A 56-km canal takes water from Gujarat border to the arid region in Rajasthan

Till three years ago, people were reluctant to marry their daughters into families of villages in Jalore, a barren district in the Thar desert of Rajasthan, for people have to walk up to 8 km every day to fetch water.

The rain-fed fields were dry, not even good for growing fodder. Small ponds and lakes, often the sole source of water, turned saline with dissolved harmful minerals. Migration was a way of life, and poverty rampant.

But things started changing when the Narmada Canal Project brought water to the area through a 56-km canal from the border with Gujarat in 2008. People are now eager to wed their daughters into the potentially prosperous villages — and also want to become part of the slowly unfolding success story by buying up land there.

But nobody is selling. Some Jalore farmers are now growing cumin, castor seeds, wheat, pearl millets, isabgol and even pomegranates, while others look forward to the day they will move into the same bracket. The price of farmland has soared from Rs.5,000 a bigha to Rs.2.5 lakh. (Roughly, six bighas make a hectare).

“Till yesterday, these people [in villages where water has reached] were in tattered clothes. Now, their wives are laden with gold,” says a functionary of the Narmada Canal Project.

Some farmers lost their fields to the project, but Rajasthan did not face issues of displacement of people or submergence of flora and fauna from the Narmada dam project, of the kind witnessed in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In fact, Rajasthan is not even a riparian State as the Narmada does not flow through it. It was allocated irrigation and drinking water from the project sited in Gujarat, as a consideration.

After traversing 486 km in Gujarat, the Narmada canal enters Rajasthan near Shilu in the Sanchor tehsil of Jalore. The project, designed to irrigate 2.46 lakh hectares in 233 villages in Jalore and Barmer and provide drinking water to 1,336 villages, is running behind schedule. But hope is alive.

So far, Rs.1,700 crore has been spent on the project, and going by the rate of progress, it is expected to be completed by 2014. Despite Barmer's success with the discovery of oil and gas, the Narmada waters are yet to reach there.

In fact, even before the press party from New Delhi began its tour from the canal's headworks at the Jaisla distribution system, the local MP, Deviji Patel, arrived at the spot to highlight some of the shortcomings. His major concern was the salinity in the Luni river basin, a consequence of excessive discharge during monsoon from the unutilised flows of the Narmada. “Unless the project is speeded up with the installation of drinking water pumping stations and a lift irrigation system, the low-level villages will again get flooded, rendering them unviable for farming,” he says. This year, not a paisa has been spent on the project, he alleged.

To encourage frugal use of the canal waters, it is compulsory for a farmer to become a member of a water user association (WUA) and invest in a sprinkler or drip irrigation system. With a generous subsidy from the government, companies are vying with one another to provide the system.

A senior official of the Rajasthan Water Resources Department, however, admitted that pitfalls in equitable distribution and entrenched power politics marred the working of the WUAs. Then there is the requirement for each WUA to maintain the ponds (diggy), step-well (chak) and pumping stations that take waters to the fields. In time will come the plan to link sanitation with water supply.

The State government has worked out a method to provide uninterrupted power supply to farmers. Of the 27 MW available, 10 MW is being utilised, to keep the pumps, filtration plants and sprinkler distribution network working as required.

More In: National | News