Kutch: Struggle for Water in ‘Har Ghar Jal’ Gujarat, Salt Workers Fight for Livelihoods

Dalits and tribals, often at the receiving end of violence, say they don’t get enough government benefits.
Kutch: Struggle for Water in ‘Har Ghar Jal’ Gujarat, Salt Workers Fight for Livelihoods

Six years ago, Rakesh was inside his home in Siddhrana village, located in Siddhpur tehsil of Gujarat’s Patan district, when there was a knock at the door. A group of villagers stood outside, carefully on the other side of the threshold.

“There is a bhandara for the worship of Mahadev in the evening,” they said, referring to the distribution of free food. “Food has been arranged for the people of your community. There will be separate arrangements for sitting there.”

“Separate arrangements” is code for segregation because Rakesh is Dalit while the villagers inviting him are from dominant castes. Rakesh refused to attend. Another village then said he alone could sit with them while others from his community could not. Why? Because Rakesh has a government job which carries enough “prestige” to temporarily overrule his birth.

Rakesh refused again. “If I sit with you, my society will not sit with me. You have to make everyone sit together.”

The group immediately protested. Rakesh and 125 other Dalits eventually declined the invite altogether.

The invite is merely a symptom of horrific caste segregation and violence in Rakesh’s part of the world. “In Gujarat, people of our community are sometimes killed for drinking water from a public place. Sometimes they are stopped for riding horses at wedding processions,” he said. “Such incidents are everyday things.”

To protest against these horrors, Rakesh and 400 others were among thousands of Dalits in Gujarat who renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism on April 14, 2023, the 132nd birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar. A year later, the state government issued a circular saying conversions from Hinduism to Buddhism and others must receive prior approval from a district magistrate. 

While the circular was widely criticised in the media, Dalit social worker Chandramani told Newslaundry that conversions in Gujarat have been bound by the law since 2003. Those who had participated in the mass conversion last April had “applied in their districts”, he added.

But the circular is yet another reason for bitterness among Scheduled Castes in Gujarat, who say they face violence, discrimination and poverty with little intervention from the state. According to data from the union home ministry, 17,022 cases of atrocities against SCs were registered in Gujarat from 2009 to 2022. The highest – 1,477 – took place in 2017 and the lowest - 1,008 – in 2010.

In February this year, Hitendra Pithadia, the president of the state Congress SC department, told the assembly that the vigilance and monitoring committee, constituted by the Gujarat government to investigate atrocities against SC and ST communities, “has not held a single meeting in two years”. He accused the BJP-led government of not being “serious” about such crimes.

In the Lok Sabha constituency of Kutch, which votes on May 7, this reporter met families across the district to ask them about their struggles. 

A battle for water 

The Lok Sabha constituency of Kutch predominantly comprises Kutch district, which is also the largest district in India, and parts of Rajkot. Kutch is a reserved seat in the Lok Sabha for SC representatives. About 75 percent of its residents are Hindu and 21 percent Muslim. Amongst the Hindus, the Patidar community plays a decisive role. 

According to the 2011 census for the district, SCs make up 12.3 percent and STs 1.05 percent. Only about 34.8 percent of the population lives in urban areas. 

The BJP has won from Kutch in the last seven Lok Sabha polls from 1996 to 2019. The last non-BJP MP was Harilal Nanji Patel from the Congress in the early 1990s. In 2019, Vinod Chavda from the BJP won by over three lakh votes. Chavda will contest again from Kutch this year, taking on Congress’s Nitishbhai Lalan.

Bhuj is the headquarters of Kutch district, while Jakhau, Kandla and Mundra are the main ports. In Kandla port, we met Ghanshyam, who lives in a settlement in Gandhidham and works at the port.

Ghanshyam said his settlement receives running water only two days a week. He’s forced to queue from dawn and hopefully gets his turn to fill up pots and pans by evening. He also has to take leave from work on those two days, which drastically impacts his earnings. Along the coast, several others told this reporter they face similar issues.

This is crucial because in October 2022, state home minister Harsh Sanghvi had tweeted that Gujarat was officially a 100 percent ‘har ghar jal’ (water in every home) state. He said the state was now “self-reliant in the water sector” and that “from changing the lives of women to fulfilling the needs of tapwater in every home, the Modi government has done this”.

This is the fourth story in a special series in collaboration with News Laundry on the election machine in reserved constituencies.

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