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Fear of Covid-19 lockdown bites: Hunger, thirst over Khadir in Greater Rann of Kutch

By Gazala Paul*
Around this time last year, large parts of Kutch reeled under extreme drought conditions: several water bodies, reservoirs and canals across the desert-like district were dry; different marginal communities survived on scarce water and some food grains; small slivers of cultivable land were parched; cattle, that precious means of livelihood, turned into living skeletons.
There is no drought in Kutch today, but water is yet again scarce in this district. The threat of coronavirus, and the consequent lockdown, besides poor management of supply chain for essential goods, has cut off the inhospitable region, especially at a time when temperatures are soaring, from the rest of Gujarat. A new dimension to people's misery this time is lack of food grains ever since the lockdown came into effect.
While the number of coronavirus positive cases is steadily going up across the state, Kutch has been spared. But the district has been left high and dry in food grain supply and water supply due to the lockdown. Villages deep in the desert and close to the salty and marshy edges are going without water.
Dr Darshini Mahadevia, who is with the School of Arts and Science, Ahmedabad University, says, “Kutch, on account of long dry spells, has crisis of water availability as well as work during the summer period. The lockdown has stalled migration resulting in large numbers of young unemployed stuck in these scattered hamlets. The lockdown has adversely affected supply chains including that of food and water. Thus, these areas are suffering triple whammy, no work, no water, no food”.
This has created a fear of another kind, Ashish Mehta, team leader of the Kutch programme of Samerth Charitable Trust, an NGO that is instrumental in providing water security by facilitating construction/revival of ponds, check dams, rain roof water harvesting structures in Rapar and Khadir region of Bhachau block, said.
One of the worst-hit areas in Kutch is Khadir, an island comprising 14 villages/hamlets set in semi-arid conditions in the Bhachau block. Covering a territory of 200 sq km, Khadir, on the edge of the marshy creek, is surrounded by the Greater Rann of Kutch. At one end – closer to the Little Rann of Kutch – is Amarapar village, while the inhabited human settlement is Dungranivandh in Dholavira village. The distance between these two points is 46 km. Khadir has 2,382 households with a total population of 10,710.
Across the sparsely populated villages of Khadir, there are little or no government facilities, transport network or other functioning state government programmes. The communities living in Khadir comprise Kolis, Parkara Kolis, Muslims, Ahir and Bharwads, who are mainly involved in patchy agricultural activities whenever there is rainfall. And whenever monsoon gets delayed, the menfolk take to labour, working in Rapar and Bhachau blocks to make ends meet.
Nature's harshness forced the people of Kutch, and especially Khadir, to develop ingenious systems of simple yet effective rainwater harvesting. Relying only on rain, the villagers, in collaboration with NGOs such as Samerth, evolved complex rock-cut reservoirs.
In this part of Kutch, pipelines from the Narmada have reached Amarapar village. Studies have shown that while the government-constructed undergrounds tanks have a storage capacity of 10,00,000 litres, effective water supply is in the region – once in 10 to 12 days – is between 100,000 and 150,000 litres, which according to the Samerth team as well as the villagers, is not sufficient for Amarapar and its far-flung hamlets. In Khadir's many hamlets, the hapless people are purchasing water from private suppliers on "sharing" basis.
The lockdown has stalled migration resulting in large number of young unemployed persons stuck in Khadir's scattered hamlets
Narendra Chavda, a colleague at Samerth, working on the ground, said, “It will be difficult for the people to sustain themselves in the coming days since they are fast running out of cash. Currently, the villagers are paying Rs 600 for 3,500 litre per water tanker.”
According to Ashish Mehta, all the ponds and traditional water resources are dry now. His words are echoed by 50-year-old Fatmaben Latifkhan, a widow and a resident of Gadhda Khadir. Surviving on odd labour jobs, Fatmaben said, "I live all by myself and these dry ration packages provided by Samerth Trust will last me a month. I hope the lockdown ends by that time and we are able to lead normal lives".
The supply of ration by government shops is not sufficient, villagers here complained, adding that the quantity of foodgrains has been much less than what was declared when the lockdown came into effect. 
"The lockdown upset the local supply chain in the village. The local stores are empty (of provisions) while the government supply has not been enough. In such a situation, Samerth Trust's initiative to supply foodgrains has certainly come as a life-saver,” Amarsi Dhana Koli (50) of Dungarivandh in Dholavira village said.
According to several villagers, the Covid-19 pandemic and its threat over Gujarat has contributed to the near-complete destruction of the rural economy with the farmers sitting on the winter crop without getting the opportunity to sell it in the market. 
Most families in Khadir are eking out precarious livelihoods, working as daily wage labourers on charcoal fields, as stone cutters and performing other odd jobs once the lockdown was imposed. Many villagers are working to pay off past debts.
"No one knows when the markets will reopen. Besides, a water crisis is looming large in this region even as it is apparent that the next two to three months will be crucial for everyone in Khadir," Mehta said.
The hardy Kutchis are willing to toil even in these trying conditions. Bhachau Tehsil Development Officer (TDO) Mansukhbhai Jakhania and District Rural Development Authority (DRDA) director MK Joshi have assured their cooperation in "generating demand" within the communities to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGNREGA).
Jakhania admitted that "Samerth has been doing commendable work by providing dry ration to the poor and needy people living in the remote villages of Khadir, but they also need work and income generating activities".
State government officials have informed this writer that four villages – Amarapar, Kalyanpar, Gadhda and Dholavira – have generated sufficient demand to work in MGNREGA-driven schemes. Villagers have also demanded that wages under MGNREGA be raised from Rs 224 per day (last year it was Rs 194) that is given now to "somewhat more" to tide over the current situation.
Kutch is not quite in the grip of coronavirus: According to government data, the district has so far had six positive cases and registered one death. No cases have been detected in Rapar and Khadir. "The dry ration provided by Samerth will last some of us for just about another month. But what if the lockdown continues? That is what we are ruing now," said Amarapar sarpanch Meraman Jiva Gela.
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*Founder, and managing-trustee, Samerth Charitable Trust

Comments

Hi Gazala, your article reveals the ground reality of the situation and plightbof people.Yes ofcourse, distribution of ration fulfills their basic need, it feeds them to survive but in long term they need more sustainable help in terms of income generation activities. We have to think about it collectively. Thank you for depicting a real situation with real people. I wish you and entire team of Samerth all the best.
PAHCHAN said…
Gazala this create new though process to reader .really great writing by you expiriencial learning .I am thankful to you for giving opportunity to read it.

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