Residents of five villages and several hamlets in Mokhada taluka in the Palghar Lok Sabha constituency have put up banners seeking an assurance from all candidates that they will oppose the proposed Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari river-linking project.
Prakash Patekar, a villager from Sakhri located about 2 km from Mokhada town, participated in a small rally of about 70 people in Mokhada on Wednesday. “We carried a banner and drew the attention of the town’s residents to the issue. We also put up these banners in our villages. The banners ask all candidates to promise, in writing, before they approach us for votes that they will oppose the nadi-jod (river-linking) project. Candidates haven’t arrived here yet for campaigning, but their manifestos do not address the issue at all,” Patekar told The Indian Express.
The Union Water Resources Ministry has approved the interlinking of the Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari rivers proposed by the Maharashtra government. While several intra-state and inter-state river-linking projects are in various stages of planning in order to, among other things, tackle water scarcity in metropolitan regions and dryland farming areas, the objective of the Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari link is to divert surplus waters from the west-flowing rivers of Damanganga and Vaitarna to the east-flowing Godavari. The chief beneficiaries of the project will be domestic and industrial users along the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, including in the industrial hub of Sinnar, besides farmland in Sinnar taluka of Nashik district.
Under the project, dams will be constructed in five villages of Mokhada – Nilmati, Ghatkarpada, Pulachiwadi, Bedukpada and Udhale. Wednesday’s rally saw villagers from these villages participating, as well as those from nearby villages and hamlets.
The proposed reservoirs will submerge approximately 10 villages and some hamlets. “The project will submerge 3,200 acres of farmland and villages. It will lift 212 million litres a day to Sinnar,” said the Kashtakari Sanghatana’s Brian Lobo, a long-time rights activist in the tribal Palghar-Dahanu belt. Residents are opposing the project through the Mokhada Bhoo-Paani Hakk Sangharsh Samiti. “A Detailed Project Report is currently underway, but no consultation with the villagers has begun. In February, villagers and activists in Mokhada organised a ‘Paani Hakk Parishad’ or convention on water rights, and subsequently submitted to the local administration their written opposition to the project, but we received no response,” Lobo said.
Under the project, the combined waters from these five reservoirs along with surplus waters of the Upper Vaitarna project will be transferred to a reservoir on Kadva river, a tributary of the Godavari. From there, the water will be lifted and transferred to a stream leading to the Dev river of the Upper Godavari sub-basin. The distance from the Upper Vaitarna reservoir to the Kadva is about 130 km. Incidentally, Mokhada is itself facing an acute water shortage with over 50 tankers supplying water to parts of the taluka.
The protesting villages fall in the Palghar Lok Sabha constituency where the main contest is between the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi’s former MP Baliram Jadhav and the Shiv Sena’s Rajendra Gavit, who is a current BJP MP. Both are counting on specific demographies — the BVA’s main vote bank comprises the north Indians and other migrants in the Vasai-Virar-Nallasopara urban belt, while Gavit is counting on tribal votes and continuing support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The residents of these villages are upset that the issue of their right over their water resources has not made it to the election discourse.
Mahendra Gavte, another villager who participated in Wednesday’s rally, said dams should be located to cause minimal damage and displacement. “There’s a spot 3 km away from the current spot, a 70 to 80 metres deep gorge, so submergence will be minimum if the dam is built there,” he told The Indian Express. “And first water should be given to locals before it is taken to industries.” In the absence of any canals or irrigation system, Gavte uses a pump in Palsunda village to draw water from the Pinjal river, a tributary of the Vaitarna, and manages to grow three crops a year on his 30 acres. “It’s a very fertile land, but nobody has the money to install pumps. Why doesn’t the government first give us irrigation?” Gavte asks.
There is ample precedent for the skepticism of Palghar’s tribals about losing land. Adivasi farmers here lost land, to quote one example, to a dam across the Surya river in Dahanu’s Dhamni village and a pick-up weir in Kawdas, which were to have irrigated 14,696 hectares of their land. The dam was built 30 years ago with funds from the tribal sub-plan. The Katkaris and Malhar Kolis of the region have now taken up cudgels against the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority that is building the Surya Water Project to supply 403 MLD (million litres a day) from this dam to the fast-growing metropolitan region of Vasai-Virar, even though irrigation is yet to reach the promised 14,000-odd hectares target, 30 years later. Meanwhile, in Hanumannagar, one of the resettlement villages for those displaced by the Dhamni dam, problems of discrepancies in land records continue.
If the MMRDA project looks to quench an urban agglomeration’s growing thirst, the Damanganga-Vaitarna-Godavari link is for industry, locals say bitterly. Gavte adds. “Palghar’s tribals will be neglected once again.”