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When the water trains came to parched Rajkot

"The availability of Narmada waters, the water harvesting done through lakes and check dams, and the linking of water-storage facilities have made acute water scarcity a thing of the past," writes Pravin K Laheri.

The first water train reached Rajkot in late April 1986. (Express archive)

Gujarat has for long experienced severe water shortages. The unique water storage system at Dholavira in Kutch, part of the Indus Valley civilisation dating back approximately 3,000 years, points to this being an old problem. Severe droughts in the region have, over the past 500 years or so, forced people to migrate to Mumbai, other cities in India as well as to East African countries.

The availability of Narmada waters, the water harvesting done through lakes and check dams, and the linking of water-storage facilities have, however, made acute water scarcity a thing of the past. In fact, many young people are unaware of the hardships and the deprivation suffered by earlier generations.

The Assembly election of 1985 brought the Congress to power with 149 out of 182 seats. Within a few months, however, the architect of this grand victory, Madhavsinh Solanki, had to resign from the post of Chief Minister. Amarsinh Chaudhary, who succeeded him, was a young engineer from the tribal community with more than a decade of experience in the government.

It was Amarsinh who was to save Saurashtra and Kutch from the impact of a third consecutive drought. Most of the water sources in the region had dried up by the beginning of 1986. The groundwater too had depleted and many wells and borewells went dry or had very little water. With the crops having failed and fodder being unavailable, the people in villages and the major cities of Saurashtra — Rajkot with a population of 6 lakh and Jamnagar with 4 lakh — were in great difficulty.

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When the government surveyed the situation, it became evident that in order to prevent mass migration from these cities and the region, fresh water had to be imported in substantial quantities.

Since the affected regions had a population of about 1.20 crore, the minimum water required per day was 100 million litres. The government constituted a task force to examine various options:
(1) To bring in large tanker ships to various ports and transport them to cities through pipelines. The infrastructure needed for this was so huge that it was not possible to create it in a short span of 30 days that was available to us.
(2) Large-scale desalination plants to be installed near the coastal area to convert sea water to fresh water. This option too was time-consuming.
(3) To press water tankers into service. There were more than 6,000 water tankers already reaching more than 4,000 villages; additional vehicles were not easily available.
(4) To bring special water trains to Rajkot and Jamnagar using oil tankers (after cleaning them). Even under this option, special infrastructure was needed for loading the tankers at Gandhinagar and Rajula (where the dam had adequate water) and for unloading it at Rajkot and Jamnagar railway stations. Though many were sceptical about the feasibility of the water train plan, the government decided to go ahead with it.

This was an unprecedented situation and I had just returned from a training course abroad and had been appointed as Joint Managing Director of Gujarat Industrial Investment Corporation (GIIC).

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On March 12, 1986, at about 10 pm, I received a call from CM Amarsinh Chaudhary asking me to go to Rajkot and work as Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to manage the water situation that was being handled by the Department of Water Supply.

The technical staff of the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board rose to occasion and planned and implemented a number of projects, simultaneously and in record time, in preparation for the water trains. These projects included digging large diameter tubewells at Gandhinagar; laying a 8-km pipeline from Dhatarwadi Dam to Rajula Junction Railway Station; building huge storage tanks at six locations; setting up a system for ‘watering’ and ‘dewatering’ of 32 tankers near railway lines at Gandhinagar, Rajula Junction, Rajkot and Jamnagar; setting up water testing laboratories in Rajkot and Jamnagar; cleaning and preparing tanker rakes in collaboration with the Railways; and setting up pumping facilities at more than 20 locations. Perfect team work ensured that within 25 days of commencement, all facilities were operational.

There was a lot of excitement when the first water train reached Rajkot in late April 1986. Thousands of people had gathered to welcome “water on rails”.

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I must mention that though in the Opposition party, Vajubhai Vala, who was the mayor as well as MLA, inspired confidence with his witty remarks. He always motivated all of us to sing, “We shall overcome.” Yes, the Gujarat government, their officials and the people did overcome the worst water crisis of 1986.

My assignment as OSD, Water Crisis, ended as suddenly as it began.

On May 30, 1986, I was travelling from Ahmedabad to Rajkot, my mind filled with apprehensions about the water shortage. What would happen if the rains are delayed or fail, I wondered? When I reached Limbdi town (about 105 km from Ahmedabad), a strong breeze blew, dark clouds appeared from the south, and it started pouring heavily. Saurashtra was drenched in pre-monsoon showers.

I stayed on in Rajkot for another month until the Chief Minister called once again. “Laheri, you can come back to Gandhinagar,” he said.

The writer is former Chief Secretary, Government of Gujarat

First published on: 27-11-2022 at 07:58 IST
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