Gujarat is under a reeling dry spell where farmers and local residents hardly get any drinking water. Yet, the BJP-led Gujarat government has proposed to build a weir on the Narmada River just before it merges with the sea in Bharuch where the river is drying up. This has the local farmers and fisherfolk, who depend on this river, up in arms against the state government and local administration.

More than 5,000 persons marched from Bambakhana to the Collector’s Office in Bharuch, almost eight km away, on Monday. Fisherfolk, who formed a majority of the protesters, submitted a memorandum to the district collector, Ravi Kumar Arora.

The Gujarat government, which is hoping to build this 36-feet barrage soon, claims it is for providing drinking water to the residents. Farmers and fisherfolk who live in the area allege that the water is being diverted to help the industries upstream because the state government, citing paucity of water, had slashed the annual quota allocated to industries earlier this year.

The water flow downstream the Sardar Sarovar Dam is very little, leaving the river almost dead. This has already begun to create problems. In the downstream area, where the weir is being proposed to be build, small farmers and fisherfolk depend on the already dying up river for their livelihood. Already, as per the ground report, sea water has flowed almost 22 km into Narmada river. With water from the sea coming inland, the salinity in the sand and ground water has increased and this had begun to render the soil almost unusable.

Bharuch is also famous for Hilsa fish and it is one of the few breeding grounds remaining. The population has already declined post 2014 due to the decreased in water flow. When less amount of water is released, it brings more sand than water and that doesn’t help breeding. “The Hilsa fish comes to this place to breed because it is a brackish water area. Most of our income comes from this fish. This is a Rs 100 crore business and all the fisher-families which live in the area depend on this water and fish for their livelihood. We will all have to go hungry. There used to be seer, katla, prawns and many more varieties of fish,” says Mahindra Machhi, a resident of the village. He has had to recently take up employment in a private firm as business was drying up as a result of the river drying up.

“The whole of Narmada is in a great crisis because of the cascade of dams which were built – 30 large dams and 135 medium dams. Of these the largest are the Sardar Sarovar dam and the Indira Sagar dam. Sardar Sarovar dam is the last dam before the water flows into the sea,” explains Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan, who had also marched with the local residents.

“If this weir is built, it will affect 6,000 families in the area and another 4,000 migrant families, which come here during the fishing season for work. Earlier, when the fishermen went out to sea, they would get around 150kg fish per day, per boat, now, it had fallen to 6 kg. All this is due to the callousness of the government officials,” adds Patkar.

“Even if a barrage is guilt, it will be able to carry water only for 15 km as there isn’t much water in the river. Madhya Pradesh should release at least 600 cusecs of water everyday as otherwise all this muck that has accumulated here will not go back to the sea. If it doesn’t, the water in the region will become useless. We don’t even get enough drinking water, so why is water from our region being diverted to help those upstream,” questions Machhi.

“We are facing this trouble because last year, they released more water to Gujarat because of elections and this year, there are elections in Madhya Pradesh, so they refuse to give us the required amount of water also.

Last year, in October too, around 250 fisherfolk had protested waving black flags at Prime Minister Narendra Modi while he inaugurated the Bhadbhut weir project on the Narmada river. The fishermen community in Bharuch has been protesting, asking the government to save their livelihood, since 2010. Fishing in the Narmada estuary has been the backbone of this district.