Remember that delicate old song ‘ajeeb dastaan hai ye’ (what a strange tale this is)? It’s a romantic sort of lyric, but I often feel an urge to hum it when I read the newspapers. For instance, I automatically began humming it when I chanced on a report of 20-odd farmers being arrested. For stealing water.
Another report said that about 30 FIRs were filed against farmers in Saurashtra. They wanted to irrigate their fields and so they started drawing water illegally from canals fed by the Narmada dam. In fact, 600 police personnel had been guarding just one branch of one canal.
It’s quite an image: armed men standing along the length of a life-giving water source, and farmers sneaking around with plastic pipes, drilling holes into the walls of a canal. Picture postcard for our modern democracy, eh?
The Narmada dam is supposed to be a major source of water for Kutch and Saurashtra, which are dry regions in Gujarat. At least, that’s what they said while building the dam. But the water level had fallen to worrying levels recently. The state government had to stop supplying water to farmers because it was afraid it would run out of drinking water for cities. Then, the rains came down in parts of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat officials said they didn’t have a crisis after all. Besides, elections are looming and the ruling government would rather not annoy too many farmers. Especially the ones with money.
Another crisis looms, but that lies beyond the elections. Farmers who do get legal access to water aren’t paying for it. And they’re investing in more water-intensive crops, like sugarcane. They aren’t learning anything from the tragedy of Punjab and Maharashtra.
But speaking of sugarcane and dams, there’s been an interesting unraveling closer home. Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithiviraj Chavan is under attack. He had promised a ‘white paper’ on irrigation projects. At least Rs 70,000 crores was devoted to “Major and Medium Irrigation projects” but there are worries that there’s been only a 0.1% increase of irrigated land in the state over the last ten years.
The can of worms was opened earlier in the year by Governor K Sankaranarayanan when he asked for a probe into Kondhane Dam, and a clamp on new irrigation projects, especially in Western Maharashtra. He pointed out that the state had failed to create a better canal network (which is necessary for irrigation) while sanctioning costly dams. The Kondhane dam contract was cancelled.
Water resources minister Sunil Tatkare was also under fire. Questions had been raised about the size of his assets. Now, the Opposition alleges an irrigation scam of Rs1,000 crore. Activists had been hollering about environmental damage and a larger ‘Dam Scam’, naming Kondhane, Kalu, Shai, Susari and Balganga as projects worthy of an investigation. One contractor seemed to be getting too many construction contracts. The backlash came from within the state government. NCP chief Sharad Pawar, being India’s Agriculture Minister, should have encouraged more probes. Instead, he turned around and accused the Governor and CM Chavan of “not doing enough for drought-prone areas”. He seemed to have forgotten that Sunil Tatkare is from the NCP. And so is his nephew Ajit Pawar, currently deputy CM, who was irrigation/water resources minister between 2000 and 2009.
And if you’re wondering why more farms in Maharashtra are not being irrigated, given the serious money we’re pumping in, or where the dam water is actually going, a good place to look would be some sugarcane fields. Word is, there are farmers with pipes, valves and even canals of their own.
First published here