Hanumangarh (Rajasthan), May 9 (IANS/ 101Reporters) In the past, the farmers of Bhadra and Nohar tehsils of Hanumangarh in Rajasthan were completely dependent on the monsoon. Their long struggle resulted in the launch of the Siddhamukh and Nohar irrigation projects. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi laid the foundation stone on October 5, 1989. Thereafter, the canals were built at a cost of Rs 268.29 crore, with financial assistance from the European Union.
Water was also brought to Hanumangarh by the Bhakra main canal in Haryana and the Bhirani head with distribution being managed through branch, tail and minor channels. When Congress President Sonia Gandhi finally inaugurated the project on July 12, 2002, the canals were all flowing with water. Farmers were joyous and hopeful that water from the Himalayas would finally irrigate their 1.7 lakh hectares of land.
Local dons capture water
Not long after the completion of the project, local mafiosi took possession of the resource, with the alleged support of political leaders. Using underground pipelines laid beneath the irrigation channels, they stole water and sold it, not just in Nohar and Bhadra tehsils of Rajasthan, but even 25 to 30 km away in Haryana. An official investigation into the modus operandi revealed that several illegal wells, too, had been dug up in the vicinity of the canals. A pond, one of several, was also found near the Utaradabas bridge of the Raslana distributary. These ponds and wells are used to steal water through pipelines from the distributaries. The stolen water is then sold to desperate farmers at the rate of Rs 1,000 to 1,500 per hour of water accessed.
The Siddhamukh Irrigation Project gets its water from Haryana. Project canals are clustered into A, B and C in order of importance. However, due to water theft, these mean nothing in reality. Water is stolen from every distributary. As a result, the tail canals, that is the canals at the rear end, are left with no water at all. Thus, farms residing around the tail-end remain dry.
Farmers from the Nohra and Bhadra tehsils are particularly agitated with this state of affairs. According to Kisan Sungharsh Samiti (Raslana tail) Chairman Krishanlal Saharan, farmers from 27 villages of Nohar tehsil that lie towards the end of the Raslana distributary, suffer because of this.
The same story holds true for the Siddhamukh distributary, as well. Farmers from 14 districts of Sadulpur Tehsil in Churu district, connected to the Siddhamukh distributary, remain deprived of irrigation water due to the water mafia. Farmers that fall under both the Siddhamukh and Raslana distributaries have been staging protests for their rightful access to irrigation water, but to no avail.
Farmers stage a sit-in protest demanding to put an end to water theft in Raslana, Hanumangarh, Rajasthan (Photo Credit- Mukesh Parikh)
In 2018, water theft became a significant issue during the Nohar Vidhan Sabha elections. Congress legislator Amit Chachan had addressed the problem in the state assembly, in addition to staging a protest.
In August 2021, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot virtually inaugurated a special Anti-Water Theft Police Station in Nohar. But in spite of the police, administration and Water Resources Department coming together, water thefts have continued unabated.
In January 2022, nine teams comprising 27 officials from the departments of labour welfare, minorities welfare, education, power, public works, water resources, fisheries, animal welfare, social welfare and mining were put in place to stop the theft of water and ensure irrigation of farms that fall under the Raslana tail.
However, neither the Congress nor the Bharatiya Janata Party governments in the state have managed to put an end to this menace. Meanwhile, the special police station has already registered 30 complaints.
Commenting on the state of affairs, legislator Chachan told 101Reporters: “It’s a pity that water thefts have not stopped. This is because officials of the Water Resources Department are hand-in-glove with the water mafia.”
Corroborating the charges levelled by Chachan, Station House Officer of the Anti-Theft Police Station Man Singh said: “All the 30 cases of water theft were registered by the police. To date, the Water Resources Officers have never filed a case on their own initiative. In all thirty cases, it was the police who noticed the water and called them. Then they filed the report. In case they had cared to, there could have been at least 200 cases taken up in police station.
“What’s more, when the police pick up suspicious elements under Section 151 from in and around the canals, the magistrate lets them all off on bail.”
Singh further lamented: “Officials from the water resources wing never cooperate with us. Whenever we spot a pipeline or tractor involved in water theft and summon them, they don’t respond for hours. The junior engineer refers the matter to the assistant engineer, who then contacts the patwari. By the time the patwari arrives, the (stolen) water in the fields dries up. The Aabpashi report (a term used for a report which tells whether the field is irrigated or not), which is crucial evidence, is never submitted on time, stalling all progress.”
However, Water Resources Department Superintendent Engineer Bajrang Lal Jat refutes these accusations.
“We always anticipate an attack from the water mafia. A few years ago, they tried to burn alive our executive engineer, Anil Kaithal. A few months ago, they beat up our junior engineer. There have been a dozen attacks on us, so far. Staff shortages are a major headache. We have only two patwaris here; we need at least 50 patwaris in this administrative division. Many executives and staff posts lie empty, as well.”
On not taking any interest in filing complaints, Jat says: “The police ought to be doing its duty. Why can’t they themselves proceed with a complaint and pursue it in court when they witness a water theft? Why do they need to call us over?”
Administrative lacunae, budgetary constraints & systemic flaws
There are several administrative problems that cannot be glossed over. As against seven police stations to handle crime under The Sidhmukh and Nohar canal project area, there is just one police station to handle water theft. This police station, too, remains bereft of its full staff capacity. Of the 60 positions here, 39 remain vacant. Thus, there are only 21 personnel on duty . Often, these personnel are either put on bandobast duty for VIPs, or made to manage religious functions.
Furthermore, there are no delimitations on the irrigation areas in both Nohar and Bhadra tehsils. Since all acreage is done through survey numbers here, consolidation and, hence, delimitation of farming land is not possible. Delimitation, officials say, would make it easier to immediately trace out any theft of water since one can easily check on whose land was irrigated.
Also, owing to the lackadaisical attitude of the Revenue Department in completing the consolidation of land and, hence, preventing delimitation, In the absence of warabandi or rotational water supply based on fixed schedule, the irrigation is done with mutual consent. Many farmers use pipes to illegally draw water from distributaries to irrigate extra acres of land, resulting in tail-end canals remaining deprived.
Budgetary allocation is essential for the Water Resources Department to stop water theft, but this is often lacking. According to department officials, former district collectors had taken up the issue.
“Those who steal water must not get bail for at least six months. Tractors caught in water theft must be auctioned,” are what farmer-leaders like Saharan see as the way out.
On the other hand, Man Singh, demands an overhaul of the system. Officials of the Water Resources Department, in his opinion, need to be monitored. “When a water theft occurs within an engineer’s jurisdiction, he should be charge-sheeted.”
Moreover, the police station, he points out, should be better stationed in centrally-located Bhadra, rather than Nohar, which is at one end of the affected area.
It will be necessary to address these considerations to root out water theft once and for all.