About half-an-hour drive away from the imposing Sardar Sarovar Dam in Kevadia, Narmada district, 65-year-old Krushnabhai Langdabhai Bhil shows the two-page notice that was issued to him by a deputy executive engineer of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), warning him to take out his diesel water pump and pipes from the Narmada Main Canal. “Who gave them the authority to tell me not to take water (from the canal). I will continue taking water,” an angry Krushnabhai says, sitting in an abandoned thatched hut, surrounded by fields of castor and cotton.
He claims he has only four acres of land left after he gave away two acres to the state government in the 1990s for constructing the Narmada canal that passes through his village Sindhikua in Naswadi taluka of Vadodara district.
“I have nothing else to do now after spending my youth as a farm labourer for a decade in Padra taluka (Vadodara). We were happy without the canal. But for the past three years our irrigation machines and pipes are being damaged by the canal officers. It is getting too much. The government took our land and now it doesn’t want us to take water from it, so that it can reach Saurasthra and other places,” he says.
Last September, almost three months before Gujarat was set to go to polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had dedicated the “completed” Narmada dam to the nation. The installation of the radial gates takes the dam to the full height of 138.68 metres and the reservoir to its full potential to hold 4.73 million acre feet (MAF) of water.
Narmada has been a political pivot on which elections have been fought in Gujarat, and when Modi became the Prime Minister, he made it his top priority. In less than a month after he took oath as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014, the tribunal cleared the building of the radial gates. The BJP ran its Assembly election campaign on “impediments created” by the Congress-led UPA government. But four months down the line, the enthusiasm and the tall claims have evaporated, and so has the water.
Last month, the state BJP government tightened the water tap after it became clear that there was not enough water in the Sardar Sarovar dam. The dam reservoir, as per the state government, will get only 4.71 million acre feet of water as against the planned 9 million acre feet water, not enough to last this summer, forcing the the government to issue stringent policing measures.
The farmers, who are dependent on the canal water for irrigation, were told to not go for summer crops, and the SSNNL warned them against “lifting” of water from the canal.
A broken, narrow lane, flanked by thatched roof mud houses and walls stained by dung cakes, leads to Sindhukua village, a distance that takes nearly half-an-hour to reach downstream the canal from Kevadia. Half-naked children play around. There is a dried up well at the centre of the village. “It has been like this for years,” villagers say.
Ramjibhai Bhil, who is in his 60s, is another angry farmer, upset with the government notice. Two years ago, he reportedly had a scuffle with canal officers who had come to remove his pump and pipes from the canal. On January 24, the SSNNL issued notices to farmers, ordering them to remove their diesel water pumping machines and pipes from the main canal or else they will be penalised.
“Our 8 acres of land was taken for the canal. We did receive the compensation from the government, but all that money has been spent. Now, we are left with three acres of land between three brothers. My two brothers are working as farm labourers in Kathiawar (in Saurashtra),” says Ramjibhai.
Village sarpanch Dalpatbhai Bhil adds, “Half the tribals of Naswadi are working outside, mostly in Kathiawar region as farm labourers. There is no opportunity here as farming is getting extremely difficult for small farmers due to water problem and rising expenses. People are angry. Some leaders are mobilising poor tribals and farmers to revolt against this diktat.”
Farmers in the region say that they grow only two crops — cotton and maize — in a year due to lack of water. “We all wanted to sow bajra (pearl millet) which requires at least six times more water every two weeks,” a farmer says.
In a corner of the village, Babalbhai Bhil runs “piyat sahkari mandali,” a water co-operative body, which is almost defunct now.
“After consulting officers of SSNNL, I started this mandali and offered the farmers membership in Rs 900 to get water for the whole year. A member had to shell out Rs 900 per year and take as much water as they needed for irrigation. Initially, some of them paid but now they have stopped paying. So there is no water in the sub-canal now. We will have to pay if we want water,” he counters.
All along the road adjacent to the main canal, the lush fields of maize, wheat and other crops, are fed from the canal through buried PVC pipes which draw water through diesel run pumps, which have now been outlawed. Most of the machines hang inside the canal that pumps water through pipes leading to the farm lands.
Forty-year-old Ishwarbhai Chauhan, a resident of Kanetia village in Kalol in Panchmahal district, was struggling to start the water pump, installed on the bank of canal. He is among those farmers whose family had given their land for the construction of the canal. “A couple of days ago, the canal officials cut my submersible pipe into two. The pipe costs Rs 10,000. I have only five bighas of farming land. I have sown castor on three bighas, for which I need water. I sowed pearl milllet in the rest, 10 days ago. Now, the government says we can’t take water from the canal,” says Chauhan.
Less than a kilometre from the canal stands his castor field, and beside it pearl millet has just germinated. “They need water now. They will need six spells of watering in three months till they mature. It means that I will need water till April. I just don’t understand this government, and their problem with the farmers,” he adds with disgust.
“Farming is anyway not easy. I have already spent Rs 2,000 in tilling the farm, Rs 1,200 in clearing it and Rs 900 for seeds, and another Rs 1,000 in fertilisers. Who will compensate all these expenses? I will draw water from the canal at any cost,” he adds defiantly.
Near his farm is a dry minor canal, which, he said, was constructed at least two decades ago to carry water from the Panam, a tributary of Mahi river. Chauhan says that he has never seen water flowing in the canal.
As the NMC moves into Balasinor in Mahisagar district, the illegal pipes drawing water are fewer. Octogenarian Nonabhai N Parmar, a resident of Nandra taluka in Kheda district, is sitting on the edge of the canal, while 62-year-old Yusufmiya Hasumiya Pathan, a resident of nearby Sandeli village, is repairing the pumping machine. Pathan gets agitated when asked about the notice issued to farmers by the SSNNL against lifting water from the canal for irrigation.
“When the canal didn’t exist we were used to it. Life was still easy. But look at today’s situation. So much of water passes through our villages but the government is warning us against taking a drop from it. Have you seen such a government ever?,” he says.
The vegetation and landscape changes as the canal moves into Kheda, among Gujarat’s greenest districts, and towards Gandhinagar where lush green patches of wheat, tobaco, leafy vegetables, banana plants become more visible.
Balasinor, Kapadvanj, Ghodasar talukas also grow tobacco, besides castor and wheat in small patches. With a radius of five kilometres on either side of the canal, sub-canals bring water to the fields that are also fed by water from the borewells.
On a stretch of the canal between Antroli and Atarsumba villages in Kheda district, 65 year-old Manibhai Saurabhai Solanki curses the canal. “It took away my four acres of land. The money I got in compensation did not last. I was supposed to get Rs 9 lakh, but my lawyer took away half of it due to a litigation,” he says. “Paisa ketla divas chaley? Kutra jevu jivan kari nakhi maari. (How long would the money last? The canal made my life, a dog’s life,” he adds.
But the farmers are not giving up. A pipe drawing water from the main canal goes almost 2 km deep in a farmland where 30-year-old Navinbhai Parmar waters his fodder field.
“We have about five bighas of land, but since there is no water we don’t grow anything. In this region, people grow tobacco, wheat among others which need lots of water. I will have to spend about Rs 1 lakh to get a borewell and we don’t have that much of money,” he says. He works as a farm labourer on a salary of Rs 4,000 a month. His brother also works at the same place. They live at Bhimpura village, about 10 km away where there is no water available for farming.
As the canal approaches Gandhinagar, the number of diesel pumps dwindles. About two km off the main canal in Daskroi, Chinubhai Patel waters his juvar crop spread in two acres. “This crop is for my 12 cows. We don’t need to take water directly from the canal. There are minor canals that still have water. But this is wrong on the part of the government to ask farmers not to take water from the canal. What was the use of spending so much money on building the Sardar dam and the canal,” he says.