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Canal irrigation: When water comes to the fields

The Narmada has been a life-saver for parched Saurashtra, but there is scope for more judicious use by farmers.

Written by Gopal B Kateshiya | Surendranagar/morbi (gujarat) |
Updated: April 14, 2016 4:16:12 am
Sardar Sarovar Narmada, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project, UGPL, Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project problem, Surendranagar farmers, Narmada river, Maliya Branch Canal, India news Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited dam reservoir. (Express Photo: Bhupendra Rana)

FOR ALMOST a decade now, farmers of Surendranagar, Morbi, Botad and Bhavnagar districts in Gujarat’s Saurashtra region have been getting Narmada river water for irrigating their crops. That has been a game-changer for agriculture in this otherwise parched plateau. But the abundant supply of canal water has also meant that not many seem bothered about its judicious use.

Balvantsinh Zala’s field is about one km from the Maliya Branch Canal (MBC), into which the Narmada waters started flowing since 2005. “Until then, I had only 25 hectares and my annual income was just Rs 1.5 lakh. But today, I earn Rs 25 lakh and have also increased my holding to 50 hectares,” says this 57-year-old, Class VII pass farmer from Moti Malvan village in Surendranagar’s Dhrangadhra taluka. In the pre-Narmada era, Zala — who has installed a diesel engine next to the canal to lift and bring the water through a pipe to his field — grew only a single crop of ‘Waged’, a traditional 230-day rainfed cotton variety yielding six quintals of raw un-ginned kapas per hectare, along with fodder every year. But now he cultivates Bt cotton hybrids in the post-monsoon kharif season, yielding an average 25 quintals kapas over just 170-180 days. This is followed by seed spices — jeera (cumin), variyali (fennel) and dhaniya (coriander) — in the rabi winter season. Occasionally, he also raises a third crop of tal (sesame) during the summer, for harvesting before the monsoon. But it isn’t canal water alone.

Groundwater levels in the area have also gone up, with the Narmada water being released into local ponds as well. Earlier, Zala couldn’t pump out water from even 300-feet depths, whereas currently he has 10 submersible tube-well pumps; these draw water from only 150 feet. “The Narmada water can be a little too cold for crop. So, I mix it with the water from tube-wells for irrigation,” he adds.

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While the availability of Narmada water has enabled farmers like Zala to cultivate relatively water-intensive crops such as Bt hybrid cotton, they don’t seem all that concerned, however, about its judicious use. “I know drip irrigation system can save lot of water, but it is not useful when multiple crops have to be taken in a short period. Also, laying and rewinding the pipes is a cumbersome affair,” he points out.

Balvantsinh Zala in his fennel (saunf) field in Moti Malvan, Surendranagar (L), Hari Gohil in his sugarcane field in Mansar, Morbi. (Express Photo: Gopal Kateshiya) Balvantsinh Zala in his fennel (saunf) field in Moti Malvan, Surendranagar (L), Hari Gohil in his sugarcane field in Mansar, Morbi. (Express Photo: Gopal Kateshiya)

One reason for this may be the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), the Gujarat government undertaking implementing the mega water resources project, not charging farmers anything for using the water. Since the distributaries and minor/sub-minor canals are still under construction, the water is technically not being released into the fields. Farmers are able to lift the water by engines.

Zala, however, contends that drawing water from the canal doesn’t come free: “For me, it means burning diesel worth Rs1,000 daily. This isn’t cheap, when my total annual electricity bill for ten agricultural power connections is Rs1.20 lakh. Also, the canal water is only to supplement groundwater, on which I cannot depend entirely because electricity is available for hardly eight hours”. This logic makes apparent sense in the case of somebody who cultivates 50 hectares and engages 80 labourers.

But significantly, even smaller farmers in Moti Malvan — almost the entire 1,000 hectares farmland of this village has been brought under irrigation — haven’t adopted micro-irrigation systems. “When there’s enough water, what is the need for all this? Even if I install drip system, the nilgai (blue bull), ghudkhar (wild ass) and jangli suar (wild boar) will destroy it in one raid,” remarks Nanji Jetpariya, who farms four hectares. Farmers here report regular damage to crops from wild animals. Malvan is, in fact, close to the Wild Ass Sanctuary bordering the Little Rann of Kutch.

Things are somewhat different in Mansar, a village in Halvad taluka of Morbi district. Hari Gohil grows sugarcane on five out of his 33-hectare holding that is entirely covered by drip irrigation. “The drip system ensures timely supply: the crop gets water when needed. Besides, it saves fertiliser and also increases productivity,” explains this farmer, whose field is near Dhrangadhra Branch Canal (DBC) of Narmada.

SSNNL started releasing Narmada water into the DBC only last year. But farmers in Mansar — which is the sugarcane belt of northern Saurashtra — had switched to micro-irrigation over the last decade. This area already had some groundwater, which farmers were drawing from tube-wells and using prudently to irrigate their crops. The DBC has only made life better. Farmers of Khirai in Morbi’s Maliya taluka weren’t as well placed. Being closer to the sea, the groundwater in this village — it is in the tail-end of the 136-km-long MBC — is salty and not suitable for irrigation. The Narmada water, in that sense, has been a godsend. But unlike Mansar, out of the 400-odd farmers in this village with a total landholding of 930 hectares, only two have gone in for drip irrigation. “There’s enough water in the canal. Why bother about drip irrigation?” asks Shailesh Sanghani, whose two-hectare field was wholly rain-fed before 2005. But Haresh Sanghani, a commerce graduate who has adopted drip irrigation in half of his two-hectare holding, disagrees with this: “Water is abundant here, but I believe drip irrigation will prevent salinity in the soil that may come from flood irrigation. I also chose drip because I grew papaya last year and am now thinking of planting pomegranate”.

The Narmada project has a proposed irrigation command area of 18 lakh hectares (lh) in Gujarat, of which around 5.2 lh is covered by the Saurashtra Branch Canal (SBC) system. The Maliya, Dhrangadhra, Morbi, Vallabhipur, Limbdi and Botad branch canals take water from the SBC, which, in turn, offtakes from the Narmada Main Canal near Kadi in Mehsana district of north Gujarat (the main Sardar Sarovar dam is in Navagam in south Gujarat).

SSNNL admits that of the SBC’s 5.2 lh culturable command area, only about 2 lh is being irrigated, as work on minor and sub-minor canals is incomplete. While farmers are now getting water free, SSNNL itself is spending close to Rs 1 crore a day towards electricity for lifting and conveying Narmada water through the SBC network before it reaches the Dholi Dhaja dam in Surendranagar. SSNNL is supplying to Saurashtra’s farmers from September to March. Last summer, it released water in the DBC and Morbi canals for “testing”. This year, scores of farmers in Halvad have grown summer crops, expecting water to be released beyond March as well.

“I sowed urad (black gram) in two hectares a couple of weeks ago and have also planted moong (green gram) in another one hectare, thinking the Narmada water will keep flowing. But it has run dry and I cannot irrigate with eight hours of electricity using a single tube-well. I may have to abandon half of my crop,” complains Manu Gadhvi, a farmer of Kavadiya village in Halvad through which the DBC passes. But Vadan Gohil, executive engineer of Morbi Branch Canal, claims that farmers were warned in advance: “Our irrigation season is from September to March. This time, we stopped releasing water from March 15 because there isn’t enough water in Sardar Sarovar. Even last summer, we released water only for testing”. Incidentally, water is still flowing in the MBC and VBC, though it is supposedly reserved for drinking purposes. SSNNL has all through prohibited its use for irrigation during summers. But even there, it has refrained from taking coercive measures. Since 2005, only 54 FIRs have been lodged against farmers for water theft — all from the MBC. Out of those, 46 were registered in 2011-12, a year of exceptionally bad monsoon.

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