Narmada. The very name means ‘pleasure-giver’, and it adorns a river that is life-giver to millions. But it has also been the source of much consternation over the decades—a running sore that has flared up once again. In Gujarat, the last few months have seen a torrent of criticism directed at the manner in which the river’s water is apportioned. The most marginalised stakeholders—farmers and fishermen—complain of major shortages and blame uncompromised supply to industries and splurging on optics during last year’s assembly election campaign while they are left to suffer. This criticism didn’t dry up after PM Narendra Modi’s seaplane ride from the Sabarmati ahead of the polls.
The impact struck home this summer when the water in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir fell to 106 metres. But the monsoon will set things right, hopes the Narmada Control Authority (NCA). “The Narmada basin had a deficit rainfall of 26 per cent, and the dam had a deficit of 46 per cent, which we had intimated to all state governments in November. Due to lack of non-monsoon rainfall, this was further aggravated,” says Mukesh Sinha, executive member, NCA.
Despite the NCA’s warning, a lot of water overflowed in dams across the state before the elections. It had been diverted to fill reservoirs in Saurashtra and Bhuj, showcasing how the government had channelled water to dams in those areas, but the excess water could not be stored and had to be let out. Terrific optics, to be sure—but farmers and fishermen are now paying the price.
Sagar Rabari of Gujarat Khedut Samaj, the state’s largest farmer activist group, blames this diversion for the shortfall. He points out that in the 1980s, the Gujarat government had demanded nine million acre-feet (MAF) of water from the Narmada, to be shared as 0.86 MAF for potable water, 0.20 MAF for industries (increased to 0.25 MAF) and 7.94 MAF to irrigate 18,41,000 hectares of rain-fed farmland. “Every dam has a water use plan and any use beyond that requires cabinet approval. The release of water to fill up dams in Saurashtra and Bhuj is not part of the plan,” he says.
Such things were fixed long ago, and surely need updating. “600 cusecs is released downstream from the dam to feed the main river as per a 25-year-old decision when the only industry here was the GIDC unit in Ankleshwar. Since then, several industrial areas have come up in Dahej and Bharuch and the population has increased at least threefold. We petitioned the governments of MP and Gujarat and the Centre for 6,000 cusecs of water to be released into the main river,” says Bharuch-based advocate Kamlesh Madhiwala.
Water pumps litter the canal
The shortages have hit the fishermen who ply the waters of the Narmada’s mouth. A large chunk of their catch is the Hilsa, shipped to Mumbai and West Bengal. The male Hilsa fetched Rs 250–300 per kilo for the fishermen while the egg-bearing female would fetch around Rs 700–800 till a few years ago.
“The price of the female Hilsa has shot up to Rs 1,000–1,200 due to its scarcity in the last three years. From between 100 and 200 fish per day per boat, it has come down to around 10–12 fish per day per boat,” says Pravin Machhi, a local fisherman. Blaming the Sardar Sarovar dam diversion, he adds, “The variety of riverine fish has decreased for the non-monsoon months. Due to the decrease of river water in these last three years, the high saline ingress of the seawater—as much as 70-80 km upstream—has filled the river with Croaker fish during the non-monsoon months. The Croaker fetches around Rs 50–80 per kilo and is not worth the amount we have to spend on fishing.”
In its 2018 report, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) was severely critical of the fisheries department. “There was no physical and financial planning for completion of the scheme within a certain timeframe...The funds were diverted to show the utilisation of grants and to receive subsequent instalments. This resulted in erroneous booking of expenditure and irregular parking of funds, apart from the planned activities not being completed,” the CAG report notes.
Even amid the scarcity, activists claim that industry has not suffered, thanks to malapportionment of water. “They have refused to share the exact data for water released to the industries, but supply to them during this period has not been interrupted for several pumps, as per the response to some RTIs we filed,” says Rabari. Pumping stations in Jhanor draw and send water from the river to the Dahej industrial area 60 km away. This substantially reduces the fresh water released from the dam into the river. Most of Bharuch relies on private reverse osmosis plants that sell potable water for Rs 20 per 20 litres.
“Now, the government is planning another barrage near Bhadbhut, near the river’s estuary, to supply water to Dahej. This is the place where the Hilsa used to spawn since the sea current would meet the river’s flow right here. The barrage will kill whatever fishing remains on the river,” says Madhiwala.Simultaneous developments in 2017 have played havoc with the river-based economy. The sluice gates of the dam were shut, leading to shortages along the route of the river and the canals.
Many are also concerned about how the Narmada’s water is pumped into the Sabarmati. “The Sabarmati River has been reduced to a pond for riverfront aesthetics under the Rs 2,000-crore beautification plan. The water from the Narmada is fed into the Sabaramati through canals in the north, and the Vasna barrage downstream, in the south of the city, keeps the level constant,” says Bharatsinh Jhala, an RTI activist with civil society organisation CRANTI, which has a focus on farmers’ rights.
On June 30, Jhala took this reporter to his native village of Khambalav in Surendranagar district, 100 km south-west of Ahmedabad. A major irrigation canal of the Narmada dam has been dry since March, freezing all farming activity till the monsoon. “Last year, there was so much water that it damaged all the crops along the canal. This year, everyone bought seeds and prepared for a summer crop, but now there has been no water in the canal for the last three months and it has stalled all farming activity,” says Mahesh Bharwad of Tokrala village, who saw this reporter taking photographs of the dry canal and strolled up with a list of complaints.
Littering the sides of the canal are the diesel engines and PVC pipes that people use to pump water from the canal into their fields. This is illegal, so the farmers are labelled thieves and face cases. They claim they have to grease palms to water their fields, while minor irrigation fields are yet to be completed. The promise of irrigating every field in every village remains a distant dream.
Closer to Jhala’s village, Jitendrasinh Parmar has already taken loans to spend on the seeds and the tractor but can’t wait for the rain. Time was running out and so he hired a diesel pump to draw water from the well he had installed, which is fed by pre-monsoon showers. “We have to pay whatever we are asked to pay for drawing water ‘illegally’ from the canal. Since the Narmada water has been stopped, I must draw this hard water from the well. It costs more than Rs 1,000 per day to hire and use the diesel rig, and if the monsoon is sparse, you have to continue to use it. Around 50 per cent of my input cost is towards water,” says Parmar, who is busy pumping water from the well.
In Khambalav, a few farmers share Parmar’s woes and also bemoan the sums they must borrow to survive. The whole village, they claim, depends on money sent by villagers who have moved to the cities. There are no new jobs. And the drinking water situation is as pathetic as in Bharuch: the villagers must buy water at Rs 20 for a 20-litre can.
“Farmers here take loans of Rs 5 lakh from the bank and up to Rs 20 lakh from private moneylenders, who charge three per cent per month, and we have to mortgage our lands. The moneylenders show some leniency but the bank sends notices as soon as we default. But 720 farmers here are yet to receive any money for the crop failures under the Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana,” say the Khambalav farmers. Any recurrence of such a crisis would invite a review of how the state had apportioned its water. And politically motivated diversions may not go down very well.
By Ushinor Majumdar in Bharuch, Surendranagar and Ahmedabad