30,000 farmers demand Hirakud dam water

  • 30/12/2007


Orissa farmers make it clear that water from the Hirakud dam is for irrigation, not industry

Some 30,000 farmers from eight districts dependent on irrigation water from the Hirakud dam in Orissa's Sambalpur district stormed the reservoir area on November 6. A lot of them were from the dam's command areas where water is yet to be released through planned canal networks 50 years after it was commissioned. They were joined, however, by many who had got water from the dam. The police and the dam authorities, who had brushed aside warnings from the farmers, were confounded. "We could hardly see 150-200 people in early noon. We expected not more than 4,000 people in the worst of scenarios,' said a police official posted to control the crowd's entry to the dam. Then it turned into a surge, though peaceful. The police lathicharged, injuring 50. "The farmers immediately came back keeping their promise of holding the protest peacefully.Otherwise it could have meant a huge loss of lives,' says Ashok Pradhan of the Western Orissa Farmers Coordination Committee, a farmers' association involved in the ongoing protests against industrial use of Hirakud water. "I never saw the dam and its water, though I have spent my entire life with a promise that water from the dam would irrigate my field. After seeing the water, I am more determined that I am going to fight for it,' says 50-something Bisikesan Mishra, a farmer from Sonepur district, some 80 km downstream of the dam on the Mahanadi. The promise of dam water for the district is yet to materialize.

"The protest demonstrated the desperation of farmers over the availability of irrigation water from the dam, a major source for eight districts in the region. It has also spurred people to continue to fight,' says Lingaraj, a farmers' leader based in Bargarh district, another area dependent on the dam water. The turnout at the rally has surprised everybody, even the key organizers. "To be honest we were also not sure about the participation as we didn't have resources to mobilize people beyond our immediate neighbourhood,' says Pradhan. Elders say the protest, marked by posters and public meetings, was bigger than the anti-dam protests during the early 1950s. "In Orissa where industrialization has become a development buzzword, protests by farmers are treated as stray incidents engineered either by social activists or by political parties. But the current demonstration, and its sheer size, have brought out a major fact: there is a genuine deprivation that people want to protest against,' says Priya Ranjan Sahoo, a Sambalpur-based correspondent with a national daily.

An uneasy calm prevails in Talab village, near the dam. The village is where a major canal network, the Sason canal, originates. It irrigates 24,280 hectares (ha), benefiting 60,000 households solely dependent on agriculture. From the same location water-guzzling industries are lifting water from the reservoir. Jogesh Bhoi, the 32-year-old president of the local pani panchayat formed to manage the canal, is restless. "For the past five years there has been a war going on here for getting enough water in the canal. The war has reached a decisive phase. We are not sure what consequences it would have but we are firm on getting water,' he says. So 10 days after the massive protest, the villagers along with others erected a 16-foot-long wall right above an underground pipe laid by Vedanta Aluminium to take water from the reservoir for its smelter located far away.

The protesting farmers have named the wall Chasi Rekha (farmers' demarcator). From here nobody except farmers can take water from the reservoir. The company has temporarily abandoned the site; the government has maintained a convenient silence on the issue. But it is a flashpoint with the potential of a major flare-up in the Hirakud basin.

On December 2, Hindalco, an aluminium company, started laying pipes for its second water lift-off plant from the reservoir. A massive protest from farmers followed and the work had to be stopped. "The company doesn't have permission for the second pipeline,' says Pradhan, adding, "This shows how defiant the companies are and how confident they are of government approval; they could spend money without even knowing whether water will be granted.' On December 5, farmers near the Sason canal protested again on hearing that Bhushan Steel was preparing for a second pipeline to the reservoir. The situation is tense.

Irrigation vs industry
The wall has turned into a symbol of the ongoing protests by 300,000 farmers dependent on the dam for irrigation against the government's decision to allow a large number of industries to source water from the same reservoir (see graph: Hirakud users). Farmers say there is already a reduction in irrigation from the reservoir. The allocation of water to upcoming industries will make the situation worse. Since industries were allowed water from the dam through a government order in 1990, there has been a gradual increase in industrial water use from the dam. But post-1997, the industrial water allocation has gone up six times, coinciding with the state's industrialization drive. In the Hirakud dam's command areas, agriculture sustains close to 90 per cent of the state population. "Either we win the fight or there is going to be an unheard-of situation,' warns Murari Prasad Purohit, a resident of Sankarma village, downstream of Talab.

In the past one year, the protests have attracted huge public participation. On October 26, 2006, more than 20,000 farmers formed a 20 km-long human chain around the dam. This was the first sign that the farmers across the dam's command areas were emerging as a united force. In January this year, the farmers again assembled in nearby Bargarh town and demanded that the irrigation problems be fixed.

All this while, the state government did not respond positively. All it did was send a few intelligence officials to check whether political parties or Naxalites were involved in the farmers' agitation.

The latest surge in protests came from Talab. In June 2005, villagers read in the newspapers that water was already being released from the reservoir to the canal. But to their surprise the canal remained dry till July. Their crops were damaged. They approached the district magistrate, who visited the reservoir. It had dried out completely around the canal head, an unheard-of event in the dam's history. This triggered the inquest. Later they found out that a Bhushan Steel plant in the vicinity had built a 2 km-long kuchha road up to the reservoir to access its water off-take point. The off-take point is where the tributary Ib merges with the reservoir. This area also forms the canal head. With the road obstructing the flow of water from the Ib and the company lifting most water, the canal head was left dry.

The same situation prevailed in 2006. The local magistrate threatened to stop water to Bhushan Steel if the road was not distroyed. When Down To Earth visited the area recently, the road was still there, though under water. "In the summer the road will again stop the flow of the Ib water into the reservoir. This is how the Sason canal didn't get water,' explains Bhibu Prasad Patnaik, convenor of the Sambalpur District Pani Panchayat coordination committee.

Interestingly, this is the same area where Vedanta is also setting up a water lift-off facility. The company's contractor was laying the pipes without any notice or permission from the dam authorities even though the area is a highly restricted point. The villagers stopped the work. A few other companies are also setting up water-lifting plants in the same area. "Industries have been setting up water-lifting plants very near the canal head, thus, affecting availability of water in the canal that operates on gravity principle,' says Hemanta Rout, village forest president of Khinda, just beside the Bhushan Steel's water off-take plant.

The state government's own technical committee set up to examine the Vedanta and Hindalco's water off-take plants recommended in August 2007 that their locations would impact water availability for agriculture. The locations have, however, not been changed. Vedanta is now working on a second water pipeline along the existing one.

Damage control
The scale of the protests has left the government in a fix. A worried Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is addressing the media four times a day. Not known for his appetite for discussing development issues in public, he convened 13 meetings with his cabinet and ministerial colleagues in a fortnight to talk about the fallout of the protests. For him it is both a personal and political crisis. Political because the protesting farmers came from 46 assembly constituencies and the state elections are just a year away. Personally, his industrialization drive now faces the severest criticism. "Even the Kalinganagar incident where the police had killed 13 tribal people protesting land acquisition did not deter the chief minister as much as the current,' says an adviser to the chief minister.

Immediately after the November 6 rally, Patnaik issued a statement that not a single drop of water would be given to industrial units. Within a day he changed his statement, saying only "surplus' water from the dam would be given to the industries. Next he promised to raise the height of the dam to increase water and also to desilt the dam. He sent four cabinet ministers with these proposals to talk to the agitating farmers. The ministers stayed for a few days in Sambalpur but none of the farmers agreed to meet them. They have rejected all suggestions of the chief minister as "musings of a mad man', citing the water resources department's reports and assessments on why the dam could not be desilted or its height increased.

The farmers' association wants a few demands to be met before any discussion with the government. "First, the government should give an assurance that the promised irrigation under the original plan of the dam should be made available,' says Pradhan. This means another 40,470 ha have to be linked to the dam's irrigation canal network. This is a gigantic task given that the dam has not been able to reach water regularly to the 215,655 ha currently irrigated. The government's own assessment shows that of the areas served by the existing irrigation network, 8,090 ha no more get water due to silting and damage to the canal network.

"Our village is right beneath the dam and beside the main canal. Despite this the areas irrigated by the canal have reduced by 280 ha in the past 10 years. We see further reduction as water is now being diverted to industries,' says Shyam Lal Bhoi, the president of the Talab village farmers' association.

To pacify the farmers, the government has ordered its officials to plan the canal network needed to reach the entire command area as planned originally. Local water resource offices do not have the original plans. "Overnight we have been told to lay out the canal network. It is impossible. The existing network is also in ruins,' says a tehsil office surveyor in Sambalpur. It is a similar situation in Sonepur, Bargarh and Jharsuguda districts. "Officials are taking it very casually as they know the order is for public consumption rather than any serious attempt to reach irrigation water,' says another official.

In another twist, on November 26 the chief minister met farmers' "representatives' in Bhubaneswar.He addressed them in Sambalpuri, reading out from a note in Roman script, and declared a Rs 200-crore "package' for renovation of the canal network in Hirakud. Going by reports in local media, the "farmers' representatives' were brought to Bhubaneswar by two mlas belonging to the ruling Biju Janata Dal. The "package' is, in fact, part of a proposed World Bank loan for the Orissa Water Sector Improvement project. "We don't know the farmers' representatives the chief minister spoke to. I think this is a ploy to split the farmers' association,' says Lingaraj.

On the political front the chief minister is going through his worst ever crisis. The opposition Congress held a mamoth meeting of 40,000 farmers in Sambalpur on December 2. The party declared it would reconsider all industrial water allocation in the state if elected to power. The chief minister has been ridiculed by his cabinet colleagues for his "immature' promises tarnishing the credibility of the government. The opposition parties remind him of his promise at every public meeting and in the legislative assembly.

"He should deliver his promise of not giving water to industries. Then we will resume business with the government,' says J B Patnaik, the leader of the opposition. After failing to conduct business in the assembly for seven days, the government declared the winter session over.

Pressure Inc
The government is also under tremendous pressure from the industrial lobby not to cancel water allocation to industries from the dam since it could impact their operations in areas surrounding other dams in the state as well. The state government has signed mous worth Rs 300,000 crore with industry in the past few years, mostly to mine and use the state's vast mineral resources. It attracted business investments citing abundant water and mineral resources in the state. Within a day of the chief minister's assurance to farmers on water allocation, industrial houses began meeting government officials to get a sense of the situation. "The pressure is so high on the chief minister that he discusses the Hirakud issue in private conversations with his cabinet colleagues instead of cabinet meetings,' says a senior government official.

The Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) vice-president, S K Mohapatra, suggests, "We should go for a proper assessment of water required for agriculture and industries.' cii is coming out with the same argument that the government has been giving for the massive industrialization in the state

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