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Wednesday, Oct 16, 2019

Gujarat elections: BJP battles farmer ire over Narmada waters

Gujarat elections 2017: Farmers in Saurashtra say they have voted for the BJP in the past but are now fed up with waiting for water.

assembly-elections Updated: Nov 28, 2017 10:56 IST
Niha Masih
Niha Masih
Prime Minister Narendra Modi offers prayers to Narmada River during the inauguration of Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadiya in Narmada district.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi offers prayers to Narmada River during the inauguration of Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadiya in Narmada district. (PTI FILE)

Vijay Dabhi is faced with an impossible choice. The 29-year-old farmer from Gujarat’s Bhavnagar district can either enroll his daughter in a private school or hire a diesel pump to draw water for his wheat crop from the Vallabhipur branch canal of the Narmada. “The annual school fee is Rs 30,000 and the pump costs Rs 25,000. I can secure her future or support my family by paying for the pump,” he says in frustration.

Vijay’s village, Patna, is serviced by three canals of the more than Rs 50,000 crore Sardar Sarovar Dam, whose waters are supposed to irrigate more than 3,000 villages and 18.45 million hectares of land. The project was inaugurated by PM Narendra Modi in September on his 67th birthday. Calling the dam an ‘engineering miracle’, he had said, “I have a list exposing all those who tried to derail the project but I do not want to politicise the issue. I am just happy this dam will benefit the farmers, the environment and countrymen.”

But despite the completion of the main dam, in the three main districts of Saurashtra supposed to benefit from it — Bhavnagar, Botad and Surendrangar — villagers complain of broken promises, flawed design and lack of accountability. “The inauguration was just a farce. Every election we were promised Narmada water. This time we have decided to vote for a new government in protest,” says Vijay.

With elections in the state next month, the BJP has focused on shoring up votes in rural areas, a weak link for the ruling party that trailed the Congress even in the last election — the saffron party won 44 seats, compared to Congress’ 49, according to post-poll analysis by Delhi-based think tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The BJP also suffered losses in the local body polls two years ago, attributed by experts to Patidars moving away from their traditional choice, BJP, over being denied quotas in jobs and education.

Party chief Amit Shah has stressed on boosting ground-level organisation, setting up several committees to ensure turnout on polling day and help BJP bridge the rural gap. But farmers in Saurashtra say they have voted for the BJP in the past but are now fed up with waiting for water.

Sagar Rabari of the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, one of the largest farmers’ body in the state, says, “The government has been lying to the farmers over the Narmada irrigation issue for years now. Either the work is incomplete, what was completed is lying in ruins and the plan has been changed several times to give water to industry.”

In Vijay’s village, the dam, canal and the last-mile minor network is complete but the fields are still dry. All the water of the canal, he alleges, goes to a Gujarat Water Infrastructure Limited (GWIL) plant that supplies drinking water to villages in Saurashtra and to the industry.

Mohabbatsinh Parmar, GWIL supervisor, admitted many villages in the area were not getting irrigation water but blamed the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL). “The problem is wastage of water by the time it reaches us. There are over 100 pipelines upstream, so water is constantly overdrawn. We have complained to SSNNL but they do not take any action,” he said.

A top official of the SSNNL, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the upcoming elections, said it was impossible for them to patrol the 50,000 km stretch of the dam project.

Amidst this finger-pointing, there is only frustration for Vijay. He has filed six RTI applications, sat on a hunger strike, and even attempted to breach the canal wall last year. Now, he and others from 13 villages are trying to file a case in the Gujarat high court.

Meanwhile, local farmers say they are forced to illegally draw water through pumps. “This year because of the elections, they are letting us use pumps but usually the State Reserve Police of the SSNNL trouble us for doing it,” Vijay says.

In a 20km stretch of the canal, over 300 such pumps are installed. In Halvad taluka in Surendranagar district, a few years ago, the police took away the pumps and booked the farmers. SSNNL officer said that these should be viewed as “anti-encroachment drives”, carried out occasionally. About 75km away in Botad, another group of angry farmers has the same grievance about lack of irrigation water from the Narmada — for differing reasons. At Gunda village, the sub-minor network has not been finished, which means there is no last-mile connection of the branch canals to the fields.

According to the latest SSNNL report from October 2017, 20% of the minor and 40% of the sub-minor network is incomplete. In terms of irrigation potential, this means only 60% of land is currently serviced, according to the same report. The SSNNL officer says the onus for this lies on the farmer. 2.5% of the total cost of the sub-minor must be borne by the farmer, which comes to Rs 600 for every hectare of land.

“We are making them on 97.5% subsidy but sometimes the farmers maybe the reason for the delay depending on crop cycle,” the officer said. They hope to complete the work by December 2018.

At Nanivavdi village, farmers say they have run from pillar to post requesting the SSNNL and the government to fill the Hamirsar lake with Narmada water that can service six neighbouring villages but to no avail.

Amongst the group of 10 cotton farmers we meet at Nanivavdi, nine are BJP voters — two are BJP office bearers at taluka level. All except one have made up their minds to vote for Congress. They still believe in PM Modi but say that is not enough. “We don’t have faith in the BJP government anymore. It has not done anything for farmers. They are only good at marketing, which we have foolishly being buying into,” says Ajitsinh.

First Published: Nov 27, 2017 23:43 IST

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