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Irrigation bill: Gujarat government has given "draconian' powers to government officials"

Narmada canal
By Cedric Prakash*
The Gujarat Government has done it again! On February 26, 2013, it tabled the Gujarat Irrigation and Drainage Bill, 2013 which seeks to make it compulsory for farmers to get a licence to draw water from a canal or ground well beyond a certain limit and prescribes penal action including imprisonment against the errant farmers.
In a year designated by the United Nations as the International Year of Water Cooperation, the bill is absolutely draconian in nature clearly aimed against the small farmer and heavily weighing in favour of industrialists and powerful vested interests.
The bill was passed “unanimously”, after the Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly staged a walk-out demanding that the bill have a wider consultation and that all contentious portions from it be deleted immediately. The leader of the Opposition Mr. Shankersinh Vaghela stated “the bill was originally brought by the British who wanted to control the farmers. The State Government should withdraw the bill and form a committee to study it.”
The new bill seeks to replace the Bombay (Gujarat) Irrigation Act 1879 which was first enacted by the British 134 years ago. The bill has several contentious provisions, among them are:
· farmers need a licence to draw water from canals or ground well beyond a limit
· violations incur a six month jail term or a fine of Rs.10,000/-
· those farmers who have their land near a canal have to pay for the water even if it reaches them by percolation or leakage
· the appointment of “Canal Officers” with unbridled magisterial powers including to take into custody ‘erring’ farmers
On reading the bill, one is simply aghast at the way the farmer is targeted through this draconian bill. The sum and substance of this bill focuses on ‘policing, penalties and punishment’ (P3). The bill fails ‘in toto’ to have a comprehensive policy for water conservation and a participatory approach towards a precious natural resource which strictly belongs to the people.
At an important meeting convened under the banner of People’s Union for Civil Liberty’s (PUCL’s) Prabudh Nagrik Shakti Manch in Ahmedabad recently, it’s Convenor Mr. Suresh Mehta (a former Chief Minister of Gujarat) unequivocally stated that “the bill violates the Constitution and of the right to liberty. It will leave the farmers at the mercy of the Canal Officer...”
Several social activists from across the State feel that this new bill is clearly of a colonial mindset where the rulers think that they can arrogate unquestionable powers to themselves and abrogate the rights of the ordinary citizen. Over the next few weeks, Gujarat is bound to witness several public protests on this bill. Already the PUCL has launched a public awareness campaign and a signature drive requesting the Governor of Gujarat not to sign the bill in the wider interests of the people.
The bill is clearly another anti-people piece of legislation strongly indicating that fascism has come to rule the roost in Gujarat!

*Senior human rights activist

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