Drought in Rajasthan: Over Rs 7,000 crore spent on projects, but not much water has flown through western region

Mukesh Mathrani | Mar 25, 2019 | 9 min read


More than Rs 7,000 crore spent, but not much water has flown through Western Rajasthan

Mukesh Mathrani

Barmer: Chunni Devi, 36, begins her day in Rohili, a village located on sand dunes 300m high from the ground level in Ramsar block, by undertaking a walk to the nearest water source along with other women of her village. “We begin walking with the first ray of the Sun. Anyone who misses (to join the group) stays without water for the day,” she says. These women depend on traditional percolation tanks, called beri, which are usually seen in Gujarat and Rajasthan. These water bodies recharge during the night providing fresh water to be fetched early morning. Women in this region continue to go through the ordeal of walking long distances to access potable water even after years of political promises and pretense to improve availability of water to this region.

Despite having spent more than Rs 7,000 crore to implement water projects dedicated to Western Rajasthan that are either functional or under construction, water woes remain a common thread in lives of a large population of Barmer district. Struggling to access drinking water has become a norm for people in this part of Thar Desert irrespective of the season. Even during winters when the temperature is between three and seven degrees Celsius, the struggle for drinking water is similar to that in summers when mercury rises as high as 50 degrees Celsius.

Various factors from red-tapeism to environmental clearances have kept the efficiency of these projects---some started as ago as 1960s---low, as far as resolving the water crisis in Barmer is considered.

“I saw my mother and other family members struggle to get drinking water in my childhood. Now, I see my wife and my daughters-in-law go through the same trouble. Nothing has changed,” says 75-year-old Jethu Dan, a resident of Gordhaniyon Ki Dhani village in Ramsar block. Walking three to four km each day, every season in search of drinking water has been a norm here due to repetitive droughts.

On the other hand, 80 percent of the total cultivable area (18,63,365 hectare) in Barmer is dependent on monsoon for farming, as irrigation through canals, tube wells and open wells is available for only 20 percent of cultivable area.

“We have approached political leaders and government officials several times but to no avail. All we get is assurance. We feel it (battling the crisis) is our fate now,” says Chatur Singh Sodha, 65, another farmer from Rohidi village in Ramsar block.

Sodha says people still depend on traditional water bodies such as beri to harvest rainwater for their drinking water needs. For years, these harvesting and storage structures were open for public access, but the worsening water crisis has forced many to keep these structures locked. Some even carry names to claim ownership.

Among the projects that were conceived to change the fate of people living in this arid region, the first---Indira Gandhi Canal---, also known as Rajasthan Nahar locally, was planned in 1960. Recalling the pledge taken by the politicians of the time, veteran journalist Shankarlal Dhariwal says that Amrit Nahata, then Member of Parliament from Barmer constituency in 1967, had claimed grapes will be farmed in Thar Desert.

Indira Gandhi Canal Project

Planned in the 1960s to bring water from Himalayan region for irrigation purpose, this project was initially designed for 400 km and later extended to 649 km. The government of 1965 budgeted Rs 65 crore for the project which inflated to Rs 2,000 crore by the time country entered 21st Century. While the project was meant to benefit Ganganagar, Churu, Jaisalmer and Barmer districts, by 1992 it had only reached Jaisalmer after an expenditure of Rs 942 crore, according to officials in charge of executing the Indira Gandhi Canal Project.

While the project is said to be stuck in Jaisalmer due to lack of water and budgetary reasons, the Desert National Park (DNP) which came up in the 1980s is another hindrance, says Dhariwal. He says the government had reserved 3,612 sq km land in Jaisalmer and Barmer for DNP and restricted any type of construction work in this zone, which has kept the canal from reaching Barmer.

Dhariwal claims that since the coming of DNP, every politician in the region attempted to get relaxation in norms so that canal water could be channeled further, but in vain. The scenario of the parched Thar Desert region would have changed if the project had moved forward, he adds.

Barmer Lift Water Supply Project:

The anti-incumbent bend of the Rajasthan’s voters could be held responsible for dilly-dallying of this project which was conceived during Bhairon Singh Shekhawat’s BJP government in 1992 to provide fresh water to 691 villages and 3,880 dhanis (habitats) across Barmer and Jaisalmer, apart from Barmer city, the BSF and Uttarlai Air Force Station in Barmer. While the government in 1992 aimed to benefit more than 15 lakh people with this project, it saw any progress only after six years. Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government sanctioned Rs 424.91 crore for the project in 1998. Gehlot then laid the foundation stone for the project in 2002 but water woes of those far away from power corridors are never an urgent call for action. Nothing moved until 2007 when the foundation stone was laid yet again, this time by BJP chief minister Vasundhara Raje after her government released the first instalment of Rs 113 crore of the sanctioned amount.   

In 2012, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi inaugurated the first phase of the project, under which infrastructure works costing Rs 724.64 crore had been completed. Later the same year, just before assembly elections, Gehlot government had allotted Rs 202.36 crore for Part A and Rs 125 crore for Part B of the second phase of the project.

According to the official data, completion of part A should benefit 171 villages. But till December 2019, Rs 66.88 crore of the Part A fund has been spent and only 86 of the total 171 villages are connected with water supply. While the goal was to complete it by 2016, officials claim that Part A of second phase of the project will be completed by end of 2022. Part B of second phase of Lift Water Supply project was to be complete by end of 2017, but officials now claim that work will be finished by 2020. The government has provided water supply to 55 of the targeted 67 villages while spending Rs 78.40 crore till December 2019.

In 2013, another Rs 700 crore for Part C and Rs 451.57 crore for Part D of the second phase were sanctioned. Till December 2018, of the allotted funds, Rs 134.49 crores have been spent under Part C which will cover about 286 villages, while Rs 263.05 crore have been spent on Part D which will cover 171 villages. If all goes as planned, the project would be complete by 2022, claim officials of the water works department.


Planned: in 1992

Will benefit: 691 villages and 3,880 dhanis (habitats)

Amount sanctioned: Rs 2,203.27 crore

Amount spent: Rs 724.64 crore under first phase on infrastructure and Rs 66.88 crore on part A and Rs 78.40 crore on part B of second phase, Rs 134.49 on Part C and Rs 263.05 on Part D

Actual deadline: 2016

Expected completion year: 2022

Narmada Canal Project:

Another mega water project for the desert region, it aimed at providing drinking and irrigation water to 1634 villages across two districts---Barmer (660 villages) and Jalore (874 villages)---from Narmada river in Gujarat. An estimated Rs 2,237.87 crore was sanctioned for the five-part project by the Congress government ahead of the Assembly elections in 2012. Only Rs 770.79 crore for the first two parts of the project were sanctioned to the water works department before the election code of conduct was enforced.

The new BJP government halted all projects after coming to power citing need for a “review”, but gave clearance to the budget for remaining three parts of Narmada Canal Project in September 2013. While the original deadline for this project was 2015-end, officials claim that about 50 percent work to provide drinking water supply has been done and the remaining would be completed by 2020.

Khimaram Parihar, chief engineer at Narmada Canal Project, says at present the canal provides water for irrigation to total 1634 villages for over 2,46,000 hectare land (1,63,000 hectare in Jalore and 83,000 hectare in Barmer district). Parihar says currently they release 1600 Cusec water for 112 days during the peak season (mid-October to January) and 1100 Cusec from March, depending on availability from the source.


Planned: in 2007

Will benefit: 1634 villages

Total amount: Rs 2,237.87 crore

Amount sanctioned: Rs 670.79 crore (Only for first two parts out of total five parts)

Amount spent: Rs 342.36 crore

Actual deadline: 2015

Expected completion year: 2020

Pokhran-Falsund-Balotra-Siwana Lift Project:

Sanctioned in 2005, this project was allotted Rs 1454.20 crore to provide drinking water to 564 villages of Barmer and Jaisalmer districts. After missing the 2016 deadline, Rs 1,467.71 crore have been spent on infrastructure till December 2019. Water works department is seeking more funds from the state government to complete the project.


Planned: in 2005

Will benefit: 564 villages

Total amount: Rs 1,454.20 crore

Amount spent: Rs 1467.71 crore

Actual deadline: 2016

Expected completion year: Indefinite

Ummed Sagar-Dhawa-Khandap-Samdari water scheme:

The project, which aims to benefit 180 villages of Barmer district including Samdari town, was sanctioned in 2007 with an estimated budget of Rs 364.93 crore, which was later revised at Rs 575.46 crore and was released in 2011. While the initial deadline of 2015 went by, till December 2018, Rs 407.85 crore have been spent and the project is now expected to be complete by 2020.


Planned: in 2007

Will benefit: 180 villages

Total amount: Rs 575.46 crore

Amount spent: Rs 407.85 crore

Actual deadline: 2015

Expected completion year: 2020

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