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Development Versus Anti-development Campaigns in Orissa

"What a terrible contradiction Orissa has become! So rich a land - rich in minerals, forests, water, architectural marvels, tourist attractions, wildlife, and above all history and culture - but inhabited by so poor a people!  The poverty has damaged all walks of Orissan life, not only material but also intellectual, spiritual and ethical."

Dr. Nachiketa Das : May 15, 2008

Only a few years ago, footage of a devastating flood in Orissa was televised in Australia, in prime time news.  Australian media, ever so keen to portray India in a poor light, televised a clip that showed scantily clad men running on the relatively high grounds of the inundated paddy fields to grab hold of the bags of grain being dropped from the air from a helicopter.  The able bodied barefooted men running after food drop was a pitiable sight to say the least.  The scene became utterly degrading when the camera showed the partially exposed genitals of a young man wearing a lungi folded above his knees as he ran towards the chopper so desperately.  This scene of utter destitution, almost after 60 years of independence, though profoundly sad, is unfortunately the image of Orissa in the world today.

Poverty in Orissa:

Do the people of Orissa wish to cherish this image of desperate poverty of their state? The answer is an emphatic no, which became obvious, when the people of Orissa unanimously expressed their outrage at the disparaging comments that emanated from Gujarat in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2001.  When the people of Gujarat were offered relief, they had refused to accept handouts of poor quality, saying that this is not Orissa.  The remark implied that the people of Gujarat were not desperate like the poverty stricken Orissans, and deserved a better quality of relief.  Gujarat is a prosperous state of India, and is moving fast to achieve even higher levels of prosperity, and Orissa is sliding back deeper into poverty.

Going by the data collected in 2001, the per capita income of Gujarat in 2000-2001 was one of the highest in the country and stood at Rs 19,889, higher than the national average of Rs16707.  Per capita income of Orissa, on the other hand, for the same year was a paltry Rs.5067, which was the second lowest in the country.  Moreover, in a survey of the states of the country carried out only a few years ago by a reputed magazine of India, showed Orissa figuring last or occupying the penultimate rung, practically in every aspect of the study.  An erudite earth scientist friend of mine, Dr J C Mohanty, who holds a D.Sc. from Harvard, cites this very survey as one of his reasons for taking voluntary retirement from the IAS to embark upon a career in politics with the aim of making Orissa prosperous. 

I understand the sense of outrage the Orissans felt in 2001, but the fact remains that Orissa is a desperately poor part of the country, and is being derided for her poverty by the prosperous states.  And what a terrible contradiction Orissa has become, so rich a land - rich in minerals, forests, water, temples, tourist attractions, wildlife, and above all history and culture - but inhabited by so poor a people!  The poverty has damaged all walks of Orissan life, not only material but also intellectual, spiritual and ethical.  Moreover the poverty has crippled the self-esteem of this once proud people.  A few Sanskrit quotes will not be out of place.

Bubhukshita kim na karoti papam…

, which upon translation reads

The famished is capable of committing any sin.

And a second quote,

Abhabe swabhaba nasta…

Upon translation means,

Deprivation destroys the humane nature.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story

 

Hirakud Dam, a great benefactor:

Soon after the independence of India, the government of Orissa in a visionary attempt at the development of the state expedited the survey for the Mahanadi Valley Project in order to construct a multipurpose dam at Hirakud, which became the largest dam of the country.  Hirakud Dam is undoubtedly the single most important piece of infrastructure of the state of Orissa.  This dam now 50, has most generously contributed to the well being of the state since its inauguration in 1957.  Waters impounded by the dam have been irrigating 155,635 hectares of land for Khariff and 108,385 hectares for Rabi crops on an annual basis.  In order for a generalised calculation of the total crop yield due to the benevolence of Hirakud, a round figure of 250,000 hectares of land yielding one crop per year can be assumed.  Again for the sake of simplicity let us assume that crop to be rice, which in any case is the main crop of Orissa, the average production of which in Orissa is 2 tons per hectare.  The total production of rice in the areas irrigated by the waters from Hirakud is thus 500,000 tons per year.  At current procurement price of unmilled rice paddy of $140 per ton, the value of this rice is about $70 million or Rs 280 crores per year. 

Hirakud generates about 300 MW of electricity per year.  If I assume a price of Rs2 per unit of electricity, the total revenue generated from the sale of 300 MW of electricity is Rs 600 crores per year.  Many would say that this is a horribly conservative figure, which in reality could be 5 times more. 

Hirakud also has played an important role in controlling floods since its inauguration in 1957, and has succeeded in preventing or reducing the severity of floods in 24 out of 30 occasions.  On those 6 occasions when Hirakud exacerbated the flooding, poor management of the reservoir was the cause.  Moreover, it must be borne in mind that no flood after 1957, the year when Hirakud was inaugurated, had had the severity of the flood in 1955 when the embankment of River Devi, a distributary of Mahanadi was breached.  The devastations caused by the breach, Dalai Ghai, were unprecedented the loss of life and property was incalculable.  Since 1957 Orissa has endured many floods but none had the magnitude of Dalai Ghai, thanks to Hirakud.  It is a difficult task to put a price on the benefits of flood control, supply of drinking water, and generation of employment in the rural areas made possible by Hirakud Dam.  Some experts have presented calculations for the total benefits that Hirakud provides on an annual basis, and one proposed figure of Rs 1700 crores per year is not unreasonable.   In fact this could well be a conservative figure.  In any case at this current rate of Rs 1700 crores per year, Hirakud has easily contributed Rs 85,000 crores to the state of Orissa.  This would make Hirakud a great benefactor to the state of Orissa in anyone’s language.  Yet, there was a massive movement of protest against the construction of Hirakud Dam, half a century ago.

>>> Scroll down to read rest of the Story

 

Need for compromises to ensure the right balance:

In the earlier section I discussed the benefits of Hirakud, and now let me caution that Hirakud, if mismanaged, can utterly devastate the state.  Hirakud is an aging dam and the engineering structure needs proper maintenance, removal of silt and sediments, and careful management of the waters of the reservoir.  If Hirakud reservoir is not emptied properly before the monsoon rains, and per chance suddenly receives vast quantities of water it may collapse.  Collapse of Hirakud may sound far fetched, but it is possible, and dams have collapsed in China and India too, causing huge losses of lives and property. The dam collapses in China killed hundreds of thousands of people.  And if Hirakud collapses due to poor management, the devastations will be unprecedented; the Mahanadi delta could be wiped clean.  Unfortunately the capacity of the reservoir decreases due to the accumulation of silt and sediments as the dam gets older, and the possibilities of a collapse increase. Every coin has two sides, and the issue of development is no exception, it has a negative aspect too. 

In 2008 the state of Orissa is in the verge of receiving several massive investments of funds of unprecedented magnitude.  The national as well as international big businesses are poised to invest in the minerals, energy, steel and education sectors of the state.  The businesses of course are attracted for the excellent opportunities they see for making profits, which they are entitled to, they would not invest otherwise.  The Government of Orissa, however, must ensure that the big businesses do not trample upon the rights of the people who are likely to be adversely affected.  The people of the state on the other hand must bear in mind that the attitude of opposing any development will keep the state permanently lodged in the Stone Age.  The anti-developmental romantics may find poverty, and for that matter semi-nude adults running after food drop quaint and attractive, but the fact remains that they are utterly degrading.  

The big businesses and the people likely to be adversely affected must be brought to the negotiating table where the Government of Orissa must play the role of a responsible and mature mediator to protect the interests of both the parties.  The people of the state must be apprised of the benefits as well as the adverse effects of any of the major projects.  In the absence of the dissemination of genuine information, rumours and half-truths proliferate, which are perfect fodder for the self-serving petty politicians.  In this era of openness (and Information Technology) let there be a free flow of genuine information from the government.  Compromise from all concerned will benefit Orissa; and may good sense prevail to strike the right balance between development and its negative consequences.

(Author is the Director, NRI-Enviro-Geo-Tech - Australia, Sydney & presently based in Hiroshima, Japan)

 

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