Agri Business

In Kutch, history has a habit of repeating itself

Rutam Vora Bhuj | Updated on March 28, 2019

Rearing cattle is the only livelihood for many in the region. During a drought, fodder gets three times costlier and throws the entire cattle economy out of gear

The region is witnessing its worst drought in 30 years; 16 of its 20 dams have gone dry; there is drinking water but nothing for cattle; and yet, its people remain resilient

Given that it is one of the most arid regions in India, a drought is not something that the people of Kutch, Gujarat, are unfamiliar with. What differs each year is the intensity. This year has turned out to be the worst since 1985-88, when the district faced three successive years of severe drought.

The shortage of water and fodder has gone from bad to worse in the past six months and there are at least three months to go before the onset of the South-West monsoon.

Worry about the future is writ large on the faces of villagers, most of whom have a sense of deja vu, bringing to mind the hardships they faced in the 1980s. Of the 20 small and large dams in the district, which has a total capacity of 332 Million cubic meters (MCM), 16 have no water. As on March 15, the gross storage of these dams shows just 16 per cent water.

The monsoon played truant in most of Gujarat, but Kutch, due to its arid climatic conditions, had to bear the brunt of the scarcity. The average rainfall deficit for the district was about 74 per cent and in some districts worse as high as 97 per cent.

Migrations

One afternoon earlier this month, Hasambhai Holepotra, a resident of Sheth Vandh (a hemlet) in Hodko village in the Banni grasslands, opened up about the migration of his brothers and cousins. They were among the first to move out of Kutch in late 2018, looking for water and fodder for their cattle. They settled around Viramgam in Central Gujarat, where the resources were relatively better.

“This drought is the worst since 1988. The situation is bad for all, be it farmers or cattle breeders. The only solace is that this time drinking water is not a problem, thanks to pipeline supplies. All that we suffer is for our cattle, our lifeline,” he says.

Ramesh Bhatti, project coordinator at the NGO Sahajivan, explains the pattern of migration and the fight for resources. “Mostly migration happens towards grazing land. Currently, most migration has happened from the Banni area, from where Muslim maldharis (a person possessing cattle) migrate towards different parts of Kutch. But after industrialisation, the grazing area shrank drastically, forcing the maldharis to leave Kutch in search of resources.”

Hasambhai and many other cattle-breeders survive on the only livelihood — cattle rearing — mostly buffalo and in some cases cows. He feels proud when he talks about his buffaloes, the famous drought-tolerant Banni breed, known for its hardiness and ability to remain productive with high fat and more yield even in extreme temperatures ranging from 4-degrees to 50-degrees. The milk is collected at a society, Sheth Vandh (hamlet) Milk Society, and supplied to Sarhad Dairy, which is affiliated to the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (GCMMF).

“There was a charm of banni milk and butter oil (ghee). But frequent water shortages and fodder scarcity have made life miserable for us. Now, the charm is fading away and our men are wandering in search of a sustainable livelihood,” he says.

Hasambhai’s village, Hodka, is known for its mud work on walls. Similarly, the entire Banni region is home to a variety of handicrafts such as pottery and copper bell making.

During the scarcity, fodder gets three times costlier and throws the entire cattle economy out of gear. “Even moderate rain would have helped grass production all across Banni. And our animal would depend on that. But no rain in this region, coupled with a perennial problem of widespread unwanted vegetation of gando baval (Prosopis juliflora) is hurting fodder cultivation,” says Hasambhai describing the tall task to transport cattle.

“It costs about ₹25,000 to transport even 15 animals. Here families possess cattle in the dozens. Only the fortunate ones can afford to move them, while the rest stay back and suffer watching their cattle die a slow death,” he said. While there is no data available on cattle deaths in the region, the administration deployed relief measures soon after the withdrawal of the monsoon.

 

Dharmendra Patel, a coordinator of the STEP programme at Gram Swaraj Sangh at Nilpar in Rapar Taluka, shares an insight into the social and economic implications of perennial water shortage in Kutch. “Migration has become an integral part of the lives of the people living in hamlets. In unprecedented times like this, the migration is as high as 65 per cent. There are 165 such hamlets and most of them belong to the koli community, and usually migrate to distant industrial places such as Morbi and Dwarka and stay till they have work. They usually return after six months,” said Patel.

Being experts in making wood charcoal, members of the Kutchi koli community get employment at industrial zones. “The worst part is that the children have to suffer the most from the point of view of healthcare, education and other social exploitation,” he said.

Research by CRY, Mumbai, in association with the Gram Swaraj Sangh shows there are about 165 hamlets with about 4,083 families and a population of about 21,679.

Scarcity preparedness

A senior official from the Scarcity Branch at Kutch Collectorate says: “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 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 ₹2 a kg. These are historically high numbers.” The district was declared scarcity-affected in October 2018, paving the way for relief measures.

The situation is so alarming that the district administration has started sourcing fodder from Valsad to Bhuj through railway rakes. The first such rake arrived on November 3; since then, the frequency has been increasing due to the worsening shortage.

“Now, we are receiving almost one rake daily with about 400 tonnes of fodder. This gets unloaded at Bhuj station and then the fodder is distributed to the interior villages or cattle camps set up by the government. We have received about 65 rakes so far. And this seems likely to continue for some more days in the first phase,” said KK Sharma, Bhuj Station master.

Business as usual for some

Urban life has, however, largely remained unaffected by the drought mainly due to drinking water availability, thanks to pipeline supplies of Narmada water.

This divides Kutch in two prominent zones, the Northern half is largely dry, with animal husbandry or agriculture serving as the mainstay of livelihood, while the Southern half is relatively prosperous with heavy industrial proliferation, including two of India’s largest ports, Kandla and Mundra, on the coast and scores of other industries, including wind and solar power producers, and manufacturing units.

Farming and relief

Apart from animal husbandry, agriculture has been badly hit by the latest drought. Kharif sowing has reduced to half at 2,92,200 hectares as against 5,96,000 hectares last year. Sowing for most crops has fallen drastically. This includes bajra (84 per cent ), jowar (77 per cent ), moong (77 per cent ), groundnut (50 per cent) and sesamum (66 per cent ) and fodder (20 per cent ).

The input subsidy scheme rolled out by the State government has provided some relief to farmers. Under the scheme, financial assistance of ₹6,800 per hectare with a maximum limit of two hectares is provided to all registered farmers, irrespective of the crops taken. “So far ₹155 crore has been paid directly to farmers in their bank accounts and about 1.31 lakh farmers have benefited,” said the official quoted above.

For unemployed youth, the government has scaled up the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, under which 21,47,278 man-days of employment have been provided so far.

Endorsing the government’s claims and support, Devshibhai Rabari, a shepherd from Sayan village in Lakhpat taluka, admits having received ₹13,600 in his bank account. “With no rains, we couldn’t take any crop and the land is lying idle. There is no income from sheeps/goat either as prices have crashed for these animals due to heavy sell-off by other shepherds. The amount from the government gives us a breather at least to survive,” Rabari said. Per the scarcity manual of the State, sheep, goats and camels do not qualify for government assistance on fodder etc as they are not in the ‘essential animal’ category.

Narmada water mirage

The situation in the Eastern part of Kutch —- the Vagad region, including Rapar taluka — is no better. Even as the two dams in the region, Fatehgarh and Suvi, have been given water through the Narmada canal with over 85 per cent filling, agriculture and allied animal husbandry gets no share.

A comparison of a scarcity 30 years ago and now throws up many positives with changing times. “After the earthquake we saw rapid industrialisation. The last decade was good barring the past two years. All other facilities are there including electricity, healthcare and even mobile connectivity. But water continues to be a problem and only the Narmada Canal can solve it,” says Isabhai Mutva a resident of Banni.

Kutch has seen opening up of different avenues in industries, tourism and with improved facilities in farming too. About 20 per cent of the land is now irrigated, allowing farmers the option of cultivating horticulture crops such as pomegranate, mango and , datepalm, among others.

Still, according to experts, Kutch has not received its due. The political push required to make the region’s interests a priority for government policy seems to be lacking. Says Ashok Mehta, a prominent citizen and editor of the magazine Kutch Shruti: “Kutch has been meted out unfair treatment when it comes to water allocation from Narmada and creating canal infrastructure under the Sardar Sarovar project. But North Gujarat, which had 35 MLAs in the State Assembly, managed to get its irrigation scheme based on Narmada canal network. Saurashtra, which has a strength of 48 MLAs also got its way with the SAUNI scheme and the Prime Minister inaugurated it recently. But Kutch with a strength of only 6 MLAs fails lacks political weight in securing Narmada Canal water.”

The Narmada Canal network for Kutch remains a work under progress. Even as other regions stake claim on the canal’s network, Kutch, which is almost perennially on the brink of water scarcity, merits urgent attention and allocation of funds to complete the canal network.

Published on March 28, 2019

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