In many ways, the 2012 assembly elections in Gujarat could be challenging for chief minister Narendra Modi. This has been the worst monsoon for the state in 11 years that Modi has been at the helm. Till August 22, the rainfall deficit had been 82% in Saurashtra and Kutch. This means that the kharif has been destroyed in most of Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat. By September 19, the deficit declined, signalling that even the rabi crop will face a serious water shortage.
Politically, the Kutch-Saurashtra region is significant for Modi; it accounts for 58 of the 182 seats and the BJP commands an overwhelming influence here. Any drastic change in the numbers could mar the BJP’s fortunes in the polls. The Saurashtra area is also the backyard of Modi’s arch rival and former CM Keshubhai Patel. It’s unlikely that Modi’s recent announcement of filling Saurashtra dams with 1 million acre feet of Narmada waters cut any ice here, since his earlier such promises have not been fulfilled. On October 3, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, while speaking in Rajkot, noted that the Gujarat government had failed to bring Narmada water through the Narmada Yojna, a Congress project, to parched Saurashtra where many farmers have committed suicide this year.
Modi’s track record on water politics has been questionable: he has consistently favoured the prosperous and powerful central Gujarat areas with the exclusion of the eastern tribal belt, the drought-prone Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat.
Since he took over as CM in 2001, Modi has had about 11 years to complete the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) canals, particularly in Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat, as these drought-prone regions were the chief justification for the project. These areas should have got the priority, which has been the chief plank of Modi’s water strategy in Gujarat. Eleven years is long time for this task. But even today work on the Kutch and Saurashtra branches of the canals remains incomplete, leave aside the rest of the network.
There are no areas in Kutch and Saurashtra that are getting water for irrigation. Out of the 18.45 lakh ha of cultivable command area of the SSP, the command area development up to ‘sub-minor’ level has been completed only in 3.69 lakh ha, which is about 20% of the total command area. Irrigation water is reaching to just 2.5 lakh ha, which is about 13% of the command area. Most of the 20% completed area is in central Gujarat, which is already water-rich. Modi has failed to provide irrigation to areas for which the project was meant, particularly when the area was facing an unprecedented drought earlier this year.
The situation, in fact, is much worse. Some farmers close to the incomplete main branch canals in Saurashtra tried to take water for low-water consuming groundnut crop this monsoon. But cases were filed against them and many were arrested. At the same time, water from the Narmada main canal was released in the Sabarmati River for the luxury of Ahmedabad.
Even tribal villages close to the dam and canals are not getting water from the SSP dam. Forty years after the completion of the Ukai dam on Tapi river in south Gujarat, the right bank canal which could have benefited the tribal areas has not been built. The tribals had to go to the high court, which ordered on August 16 that the canals must be completed within seven years.
To compound the miseries of the tribal areas, the Modi government signed an MoU for Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project that would submerge tribal lands and forests in south Gujarat. There are 26 schedule tribe constituencies in Gujarat.
In any other state, the combined impacts of this continuous neglect of large parts, along with court orders on the Gujarat riots and encounter murders — including against ministers — and the anti-incumbency factor that the BJP rule of 17 years is facing, would have meant defeat for the incumbent. Modi has so far defied this logic. But this time he could face some tough challenges.
Himanshu Thakkar is with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People
The views expressed by the author are personal