial capital’s growth, all sustainable water use practices and policies lie ignored, he adds.
Despite villagers’ protests, the MMRDA says there is no cause to reconsider the water supply scheme. “The water allocation by the state government is decided after a Cabinet sub-committee decision,” says Additional Metropolitan Commissioner Sanjay Khandare. “We are awaiting clearances from the Forest department and work would continue subsequently.” He says while the tribal protestors are being heard by Palghar Collector Prashant Narnaware, there are as many or more people who have demanded the water supply scheme.
The MMRDA seeking permission to build on forest land has run into opposition too – the project’s purification centre is proposed on a 26 hectare plot of forest land that was already allotted to the Gram Panchayat of Veti as Community Forest Rights under the FRA. “Any construction here, including for public projects, will require our consent as per law,” says Veti resident Hadal. “And we will not allow it.”
In Hanumannagar, a ‘resettlement village’ where those displaced by the Dhamni dam were given land and homesteads, scores of residents’ land is not yet in their names, nor even in the name of the village. Sarpanch Bandu Umbarsada’s own 7/12 extracts locates his land in the neighbouring village of Nevala, while a one-acre plot tilled by his brother Devu is shown as located in Shigaon. “We are not opposed to giving water to Mumbai or Vasai-Virar, but we feel dismayed that so many issues related to our rehabilitation remain unresolved even 30 years later,” he says. Many fields in Hanumannagar do not have access to the canals, and depend on wells and borewells.
Back in Palghar, residents of the Dandekarpada and Sagpada hamlets scoff at the suggestion that drinking water supply takes primacy over water for irrigation and industry. Suffering an acute water shortage and dried up wells, residents of Dandekarpada have already written to the talathi seeking tanker water as the summer heat peaks.
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