Saurashtra woes: Helpless farmers hope for the miracle of water

Arid Saurashtra in Gujarat has been facing an acute agrarian crisis due to lack of water for irrigation

By Shagun
Published: Monday 22 April 2019

Pankaj Patel, a 32-year-old-farmer in Moti Parabdi village of Saurashtra region has already dug 1,000 feet into the ground for water but with no success. Dejected, he moved to another plot of land and drilled another 500 feet, again with no success.  

A third-generation farmer from his family, Patel cultivates wheat, cotton, and groundnut on his four-acre (10 bigha) farm in Rajkot district and is aware of the ill-effects of drilling the ground for water, but says that he is helpless.

Arid Saurashtra in Gujarat has been facing an acute agrarian crisis due to lack of water for irrigation. Already facing three years of drought, the region has seen no rainfall so far in 2019.

The situation has worsened due to the failure, and, in many cases, the lack of government-run schemes for irrigation. The Bhader Dam, built for irrigation in 1994, in Gondal taluka is around 47 kilometre away from the village but farmers haven’t been receiving any of its water as it is being used to meet the drinking water needs of Rajkot district.

Patel, however, claims that the district gets its drinking water supply from Narmada, but the Rajkot Municipal Corporation finds it cheaper to take it from Bhader Dam instead. Without any guarantee of water, Patel has already spent Rs 2.5 lakh, deploying labourers and machines on the drilling exercise.

Debt over drought

Patel, who also owns a stone granules factory, is one of the few well-off farmers who can afford to spend such an amount on drilling. In Fulgram village in Wadhwan taluka of Surendranagar district — which is one of the worst-hit from drought — every second farmer is in debt.

On a sultry April afternoon, days before the state heads for the general elections on April 23, many of the farmers sit near the village bus stand and talk about the “pointlessness” of voting.

“Election aata hai, kisano ko ullu banata hai (farmers are made fools by politicians every election season),” says a nonchalant Rameshbhai Manjibhai Vanani.

From linking ponds in the village to nearby canals and small rivers, to getting water under the SAUNI (Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation) yojana, the farmers have heard of many schemes over the years but have not benefitted from any of them.

“Year 2019 will be a turning point for agriculture in Saurashtra,” says 54-year-old farmer Chandubhai Patel. “The groundwater level and availability in the region is only going down. This year is a test. If Saurashtra doesn’t get normal rainfall this time, there will be no water left for drinking, let alone irrigation.”

The India Meteorological Department (IMD) has declared that the probability of south-west monsoon being "near normal" is 39 per cent as weak El Nino conditions are likely to persist in early part of the summer season. The farmers, on the other hand, seem to have resigned to their fate. “The shortage of water will only keep increasing from now on,” he adds.

Deep in debt, many farmers go to nearby villages of Limbdi and Malod, some 30 km from Fulgram, to work as labourers on other people’s farms, earning a paltry Rs 200 for eight hours.

Hemantbhai Badania is one of them. He suffered a loss of Rs 90,000 on his last cotton crop cultivated on his six acre (15 bigha) land. The crop failed and he is currently in debt of Rs 3 lakh — a loan he took both from cooperatives and private money lenders.

The village received a meagre 12.7 mm rainfall in June last year, and in the absence of any irrigation source or water conservation projects, farmers could harvest only one cotton crop since then.  

Everyone here seems to know the “simple solution” — link the ponds with a small river that flows from between the village and Thoriyali Dam, which is just 8-9 km away from the area.

“There is no irrigation source in this village except rainfall. The two ponds in the village don’t get filled even when it rains. If they get lined with the Dam, it will lead to groundwater recharge. Even if 100 mm rainfall falls in the river it’ll benefit us as it is linked with the village ponds. Right now all that water is wasted,” says Badania.

Village Sarpanch Vikrambhai Kooga has written twice to the collector over the issue. The SAUNI scheme, launched in 2014, to divert water from Narmada to 115 reservoirs of 11 districts of Saurashtra region, has not made even an impact here.

Narmada water is, however, supplied here for drinking purposes every eight days for two hours. The area comes under Wadhwan taluka which is said to be getting water under SAUNI, but villages like Fulgram which are on the upstream do not get that benefit.

“We have been hearing since five years now that water will come under SAUNI.  Since the name of our village is included in the scheme, we don’t even get the full amount of crop insurance which is given to areas hit by drought,” says Rasikbhai.

A non-transparent crop insurance system has multiplied farmers’ problems. They have paid Rs 5,000 as premium for crop insurance coverage, but received only Rs 6,000 after crop failure, and that too just last week.

“The amount was pending for two months. We have just received it after several protests and that too just Rs 6,000,” he says.

The farmers are eager to install check dams in their farms but say that they cannot do so without any government support.

 “We don’t know what will happen if there is not a good rainfall this time. There is no water either in the ground, our ponds, in the rivers or anywhere…,” Badania says.

Pointing towards a bench installed by the local MLA last year, he says, “They have made this for us as if they are saying ‘just keep sitting as there is nothing else to do’.”

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