Counterview: Ahmedabad: Wednesday, December 10, 2014.
Livelihood of as many as 450 salt-cultivating farmers of the Little Rann of Kutch has been gravely hampered following a “roughshod decision” of Gujarat government officials to release water from Narmada canal more than its carrying capacity, leading to major breaches into Banas river in North Gujarat. Well-informed sources have told Counterview, the the salt cultivating fields got “totally destroyed”, their diesel pumps used for sucking out saline water from underground got “burned-out”, and the temporary shelters they had put up to look after the farms “simply fell apart”, as Narmada waters entered the Little Rann.
Estimating the loss to salt cultivators anywhere between Rs 3 crore to Rs 5 crore, most of it taken as loan, a senior government official said, “One should blame past managers of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), responsible for implementing the Narmada project, for failure to create a network of branch canals and distributaries in the region to help agriculturists off the Little Rann to get water straight into their fields. Had the network been completed, the waters would have gone to the fields instead of running over the Little Rann and harming salt cultivators. Further, officials should have known it well Banas river ends in the Little Rann. Hence, they should not have released as much water.”
The sources further blamed poor official monitoring in the past while constructing the canals for the latest catastrophe that has befallen the salt cultivators. “What is worse, whatever canal network has been created is so poor that within over a month's time, it breached at 22 spots, allowing waters to easily make way without any restriction for days together, with nobody caring to stop it. Some of the breaches were as wide as 24 feet, such as at at a spot near Tharad town. Another breach was also quite wide – of 14 feet – near Sui village”, the sources pointed out.
Other major breaches in the Narmada canal network reported were – near Dhima and Bhakhri village (November 9), in Sapreda-Rachchela minor canal (November 14), near Khiman Padar village (November 19), in Tharad's Bharol distributary (November 20), Vav-Jodiya distributary (November 25 – the breach took place thrice), and Tharad-Upcha distributary (November 27). This apart, there were at least a dozen other minor breaches, all thanks to “poor quality of work done while lining up the canals”, the sources insisted.
Senior activist of the Agariya Hit Rakshak Manch (AHRM) Harinesh Pandya, who has been working among salt cultivators for nearly a decade, told Counterview that while some of them could make their way out of the Rann area which had turned marshy, there were serious casualties. “In the middle of last month, a pregnant woman tried to come out of the flooded area, and in between got unconscious. She was brought to hospital, where she delivered a baby girl, but she died. The officialdom seems indifferent”, he said.
Pandya said the officials he talked with were “so casual” that they seemed to have little compassion for the salt cultivators. “The general view is that Narmada waters should be released in order to help agricultural fields by allowing farmers to illegally sink diesel pumps to suck out water straight from the canal, as distributaries are incomplete. Waters are siphoned away by putting up pipelines, often more than one km long, to take waters in the fields. The waters are released in such huge quantity to 'help' farmers that it leads to breaches in the canal, on one hand, flooding the Little Rann, on the other”, Pandya said.
In fact, according to Pandya, the locals whom he talked to complained, officials “take a bribe of Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 per diesel pump” from farmers in order to allow the waters to be pumped out illegally from the canal. “There is also the view that the the local BJP MLA, Shankar Choudhury, knows that farmers are his votebank, while the salt farmers are not. The joke is – whom will Choudhury help? Nearly 5,000 agriculturists or 500 salt cultivators? After all, salt cultivators are mostly Muslims, and they are not his votebank, hence why should he help them?”, asked the activist.