Away from media attention, Gujarat is enduring one the worst droughts in recent history. The state, as a whole, received only 76% of its average rainfall during the south-west monsoon of 2018. Some regions have fared much worse.
The Wire travelled over a thousand kilometres through Kutch and North Gujarat, the two worst affected regions, and spoke to pastoralists, farmers and families struggling for fodder and water. This is the third in a series of articles about the drought. You can read the full series here.
Chamra/Midhiyari/Bekhra (Kutch, Gujarat): “He doesn’t release water for our village. We have had no supply for the last eight days,” said a hassled Salim Ibrahim in hushed tones. Wahidna Umar, at whom his ire was directed, was nearby and Salim would rather keep his complaint to himself. “Otherwise, he will make matters worse for us.”
Salim is a 28-year-old cattle herder in a small, remote village, Chamra, in Lakhpat taluka of Kutch. The nearest town is Bhuj, 125 km towards the southeast. Wahidna is a resident of Bekhra village located nearby and, crucially, the person in charge of maintaining the pipeline that supplies water to six villages in the area.
Like the rest of Kutch, Lakhpat too is suffering from one of the worst droughts in over 30 years. The scarcity is particularly severe in Lakhpat. It received only 12 millimetres of rainfall in the southwest monsoon of 2018 – 3% of its 30-year average.
Having not received water supply for eight days, Salim pinned the blame on Wahidna. “After all, he is the one who works the pipeline. He provides all the water to his village,” Salim said.
A complicated job
A month ago, residents of Bekhra had similar complaints against the individual who was, at the time, in charge of maintaining the pipeline. He happened to be from Chamra and was accused of providing water to his village at the cost of theirs by the residents of Bekhra.
He was replaced promptly with Wahidna after a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who is influential in the region and hails from Bekhra, raised the issue with the local administration.
Now, Wahidna is at the receiving end. He is aware that he does not have too many fans in Chamra, he told me after we left the village. “I know they feel that I deliberately stop their supply. That is not true. I try and do what I can,” he said as we stood around three water tanks located outside the most populous village in the region, Midhiyari.
Water is pumped from Dayapar, the administrative centre of Lakhpat about 15 km from Midhiyari, and collected in the tanks located there. From there, the pipeline goes further and supplies water to six villages spread in the region. Settlements in Kutch, and particularly in Lakhpat – the most remote and sparsely populated taluka of the massive district – are located at a considerable distance from each other.
The distance and differences in slope make Wahidna’s role crucial. Repair and maintenance of the pipeline is not his only job. He also controls the opening and closing of valves at different points. If he opens the valve to supply water to Charma, he will have to shut off supply to Bekhra. “Otherwise the pressure is not enough to carry the water to Chamra,” he said.
Chamra is about 10 km from Midhiyari, further away from Dayapar. “So, in all, it takes considerable amount of time for water to reach Chamra from Dayapar,” Wahidna said. Bear in mind that water is released from Dayapar only for four hours once in two or three days.
To add to the complexity, Chamra is among the remotest villages in Lakhpat and is located on a small hill – or dungar in local parlance. “From Midhiyari, water has to travel uphill to Chamra through dungars. That is why a good amount of pressure is needed to take water to Chamra,” said Wahidna.
According to him, the situation during droughts is particularly severe. As water is released only for a few hours every week, the tanks in Midhiyari are never full. All the water that collects in them is released to the villages simultaneously. “If the tanks are full, then there is enough pressure to take the water to all villages including Chamra,” Wahidna explained.
In the current situation, however, water reaches Chamra only if supply to the others is shut off. “If I open supply to even one other village, water doesn’t reach Chamra,” said Wahidna.
It’s a precariously delicate balance that Wahidna tries to maintain. “In the 3.5 hours that there is water, I have to ensure that Chamra gets water and so do the rest of the villages,” said Wahidna. The complications don’t end there.
“Two villages are relatively large and consumption is higher. So, they need more water. There is one village where the water tank is damaged and cannot hold any water. So water flows directly through the pipeline,” Wahidna said.
The Dayapar administrative office provides Wahidna with a schedule of when water is to be released to each village and for how long. According to him, if that schedule is followed, villages at the end of the pipeline will be left out each time.
“They say that water should be released for two hours to every village. But they release water for only four hours. Now, how will water reach every village?” asked Wahidna.
Less water released than the administration claims
According to A.M. Gosai, the deputy engineer of the Gujarat water supply board at Dayapar and the person who creates the schedule, the idea is to supply water to every village every second day. “We release water every day for six hours and serve three villages one day and the other three the next day,” he said.
Wahidna, though, says that water is not released every day. “Usually it is released every second day. But sometimes the gap is even more. Like today (March 8), water has been released after four days.”
If the residents of the villages are asked, frequency of water supply varies from between once every four days and ten days.
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According to L.J. Fufal, superintending engineer at the Gujarat Water Supply Board in Bhuj, all revenue villages in Kutch are supplied water through pipelines. (In Kutch, there are several sizeable settlements within a revenue village dispersed over a large area. As we reported in an earlier part of this series, some of these settlements are not served by pipelines.)
In times of scarcity, such as now, Fufal admits that the role of the person in charge of maintaining the pipelines is crucial. “Yes, those people are important. We give them a schedule to make it easy for them to manage,” he said.
As of April 1, Fufal said, all revenue villages in Kutch, except six, are being supplied water through the pipeline. “There are six villages in Lakhpat where the pipeline is not serviceable because they are extremely remote. Otherwise, every village is supplied through pipelines,” he said.
It is a Herculean task, Fufal concedes, particularly in Lakhpat. “It has about 100 villages which are spread over a very large area. There are forests, hills, which the pipeline has to go through. If there is a breakdown somewhere, then there is a problem,” he said.
It could take a while to figure out where exactly the fault is. The day we were in the area, water had been released from the pumping station at Dayapar after four days. But, in Bekhra, Wahidna’s own village, the pipelines were running dry. “I have opened the valve for Bekhra but there is no water in the pipes. There must be a fault,” Wahidna said, as a large number of residents were closing in and asking him about the water supply.
‘Nobody comes to this jungle’
Bekhra suffers another complication in its water supply infrastructure. The water tank in the village is damaged and unable to store water. Small pipes are connected to the pipeline under ground and residents store water that flows through those pipes in water tanks, drums and utensils, whenever there is supply.
Residents of the village, armed with their water storage paraphernalia, waited next to the pipes and grew increasingly agitated with Wahidna. This is a frequent occurrence, and Wahidna finds it difficult to manage the pipelines on his own. “They only see me. No one from the district administration comes here in the jungle. They will thrash me if anything goes wrong,” said Wahidna.
He has employed Ismail Hussain, another daily wage labourer from Bekhra, who helps him off and on. He pays him Rs 100 on the day his help is availed. Wahidna himself earns Rs 200 a day. Wahidna was calling Ismail frantically, trying to enquire if he had figured out where the fault was.
Amina Bai, a short and slim 24 year old, walked animatedly towards Wahidna. “Why is there no water in the pipes? You said there would be supply today,” she said in an angry tone. Wahidna mumbled as he spoke to Ismail on the phone.
Amina turned towards me. Someone told her that I had come from Delhi. “I don’t believe that he has come to talk to us. He would have come to the Lakhpat fort (A now dilapidated fort built in 1801, which is a minor tourist attraction),” she said. “Nobody comes here. To this jungle.”
No government official has visited Bekhra since polling day during the 2017 Gujarat assembly elections, according to most residents. “Even now, when we don’t have water. The water tank is broken. The pipeline doesn’t function. But nobody comes here. They just send this fool,” she said pointing at Wahidna.
Bekhra hasn’t received water in its pipelines for ten days, according to residents. “We walk 5 km to Midhiyari to get water and often there is no water there either,” said Amina. In most of rural India, fetching water is primarily the job of women.
Bathing is a luxury. “Once in 10 days, if there is water,” said Amina. Cooking, too, is a problem without water. “We can’t cook without water. So we a buy a packet of Parle G biscuit, eat it and sleep,” she said. To quench their thirst, they buy a packet of Amul buttermilk.
Amina is not engaged in any paid work. Her husband, Amant Ramda, is. He works as a daily wage labourer cutting wood and converting it to charcoal and earns Rs 200 a day.
He recently took an interest free loan from his father to buy a second-hand motorcycle for Rs 18,000. “What was the need for the motorcycle? We don’t have enough money to eat,” said Amina to Amant, who stared at the ground below and remained silent.
“Get the utensils. Hurry!” screamed someone at the far end of the village and suddenly everyone ran. There was water in the pipeline. Children with wide smiles on their faces reached one loose end of the pipe and began to drink. Women followed close behind with their utensils and asked them to make way.
Wahidna was relieved. “They could have beaten me up if they didn’t get water today,” he said. “I don’t blame them either. For them, I am the one who is responsible for supplying water.”
Remya Mohan, district collector of Kutch, says that the district administration is doing the best it can in the worst drought that the district has seen in over 30 years. “We are working overtime to provide the best services. But it is difficult. Kutch is a massive district. West Kutch (Lakhpat is in west Kutch) is particularly remote and difficult to service because of connectivity issues,” she said.
Mohan also commented on the importance of water pipelines in Kutch. “We have a pipeline-based civilisation in Kutch. There are people where there are pipelines,” she said.
She told The Wire that currently, the administration is managing the drought situation to its satisfaction. But things could get tricky in the coming months. “As summer sets, things will be more difficult. Plus, a considerable amount of energy and resources will be deployed for the elections,” she said.
According to Fufal, 19 medium-sized reservoirs in Kutch are entirely empty. “We have water in Tapar, Fatehgad and Suvi dams. The rest are empty already. But I think we should be able to manage till July as we have stopped flow of water for irrigation.”
All images by Kabir Agarwal.