Scam of a canal

Indira Gandhi canal conjures a mirage of surplus water in Thar desert and hides reality of official loot
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
Something fishy about it: Last year Rs 31 crore was spent on the maintenance of canal in Jaisalmer district alone. Source: GOI Monitor

Chattar Singh of Ramgarh village had never heard of a mosquito till the time he went to Jaipur to appear in a school examination. When the village elders asked him how he plans to tackle the blood thirsty insects, he said, “Let them come, I will have my stick ready.” Maturer by 35 years now, Singh narrates this tale to point out that the Thar desert of Rajasthan, just like any other desert area of this world, never had mosquitoes. Things changed with the extension of ambitious Indira Gandhi Nahar Pariyojana (IGNP) to the area in its second stage, completed by mid 1990s.

Instead of the promised cultivated area, crop yields and safe drinking water, the canal brought in swarms of mosquitoes and hordes of pigs.

Thar was hit by its first major malaria epidemic in 1990 recording 48 deaths which was followed by a bigger disaster in 1994 with double the calamities. Stagnant water and seepage from the canal due to faulty design causes massive water logging thus breeding mosquitoes. Absence of herd immunity in the community worsens the situation. In 2003, there was a resurgence of malaria despite the failure of rain and extreme drought situation. In 2010, while the whole of Rajasthan registered a comparatively low malaria, districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer saw an uptrend in the disease with a net total of 1,464 cases in just first eight months of the year. This year also, health officials had recorded at least 100 cases of malaria in Jaisalmer district in the month of May, which is the driest time in Thar. "Rainfall or no rainfall, we get malaria cases almost every year thanks to the canal,” Chattar Singh confirms.

The failed ambition 

Carrying waters from the river valleys of Punjab to the sand dunes of Rajasthan, IGNP's intrinsic network of canals, tributaries and minors can be called one of the man's most absurd attempt to tame nature; in this case, a centuries-old desert. The genesis of IGNP can be traced back to the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan which awarded the waters of Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej to India. From India’s (annual) share of water, Rajasthan got 8.60 million acre–feet (MAF) of which the state government decided to utilise 7.59 MAF through the construction of the Indira Gandhi Canal. Within Rajasthan, the canal is 445 km long covering seven districts. While IGNP Stage I, restricted to Sriganganagar, Churu, Bikaner and Hanumangarh, did bring in prosperity to the area in mid 1970s, Stage II spanning Jaisalmer and Barmer is a far cry from the earlier achievements.

According to official figures, the command area of Phase II of the Indira Gandhi Canal in Jaisalmer covers 4.63 lakh hectares and the canals themselves measure upwards of 3,400 km. However, a visit to the area offers a direct contrast. At the head of Tanot distributary, which originates from Sagarmal Gopa branch of the canal near Ramgarh, you tend to marvel at the displayed figures: “The water gushes out at the speed of 3.10 feet per second and irrigates an area of 96,693 acre west of the branch.”  The neighbouring patches of green fields add to the illusion but travel towards the Longowal road and greenery will soon give way to sand dunes. The long bricked channels, meant to hold water, dry out. Filled with sand at many places, broken at others, these brick and mortar structures run over several kilometres looking out of place in the dry land punctuated by phog, aak and other hardy desert grasses. The lush green land reclaimed from the desert and clean drinking water supply remains a mirage. “Only the land within 2 km of the Sagarmal Gopa branch is being cultivated by farmers. For others, there is neither enough water nor the appropriately-designed  network to irrigate the crops,” explains Chattar Singh.

In order to promote farming and habitation in the desert area, the state government had launched a scheme offering 25 bighas (6.32 hectare) to landless agricultural labourers and small-scale farmers of the closest villages at rates lower than the market price to be paid off in annual installments of Rs 5,000 for 15 years. The scheme found many takers who anticipated good returns from the irrigated land. However, failure of the canal network forced many of these allotees vacate their holdings.

Irrigating false hopes

Mohan Singh, a resident of Habur village, has 24 bighas in the command (irrigated) area of IGNP. However, he has never cultivated the land. Instead, he grows crops at Habur using harvested rainwater along with fellow villagers. “How are we supposed to grow crops in an area which has got no water? Even rainwater harvesting is not possible in command area of the canal since the soil does not retain enough moisture. When we tried to transfer the land to at least get back a portion of the investments made, the patwari forbids the deal on the grounds that lack of water can't be the reason for transfer since on paper, the whole area is irrigated,” Singh explains. Another group of people who hardly occupied the land allotted to them were around 700 oustees from Himachal Pradesh. Displaced during the construction of Pong dam on the Indus river and allotted land in Jaisalmer on compensatory grounds, none of these families could manage to cultivate their holdings in absence of water.

The land assigned under Tibra minor system, originating from Sada distributory, is no better. This system feeds three subsequent minors with 140 cusecs capacity but it gets only 35 cusecs which the officials claim irrigates the whole area. In fact, the design of minor is so faulty that the structure breaks down when higher volume of water is released. But in official communications, the IGNP engineers blame the farmers for not cultivating their lands “despite there being water available.”  In reality, of all the 1,500 CAD khalas (distribution points) in the area, only around three get water. Around 1,000 odd Ramgarh farmers were allotted land in the area, but now only 25 are paying the annual installments since the land has no use for others. The testimony to failure of the canal project is starkly evident at Gandhigram. Located 3 km off the Ramgarh-Tanot road, Gandhigram was proposed as an ideal settlement for cultivators in the desert area. Today, an approach road constructed for more than Rs 38 lakh under the Prime Minister's Gram Sadak Yojana ends in nothingness.

When area farmers sat on a dharna in the year 2004, the official team sent to inspect the area recommended rechecking of bed levels vis-a-vis designed bed levels but the problem persists. Protesting farmers later appealed to the state government not to spend another penny on the maintenance of the network which is delivering no goods. According to official data, more than Rs 821 crore has been spent since 1991 on construction and maintenance of the canal network in Jaisalmer district. In 2011-12 financial year, the expenditure was around Rs 31 crore. “Crores are allocated every year for maintenance of the canal with exaggerated coverage area under irrigation. Instead, all this money is pocketed by contractors and officials,” says Chattar Singh.

The promised drinking water supply through the canal system has also failed to meet the promises. Though large concrete tanks dot the villages, they either have no water or the supply is unfit for consumption and hence used mainly for washing purposes. Villagers use traditional rainwater harvesting methods to meet their daily needs throughout the year from ponds or small wells called beris. On Tanot road, the pastoral families hire water tankers to fill up the underground storage structures called tankas. Most shockingly, the IGNP canal in Jaisalmer cannot really be called a mistake because the decision makers already knew that the desert area would not be of much help. Shailendra Kumar Mandal of the National Institute of Technology, Patna, who studied the project, writes in his paper: “People in some quarters raised serious doubts about the suit-ability of the semi-arid lands, termed “fragile lands,” for intensive agriculture and challenged the use of irrigation on these lands, on the grounds that the light sandy soils of the desert may be unsuitable for irrigated farming or for any type of intensive cultivation.” However, these objections were overruled by the state government  claiming that improvement in the vegetation cover and the extension of afforestation with the help of irrigated water would stabilise sand dunes and halt the process of desertification. No point in guessing that nothing of the dream world has materialised. 

Fighting it out for whatever little

The canal has also led to emergence of land mafia in the area, which has encroached upon a big portion of land lying close to the Sagarmal Gopa branch getting good water supply. According to rules of land allotment, 30 per cent quota is fixed for those belonging to scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST). However, 200 SC/ST applicants from Ramgarh are still awaiting allocation even though only 18 per cent of the quota requirement has been met.

Consistent efforts made by school teacher Babu Ram using the RTI Act revealed that 17,380 hectares of IGNP's command area is under encroachment. “Around 80 per cent of this land lies close to the main canal thus ensuring good returns to the illegal cultivators. In official records this land is vacant but instead of allotting it to rightful owners, the officials are letting the encroachers have a field day,” Baburam points out. Early this year, Colonisation Commissioner (Bikaner) accepted the fact that 17,380 hectare of the land is vacant and SC/ST applicants have not been given their due share but no action has yet been taken on this front.

The scenario in IGNP Stage II also puts a question mark on the authenticity of state government's effort to involve communities in management of irrigation systems. The Rajasthan Farmers’ Participation in Management of Irrigation Systems Act 2000 envisaged Nahari Kshetra Vikas Evam Prabandhan Samitis as elected local bodies for formulation and implementation of policies related to land, water and livelihood issues of settlers. The samitis still exist, but they have no role in management of resources thus turning the whole exercise into a farce.

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