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Rajasthan farmers battling for water

Region With an estimated 5,000 farmers taking part, the gathering last Thursday was the largest water protest the desert state of Rajasthan has seen since the winter of 2004.

Farmers in the Rajasthani region of Sriganganagar, known as the breadbasket of Rajasthan, are facing severe drought and water shortages due to a failed monsoon and the poor distribution of irrigation water from the Indira Gandhi Canal Project.
Farmers in the Rajasthani region of Sriganganagar, known as the breadbasket of Rajasthan, are facing severe drought and water shortages due to a failed monsoon and the poor distribution of irrigation water from the Indira Gandhi Canal Project.

GHARSANA // Sant Lekha Singh's angry growl rises to a hoarse shout as his speech enters its final crescendo. "Water is our employment, water is our right," the towering Sikh union leader tells the crowd sitting cross-legged before him. "If the government does not provide water, then they may provide death - and we will accept it."

As Mr Singh stokes up his fiery rhetoric, farmers continue to trickle into the market town of Gharsana, arriving by tractor, motorbike, cycle and rickshaw to gather in the vast corrugated iron hangar where the annual grain harvest is collected. With an estimated 5,000 farmers taking part, the gathering last Thursday was the largest water protest the desert state of Rajasthan has seen since the winter of 2004.

"Curfew was imposed, six people died due to firing, hundreds of people were arrested and two dozen cases of attempt to murder, arson, heinous crimes, and other false cases were started against the leaders," remembers Hatram Beniwal, the Communist party leader who is worked with Mr Singh on that protest. Mr Singh warns that those days may be about to return. "This could be 20 times more horrible than 2004. The Congress Party has shown us a picture of death, and a person who has seen a picture of death can do anything."

India's monsoon season, which officially ended at the start of this month, was the worst India has experienced since 1972. But judging by the uneasy atmosphere in Gharsana, the fallout is only just beginning. Monsoon rainfall in the Sri Ganganagar district, which includes Gharsana, dropped 27 per cent from its average, according to the Indian meteorological department, not far off the 23 per cent drop across India.

But the rain that matters here falls some 200km away in the foothills of the Himalayas. Since 1986, water from the Pong Dam Reservoir has fed into the Indira Gandhi canal system, turning what was a semi-desert region of north western Rajasthan into one of India's most fertile areas. The reservoir, almost full last year, is now at only 46 per cent of its capacity, and when the Bhakra Beas river management board, which allocates irrigation water from the Himalayan reservoirs, met on September 30, it almost halved the amount it granted to the Indira Gandhi canal from 1.5m cubic seconds per foot days to 800,000.

"This is a real crisis for Rajasthan," says K Bishnoi, executive engineer for the canal. "It is worst affected because the average annual rainfall is least in this part of India. Even in a good year, we get only 250ml of rain. In Rajasthan, no one can grow crops without irrigation." Gharsana, situated where the prosperous reservoir-irrigated farming belt of Punjab and Haryana meets the arid Thar Desert is among the worst hit areas in Rajasthan.

The irrigation department plans to release water from the canal on October 15. But only farmers planting mustard and gram will be eligible for water. Those planting more water-intensive crops such as winter wheat will not be served. "At present, to be sure there is not a drinking water problem, the department is insisting on sowing of crops requiring less water," says Mr Bishnoi's colleague GS Kalre.

Jagdish Sarswat, a grain trader who operates out of Gharsana market, says that he expects wheat production in the area to drop by 80 per cent from 30,000 tonnes last year to 6,000 tonnes this year. India's finance minister last month predicted a drop of 15 million tonnes in production of rice and wheat, but there is little chance of a food shortage. India's government used last year's record harvest to build up a stockpile of 52 million tons of rice and wheat.

But the sharp drop in farmers' incomes threatens to end of the rural boom which has sustained India's economy through the global recession. The finance minister Pranab Mukherjee last month said he expected the weak monsoon to drag India's GDP growth rate down in the second half of this year to less than the 6.1 per cent growth in the first half. The Congress government has moved to protect farmers whose crops have failed, for example, by extending its rural work guarantee scheme from 100 days of guaranteed work to 160 days of work.

But the drought is already causing rising tensions. At the Gharsana meeting much of the rhetoric was directed at the wealthy farmers of Punjab, who local farmers argue take more than their fair share of irrigation water. Local officials back this up. For a decade, Rajasthan's government has fought for 750 billion litres of water it believes Punjab should give it in addition to its entitlement of 9.6 trillion litres of any surplus water from the dams.

But Mr Bishnoi said that Punjab and Haryana also divert around 2.4 billion litres and 1.2 billion litres respectively of water that should be reserved for his state. "Punjab is stealing the share of Rajasthan," he says. "Haryana is causing even more problems." As a result of this, and decreasing rainfall in the dam areas, it has only received an average of 6 trillion litres in the last decade. The shortage is also causing tensions within Rajasthan. Mr Beniwal, a member of India's Communist party who was key figure in the protests in 2004, blames politicians from the state's south and west, who from 1999 launched the second phase of the canal, and so split supplies for Ganganagar with their own area.

"This is an area adjoining to Punjab, adjoining to Himalaya region, so the water should be used here only, not in the far south or far west," he argues. Even before this week's decision, the year had been difficult for farmers. Water has only been released twice this year to Gharsana and neighbouring areas, once in May, and again last month, and both releases were designated as drinking water, with the farmers forbidden to use it for their fields.

The result has already been devastating. Om Prakash Manju, a farmer who had come to the protest from nearby Anupgarh, said he had only planted three of his eight acres of land with cotton. "Even that is going to vanish," he says. "Everyone in my village is in the same situation. The complete area is dry. Many of my neighbours have gone to Punjab to work as labourers. They want to sell their land, but no one is ready to buy."

Even farmers who have followed the advice of the Rajasthan government, installing efficient drip-irrigation systems and planting drought-resistant crops, are suffering. "Guar seed needs only two rains or watering from the canal to grow," complains Vinay Goddar, an agriculture teacher turned farmer at his drip-irrigated plantation. "but we didn't get even that. "I know every technique of farming, but I don't yet know how to farm without water."

Mr Beniwal, a former member of the local assembly for India's Communist Party, and a key figure in the protests, said that the water released on October 15 would not be soon enough to either save the farmers or avert the strike. So next Thursday he plans to mobilise thousands of farmers to picket outside offices of the irrigation department. So far, there are no plans to go as far as farmers did in 2004, when Mani Ram Saharan, a farmers' leader from one village took matters into his own hands and smashed up one of the main upstream canal gates, letting loose an illegal stream of irrigation water for the fields of the surrounding villages.

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