By Chandan Nandy1
The torrid afternoon sun is far from setting at Dholavira, one of two Harappan sites on the edge of the shimmering wilderness of Greater Rann of Kutch in northwest Gujarat’s Bachau block. A dirt-and-rocky track originating at Dungarivandh (hamlet), the last human habitation before the in hospitable and hostile aridity takes over, curves its way into an uninhabited pocket where two wells—one large but abandoned and the other relatively small containing life-saving water—and a narrow, 12-feet-long, concrete cattle trough sit among sandy dunes, craggy rocks and cactii.
Further inquiry with my interlocutors revealed that the larger well, built with funds from the local panchayat sometime in 2003-04, but now lying in a dilapidated condition and stuffed with rocks and other detritus, is completely unusable. It cost the panchayat Rs 5 lakh to build this ‘well’ in a region that is now reeling in one of the worst droughts in 30 years. Less than 10 metres away is the smaller well: it is an old, traditional well built with rocks. It is 40 feet deep and has 15-feet of water. Last year, Samerth Charitable Trust, an Ahmedabad non-governmental organisation, partnered with the residents of Dungarivandh and helped rebuild and revive the well at a cost of only Rs 25,000/- with community contributions.
“The vandh residents walk up a few hundred metres to collect water from this well. Their livestock graze here and drink water from the concrete trough. This well supplements the vandh residents’ meagre and measured supply of water, especially at a time when there has been no rainfall across most blocks of Kutch since July-August 2018,” said NarendrabhaiKoli2, a resident of Shivani vandh which is 50 kms from Dungari hamlet and a conscientious and dependable field coordinator for Samerth.
Beyond the government
The contrasting picture of local governmental profligacy and apathy on the one hand and serious efforts to revive and preserve traditional sources of water in one of India’s hottest and water-scarce regions on the other marks the distinguishing feature of how the “perennial problem of water” is dealt with by those in authority and those working for an NGO.
This finds physical evidence in the work Samerth has done at the rustic and otherwise backward Dungari hamlet where almost all of the adults are illiterate. Here, each small cluster of tiled-roof houses have underground, rain-roof water harvesting structures, each of which have a storage capacity of 15,000 litres of water supply by tankers operated. The vandh residents said that these tankers supply water to Dungari vandh and its nearby hamlets every alternate day. These structures were constructed by Samerth Trust with the support from Water Harvest, UK based organization.
Most households in the vandh use up about 400 litres of water – for both and human and animal consumption. While farming—chiefly cumin and castor—is the main source of livelihood in and around Dholavira, most of the vandh households also domesticate goats that are sold for Rs 2,000 a piece to supplement their income from agriculture. Since last year, when the monsoon season—usually July to August—did not herald any rainfall, farming activities practically came to a standstill in Dholavira. While the vast and arid expanse of the arid Greater Rann is barely 2.5 kms further west of Dungarivandh, the hamlet has no source of water from the Narmada river. The nearest Narmada canal is 35 kms away at Amrapar village.
Till last year, before the long, dry spell set in, the womenfolk of Dungari hamlet would work as farm labour on nearby fields on an average daily wage of Rs 200. Now, since Bhachau came under the grip of drought, the women have no work. The drought has also forced most menfolk of the villages to seek other avenues of earning in other parts of the state. Most of the vandh and village women still walk to the nearby, Samerth-revived well to fetch water in steel pitchers, but it certainly is a relief from the 5-km trudge that was the practice 15-20 years ago. Dungari vandh’s women folk look at awe at the hard-plastic, mobile water carriers that Samerth project coordinator Ashish Mehta and field coordinator Narendra bhai Koli have brought along with them to test their “acceptability” and efficacy.
The contraption involves a 45-litre capacity heavy-duty, plastic pitcher that can be dragged on flat and/or uneven terrain with the help of a two-pronged, elongated handle. The carrier, brought over from a Maharashtra-based company, is a curious object for the Dungari vandh women who giggle and then break into laughter as one of them volunteers to fill it up and drag around sandy and rocky parts of the hamlet to test its usefulness. The water carrier’s efficacy is, however, not lost on them. “It will certainly be useful. We don’t have to carry pitchers on our heads,” Shantiben Koli (35) said.3
Extent of the drought
The problem of water scarcity, especially in the midst of a prolonged drought, is not just limited to the Rann’s peripheral villages and hamlets – it pervades across most of Kutch district’s nine blocks, including Rapar, which has 97 villages, spread between the Little and Greater Ranns. One measure of the extent of the drought, according to Rapar block development officials, is that while there has been some crop growth across 17 villages because of availability of Narmada waters, there has been ‘nil’ rainfall in the rest of 80 villages since July-August last year, making it “one of the worst droughts”4 in many years, rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to provide for water for irrigation purposes. Block officials recalled the last devastating drought that hit Kutch between 1986 and 19875.
But this time, while villagers across Rapar and Bachau are making do with drinking water, which is supplied via tankers, though at seven to 10 days’ interval, there is practically no water available for irrigation. This caused last year’s devastating crop failure, forcing the state government to declare monetary compensation for farmers across several districts of Gujarat, including Kutch, Banaskantha and Sabarkantha, just before this summer’s crucial parliamentary elections. While compensation is based on the volume of land held by the farmers, the minimum and maximum amount per farmer is Rs 6,000 and Rs 13,600 which, by most accounts, is far below the expected return from their expected normal sale of their farm produce.
Extent of the crisis
On the morning of April 8, the sky over Gagodar village, left off National Highway-29 (which goes as far as Porbandar) was a perfect blue. Pointing to the cloudless sky above the ruins of an old fortress, my interlocutor at Samerth, project coordinator Ashish Mehta, said, “It should rain this monsoon, otherwise we do not know what might happen”, before calling out to his colleagues Balwantbhai Rathore and Dungarbhai Dodiya, among the earliest volunteers when Samerth’s establishment at Gagodar began effective operations in the immediate aftermath of the devastating 2001 earthquake. “It has to rain this year,” Balwantbhai said, exuding confidence that the rain gods will be kind to Kutch this year than they were the previous monsoon.
The available rainfall data for Rapar block indicates that between 1991 and 2018 rainfall was largely erratic and patchy. While in 1991, 1992 and 1993 Rapar recorded 134 mm, 390 mm and 268 mm of rainfall, it received 714 mm of rainfall in 1994. This pattern repeats itself through the years after 1994. While in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017, Rapar had 157 mm, 259 mm, 291 mm and 658 mm, there was only 25 mm rainfall in 2018, making it abundantly clear that the vagaries of nature that the people of this part of Kutch have had to deal with. It was observed by another government sponsored study that the average rainfall for Kutch (between 2006 and 2015) was only 474 mm6, which was the lowest among all districts of Gujarat. As recently as March 28, 2019, Business Line reported that the “region is witnessing its worst drought in 30 years”. While “16 of its dams have gone dry, there is drinking water but nothing for cattle, and yet its people remain resilient”.7
Quoting an official from the Kutch collectorate, one report said, “Looking at the severity of the scarcity, unprecedented measures are being pressed into action. In the Kutch district alone, we have opened 372 cattle camps, where over 2.20 lakh cattle are being given shelter, while another 1.24 lakh cattle are registered at 134 cattle shelter homes (panjarapols). So far, about 5.7 crore kg (57,000 tonnes) of fodder has been distributed at a token Rs 2 a kg. These are historically high numbers”. The district was declared scarcity-affected in October 2018, paving the way for relief measures.8
To tide over the drought condition, and the impact it continues to have on humans and animals, whose lives are intertwined, the Gujarat government has been sourcing fodder from other parts of the state. Media reports suggest that besides adversely affecting animal husbandry, agriculture has been hit big time. “Kharif sowing has reduced to half at 292,200 hectares as against 596,000 hectares last year. Sowing for most crops has fallen drastically. This includes bajra (84 percent), jowar (77 percent), moong (77 percent), groundnut (50 percent) and sesame (66 percent), besides fodder (20 percent).9
Even as temperatures hover in the region of 40-43 degree Celsius in early April—and the worst is yet come—the villagers across Rapar and Bachau blocks rely on government tanker-supplied water, which, invariably, is not adequate, especially when the frequency of such supplies is between a week and 10 days. In some locations across Rapar, the tankers visit every 15 days. Rain fed ponds has dried up in village after village, leaving residents to rely on old, traditional wells.
As we go north of Gagodar, the landscape and the vegetation changes: on either side of the road, the relative greenery behind is replaced by sand-rock and cactii and prosopisjuliflora (with thorny stems and small, simple leaves). The Narmada canal en route to Rapar town is practically dry. The concrete banks of the canal are lined with pipes that would otherwise have drawn water, but the pumps are inactive. A new Narmada canal is being laid on the outskirts of Gagodar but Samerth project coordinator Ashish Mehta believes that it could take as much as a year-and-a-half to finish the project. And yet 10 kms north of Gagodar is Chakasari hamlet (under Kidiyanagar gram panchayat), a wildness of rocks and sand interspersed with small plots of cultivable land.
The hamlet was settled a couple of years ago by three families belonging to the Koli community. These three families brought their cattle (37 buffaloes) along too. They had migrated from Ramparvandh, which is 10 kms from Chakkasari, because of lack of any water resources near their original hamlet. Fortunately, at Chakkasari, they could set up temporary homes made of wooden stilts with thick plastic sheets, because the dug-well which Samerth had helped construct in 2011 was nearby and constitutes the only source of water for them.
Some local farmers, to whom the land belonged, were generous enough to allow these families (24 members) to put up temporary sheds. Just next to the well is a high embankment of a rain-fed pond (also developed by Samerth) from which recharge water is channeled into the well which in turn helps irrigate the small plots of land the three Koli families cultivate to raise crops such as jowar, bajra, castor, cumin and some wheat and leafy saag. These families will continue to live and cultivate their chosen crops at Chakasari till such time that there is no rainfall. “Once it rains, they will return to Ramparvandh,” Mehta said.
Past Rapar, at Davri village, for instance, some of the womenfolk are at work—washing clothes or utensils—by the side of one of three large wells on the edge of the 15-acre pond that has been completely dry for three consecutive years. Samerth has revived the wells. It also helped construct the boundary and outer wall of a second well which is 30 feet deep with water at 15 feet deep.
“When it rains, the talav (pond) would fill up, but it has remained dry since last summer, forcing all villagers to fall back on the wells,” said Hastaben Madhvi, a brahmin.10 Although economically better off than people of other castes, Hastaben too has to fetch water from the village wells to replenish her stock at home which is stored in a 1,000-litre capacity tank. The need for human consumption is such that every conceivable steel pitcher at Hastaben’s house is used to store to water. The main water tank in Hastaben’s house is replenished every four days.
“There is no severe shortage of drinking water, though the same cannot be said for water for irrigation purposes. The village has four smaller ponds that cater to irrigation/agricultural needs. Four to five hamlets adjoining Davri get water from the Narmada canal, but just about once in 15 days,” Hastaben, who possesses 2 acres of cultivable land and was, therefore, compensated Rs 5,000 for crop failure by the Gujarat government, informed.11In Rapar and its adjoining villages, Mehta said, the problem is compounded because the block experiences a regular shortfall of 40 to 50 percent in supply in terms of million litre daily (MLD).
Like Hastaben, her 45-year-old aunt, Lakshmiben Madhvi, too possesses a 1,000-litre tank. Her husband, who is a Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation bus driver, has no land. Lakshmiben and her family does not have to worry about water for irrigation, but she said, “we need to have sufficient water for daily use”. The volume of water that households in Davri are able to store depends, to some extent, on their caste status and therefore their relative wealth. Unlike Hastaben and Lakshmiben, the house of the village sarpanch RawabhaiMuchhadiya, a harijan, has a 500-litre overground tank. His wife, KakkhubenMuchhadiya (55), who is unlettered, does not have an LPG connection in her kitchen and has to feed the earthen oven with firewood.12 Even as the residents of Davri collectively face this year’s drought, the silver lining, however, is that the village’s caste divisions do not find expression politically or socially. The social amity prevails at the wells too whose waters women and men of all castes use.
At a time when Gujarat is headed for parliamentary elections, which are due on April 23 across all the 26 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state, the most important issue for the electorate here is spelled out in one word: water. An overall water scarcity caused by no rainfall, governmental mismanagement in terms of timely supply to the desperate hamlets and villages and inadequate and insufficient reach of the Narmada canals, especially when irrigation has been adversely impacted, have taken their toll on Rapar and blocks, especially on agriculture. However, adding to the woes caused by the drought, the increasing salinity of the soil, caused by ingress of sea water that is resulting in ever-increasing fallowness of cultivable land.
Samerth field coordinator Narendrabhai Chavda informed that in Shirani vandh, where he lives, salinity ingress has struck in 13 acres of what was till recently agricultural land belonging to Lakha Samra Koli, a farmer of the same hamlet. “The ingress has happened over a period of 15 years, according to Lakha Samra’s estimate,” Narendrabhai said,13 adding that a general survey by local residents has indicated that as much as 150 acres of land has become fallow and agriculturally “useless” because of salinity in Shirani vandh, which borders the Greater Rann of Kutch.
The extent and gravity of this “creeping” salinity is borne out by a 2017 study which said that in Kutch, “the quality of ground water below depth of 150 mt shows significant deterioration”. The same study said that across the district, but especially in the coastal areas and regions bordering the Rann, 3.65 lakh hectares of land was “affected by salinity ingress”. Of the seven coastal districts in Gujarat, the soil in Kutch was found to have the highest levels of electrical conductivity (EC) which is a term used to describe a measurement unit of salinity—640-20200,in this case—and the water quality was found to be “brackish and saline”.14
That is not all. The study went on to state that according to a 2006 research carried out by the Tata Trust’s Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell, 242 villages of Kutch district were faced with salinity ingress of the aquifers.15 Ominously, the study claimed that “increasing salinity of land and water resources in coastal areas is a serious environmental problem in Gujarat. Availability of safe drinking water and drinking water-related health hazards have remained key issues of concern for villages in these saline areas”.16
Another study (across seven districts of Gujarat, including Kutch) of 2017-18 said as ominously that “prolonged use of saline water for irrigation has led to a decline in agricultural yields and has decreased soil fertility. This has made it difficult to use the land for future cultivation. Salinity has also affected underground water aquifers, leaving over 1,500 villages (across the seven coastal states of Gujarat, including Kutch) without potable drinking water”.17The physical evidence of this “salinity scourge” was seen across my travel through Rapar and Bhachau blocks: clearly marked plots of once-cultivable-land now lying fallow because of the coating of the surface with layers of salt.
Nobody in Samerth is more aware of ground water salinity, increasing desertification and the massive problem of water scarcity—which are inextricably linked to each other—than the NGO’s other field coordinator Narsibhai Masalia who went through an intensive and rigorous year-long training programme to comprehend how best to alleviate the problem of the rural folks directly faced with the calamitous condition at hand. Even as successive Gujarat governments devised and built canals that would carry the Narmada water from the Sardar Sarovar dam, the Samerth team headed by Gazala Paul conceived a plan to undertake pedology (study of soil) followed by a geo-hydrological study in particular areas across Rapar to inquire into how best to launch their intervention programme.
“At that time there was much talk at almost all levels that the Narmada waters would reach all talukas and villages, especially in northern Kutch, but there was no focus on reviving traditional means and methods of finding water sources and preserving them. For Samerth, the most important aspect of its intervention programmes would be participatory water management,” Paul said.
A geo-hydrological and pedological study in Kanmer village, undertaken in 2012, for instance, revealed that the area had three kinds of soil and which would help figure out the “run-off” of water and/or rain water. This study helped Samerth to work out the types of structures that needed to be constructed or revived to devise the NGOs participatory groundwater management programme at reasonable costs. Narsibhai’s experience at Kanmer speaks for itself: he knows the soil types in the study area like the back of his hand – where the natural dyke (3.5 kms in length and extends into a part of Gagodar) runs, which are the run-off and recharge zones and what structures would be best suitable for the villagers.
Reassuringly, the Kanmer study found, that there was no salinity ingress even at 100 feet depth. A similar study at Gagodhar, however, found that the underground water at a depth of 350 feet was not fit for human consumption because of salinity. “We found progressive salinity in areas farther south of Gagodhar (closer to the Little Rann) and increasing salinity in villages closer to the Greater Rann,” Narsibhai said.18
Reviving traditional resources
Between 2009 and 2010 Samerth undertook to construct and revive, at low cost, old wells, stepwells and underground water tanks which are now proving handy and helpful for a few villages and hamlets in drought-struck Rapar block. Wherever possible, Samerth has also pushed for public participation in reviving ponds which are a major source of water for cattle and other livestock as well as good for human use. One such pond (talav) is spread over 15 acres in Adhesar village on the edge of the Little Rann, which is 28 kms east of Gagodar.
The pond is divided into two parts separated by an embankment: the larger portion is for human consumption, though villagers are not allowed to wash clothes; the second portion is for cattle and livestock, especially cows, buffalos and bullocks that are housed in an adjoining cattleshed (gaushala). There are two other gaushalas in Adhesar which is a fairly large village. “The pond, which is called PirwalaKuan, became functional in 2016 after Samerth helped desilt it,” admits Adhesar village sarpanchBhaggabhaiAhir who enjoys the support of the ruling BJP.
A few hundred metres away is the village fodder distribution centre where feed for cattle is sold at a subsidized rate (in the wake of the drought) of Rs 2 per kg. Adhesar residents at the fodder distribution centre were equivocal about the scarcity of water for both humans and animals. Bhaggabhai took us to a 300-year-old stepwell which till last year lay unused and had become a trash dumping spot for the villagers. Last year, Samerth took up the challenge to clean up the trash and other detritus. “It took 12 days of continuous work to clean up the Phulkivav stepwell. Now, water from here is pumped out and taken to nearby cattle troughs. The stepwell is served by recharge or groundwater but not by water from Narmada canals,” Mehta said.19 Bhaggabhai is evidently satisfied by Samerth’s effort. He said, “Before I became sarpanch, Samerth showed interest in reviving this old stepwell. They began work in May 2018 and took less than two weeks to clean it up”.20
As in the far-flung parts of Rapar and Bachau, primarily villages and hamlets closer to the Greater Rann, the people of Adhesar, especially those belonging to the Rabari shepherd community, and others on the margins are trying to eke out their living despite the harsh consequences of the drought.
Dayabhai Rabari (50) supports a six-member family. He possesses half acre of land which couldn’t be cultivated last year as there was no rainfall. The consequent crop failure hit him and his family hard. Dayabhai got a compensation of Rs 8,000 which he has already exhausted, meagre as the amount is. “Had there been normal rainfall last year, I would have made as much Rs 80,000,” Dayabhai said. Sixty-two-year-old Ratnabhai Ahir, whose crop also failed because of no rainfall, received a compensation of Rs 13,600 which “is not sufficient” especially when he has to run a seven-member family. Consequently, he now has to work on other’s land as a farm labour.
Samerth, which has been working on rejuvenating and reviving wells, stepwells and ponds, across 20 of Rapar’s 97 villages over the past 10 years or so, has also leveraged MGNREGA projects which have in turn benefitted the villagers financially. “We have been working among some of the socially and economically marginalised communities in these villages and our aim has been to develop inclusive programmes that would ensure social equity. However, being an NGO with limited manpower and financial capabilities, Samerth would like to see in the future greater involvement of the gram panchayats in the participatory water management projects. On its part, the state government could adopt and develop on some of the models that Samerth has devised,” Paul said, hoping that such involvement would happen sooner rather than later.21
The road ahead
For Samerth the last decade of its extensive work across Rapar has certainly benefited hundreds, if not thousands, of people who “live on the edge”. According to Paul, while Samerth’s endeavor has been a challenging exercise, it has also been a fruitful one, especially in terms of results. And yet it has the potential to do more than what it has achieved over the past decade or so, in its area of operations. First, it could expand its stated objective of “inclusiveness” by involving a greater number of village womenfolk who are traditionally not part of decision-making in a conservative state such as Gujarat. The women of Kutch are hardy and resilient but do not often voice their opinion in public. There is minimum or negligible participation of women in the affairs of a vandh or village panchayat. Since women often have to “deal” with issues and problems arising out of water shortage at home, including them or making them part of the objective of participatory water management is vital to social development.
Second, the sustainable groundwater management strategy must involve conserving existing resources and in this endeavour Samerth could take steps to ensure that these fresh water resources are free from contamination. At the same time, periodic monitoring of groundwater must be made mandatory. Deeper aquifers should be protected and reserved for drinking water supply needs only.
Third, since Rapar and Bachau blocks are geographically located in the Little and Greater Rann, there has historically been massive ingress of salinity in the soil and groundwater. Therefore, the problem of coastal and soil salinity will require greater attention and a holistic, multi-pronged approach rather simply village specific interventions. Besides, each of the villages that are affected by full salinity, partial salinity and those that are prone to salinity will need different types of interventions. At the same time, Samerth could explore the possibility of encouraging farmers, especially those living in salinity-prone areas, to change their crop pattern or switch to equally remunerative but less water-consuming crops which earlier caused decrease in groundwater levels. This would have the added benefit of preventing seasonal migration out of Rapar and Bachau to other parts of Gujarat.
Since this cannot be achieved single-handedly, Samerth could consider partnering with the state government, research agencies and other organisations involved in corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities to make impact in the most vulnerable areas. This could be done by partnering with organisations such as the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell (CSPC). Samerth may also prefer to engage in imparting training to some of its field coordinators and undertake research and policy advocacy on this grave issue that threatens not just agricultural land but also human subsistence.
Fourth, innovative means of fetching water, such as the use of cost-effective water carriers (for example, the 45-litre plastic carriers manufactured by Maharashtra-based Neelkamal Ltd), could be encouraged among the womenfolk. Samerth project coordinator Ashish Mehta and other field coordinators such as Narsibhai Koli demonstrated the use of such carriers, which do not require much physical exertion, among some villages in Rapar and Bachau and this was welcomed by them, indicating a degree of acceptance. This would significantly reduce drudgery while at the same time save productive hours which the women could then devote to their children.
Samerth has been able to achieve its objective of ensuring participatory water resources management to a considerable extent by enhancing groundwater recharge, implementing low-cost rainwater harvesting systems and structures and reviving traditional storage methods, encouraging judicious use of water for human consumption as well as for agricultural purposes by, wherever possible, optimum use of “command areas” such as canals and ponds. Therefore, fifthly, greater and focused participation with the Gujarat government is essential, especially for ensuring procurement of low-cost technologies, that would go a long way in mitigating water-related hardships of the people, especially those living in the peripheral areas of Rapar and Bachau. This would, needless to say, have a win-win impact for all stakeholders.
Finally, interventions at the community and household levels could be dovetailed with sanitation and hygiene education, especially with the objective that rural communities consume safe drinking water. It is a truism that sanitation and hygiene awareness is directly linked to creation of or setting up sanitation infrastructures, especially across hamlets where there is little or no presence of public health centres (PHCs).
2Koli, Narendrabhai, interview with the author on April 9, 2019.
3Koli, Shantiben, interview with the author on April 9, 2019.
4 Parmar, M.A. Assistant Block Development Officer, Rapar, interview with the author at Rapar, April 10, 2019.
6 Tiwari, H. N. and Nilesh Dhokia, ‘Ground Water Yearbook (2016-17), Gujarat and UT of Daman and Diu’, Central Ground Water Board, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India, March 2018, pg. 81.
7Vora, Rutam, ‘In Kutch history has a habit of repeating itself’, Business Line, March 28, 2019. Accessed at https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/economy/agri-business/in-kutch-history-has-a-habit-of-repeating-itself/article26666799.ece
10 Interview with the author on April 9, 2018.
12 Interview with the author on April 9, 2019.
13 Interview with the author on April 9, 2019.
14‘Status of Coastal Salinity’, Gujarat Ecology Commission, Government of Gujarat, November 2017, pp. 7
17 Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell, Annual Progress Report 2017-18, Tata Trusts, AKRSP(I) and ACF, pg. 18.
18 Interview with author on April 9, 2019.
19 Interview with the author on April 8, 2019.
20 Interview with the author on April 8, 2019.
21 Interview with the author on April 10, 2019.