Deficient monsoon dried up water sources, decimating Kharif crop

A deceptive calm greets one on reaching Sirwaniya — a dry village tucked away in the cotton-growing district of Surendranagar in arid Saurashtra.

But this calm soon gives way to a riot that erupts everyday at the crack of dawn and continues through much of the day, as women and little children fight a battle to procure brackish water for their families in this water-depleted swathe of Western India.

“We get water at only two of the 25 boring points in the village. Then again, our turn comes only after a six-hour wait. Then again, access is regulated by those who have power and money. At times, I wish our men folk would join us in these wars,” says Sauben, as she sports a tired, mirthless smile on her careworn face.

A much younger Jomiben, Sauben’s friend and neighbour, enjoy this ‘sparring for water.’

“There is a fight between close friends as the water lasts only for an hour in the morning. A break is taken so that the borewell can recharge... and then there is a fight in the afternoon again. We get used to it and make our little rules,” she says.

After a decade of bountiful rains, a severely deficient monsoon has caught families in Gujarat’s cotton-growing districts of Saurashtra disastrously off guard: drying up the region’s water sources, decimating the Kharif crop, famishing the livestock.

“This phenomenon is like a rude slap on our faces,” says Khimabhai Dholariya of Vatavatchh village, a few kilometres from Sirwaniya.

“These last few years, I was consistently making Rs.8,000-10,000 an acre from cotton as the going was really good. The good times have finally ended now,” he smiles wearily.

“A year of drought won’t have much effect on moneyed classes like the Patels and the Darbars as they can easily get by with their side-businesses,” explains Ranchod, his younger brother. “Even the hard-put ones among them make do with borrowed credit from members in their own community — interest free.”

The Kolis, he says, lack similar privileges, thus forcing them into the grasp of the moneylender.

“Earlier, our masters [the Patels] paid us labourers 33 per cent of the farm’s total produce to secure our loyalty. Today, we somehow manage to scrounge work that pays us a paltry Rs. 50-Rs. 100,” rues Harjibhai Patadiya, whose services were recently dispensed with.

For 12-year-old Bharat Keraliya, the failure of the cotton crop this season might have accorded him a brief rest – a rest from 12 hours of backbreaking work during the harvesting of the crop.

But his parents being poor farmers, Bharat, along with his sister Ansaben, will now have to look for other avenues of labour as their family can ill afford to spare able-bodied young adults.

Narmada waters

Despite ambitious systems and structures like the government-initiated Water Sanitation and Management Organization (WASMO) project in place, Surendranagar remains deprived of the waters of the Narmada.

In Vatavatchh, this acute scarcity has quickly been converted into a thriving business.

Those with storage tanks offer to procure potable water for the waterless from any water source at a princely sum of Rs. 100.

“The ones with a ‘Chakdo’ (the three-wheeled diesel-engine rickshaw, a predominant mode of transport in this part of Saurashtra) and a storage tank are the biggest entrepreneurs in this business,” states Khimabhai, himself an adept entrepreneur, who makes make an average five trips a day.

Traditionally dependent on milk and livestock, the pastoral Rabari community in Rajkot’s Belda village is finding it tough to cope with the crisis with the startling depletion of fodder reserves.

Villages outside Rajkot abound in scenes of wretchedness as famished cattle overreach their grazing pastures, devouring anything and everything in the wastelands outside the city.

“Dry fodder costs have increased fourfold from Rs. 70-80 last year to Rs. 250-300 this year,” says Ranabhai Gamara.

“There are no takers in the market anymore... no buyers, no sellers. If this situation prevails for a fortnight more, then the buffaloes head straight for the slaughterhouse and the cows for the Gaushala,” says a crushed Velabhai Gamara.

“The milk yield has drastically declined by 40 to 50 per cent this year, severely cutting profit margins. There are tensions while grazing as we often have to trespass on the fields of others in search of fodder,” remarks Rukkadbhai Mamiya.

Every day, State and national highways team with trucks from Baroda and Surat carrying dry fodder, usually purchased and distributed by the moneyed classes.

Despite the State government dubbing 14 districts in Saurashtra and Kutch “scarcity-hit” and rolling out a slew of fodder incentives, farmers feel such steps are too late to save the day. They accuse the government of catering excessively to the interests of the State’s industrial belts while forsaking the cause of remote villages.