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Odisha: Government must recheck viability of Lower Suktel Project, look for alternative

 

Monday June 09, 2014

LOWER SUKTEL, IRRIGATION, DEVELOPMENT, DISPLACEMENT, BOLANGIR, ODISHA  
 

"Lower Suktel dam project of Odisha has been facing opposition from the people of the affected villages since its planning. But the drama of Dharna by congress leaders of Balangir district during 2012 monsoon session of Odisha Assembly made one wonder if people of the affected villages were really convinced and if people of the project area and its periphery were really desperate for the project to come up. However, recent studies by Water Initiatives Odisha suggest that the government must go for a recheck of the viability of the controversial project and make a reassessment of damages the project is going to make on local economy, livelihood sources and the last remaining good stretch of forests in Balangir district.

 

Ranjan Panda

 
 

The Lower Suktel Irrigation project has always remained in controversies.  While the villagers who are going to be displaced have been agitating against the project since the day it was conceived, people – including Balangir city dwellers – who are supposed to be benefited by the project have started their agitation in support of it.  Recently, the agitation of the pro-project groups reached one of its peaks which forced the government to take immature steps.  To pacify the pro-project agitators it sent out a construction team to the project area even as host of controversial matters, including the rehabilitation and resettlement issues, had not been addressed.  Quite naturally the villagers who fear displacement protested against it and the team had to return from the site.  This not only added fuel to the conflict but also cost to the exchequer. We urge upon the government to stop such dealings of immaturity on such a long pending controversial issue.

 

Large scale and centralized irrigation projects such as the Lower Suktel Irrigation Project are not only socio-economically unviable but also ecologically devastating.  They create large scale displacement and cause huge damage to the local environment.  They also cause climate change by sinking trees and organic matters.  In fact, while the villagers to be displaced have always raised these issues, government’s own officials have also admitted it.  Further the cost involved in such projects make them economically unviable from the state’s economy point of view.  The project, that got government approval in 1998 is to submerge 5216 ha of land in 26 villages (26 completely and 10 partially).  However, local people apprehend the submergence will cover as many as 56 villages.  A district whose forest resources have vastly depleted and where distressed migration is a common feature, this is supposed to be the only area from where people don’t migrate much because of the good quality Kendu Leaf and other forest produces they get.  We therefore urge upon the government to think of this big ecological and economic loss to the local people and stop going ahead with the project.

There are alternatives to both the key objectives of this project.  Balangir has a rich history of traditional tank irrigation through surface water harvesting management systems.  Instead of such a devastating centralized large scale irrigation project it should think of creating several small check dams supported by lift irrigation technology in decentralized manner.  Bandh, Katas, Mudas and other traditional irrigation systems should be revived and renovated and linked to such systems.  Decentralized irrigation systems will not only cover more area but also help loss of huge amount of water that happens in large scale canal irrigation systems.  Further, the people themselves can own and hence maintain these systems without having to depend on the government always.  And that would involve much less cost than the estimate cost of about 1041 crores (that too 2009 rates, an increase of almost four times from the original estimate).

There are also alternatives to drinking water provision in the city of Balangir.  All tanks and ponds of the city must be freed from encroachment and pollution.  Balangir citizens have themselves said that these tanks can be used to provide drinking water to the city, as the case was in recent past.  In scarcity times and years, when surface water bodies may fail, there could be alternative arrangements in place by digging intake wells in the river.  The present system of drinking water provisioning for the city, which brings water from 50 kilometres away, is testimony to difficulties that the city dwellers face.  Without looking for local specific solutions sole dependence on the proposed Suktel Irrigation Project will always be problematic.  So, we urge upon the government to look for locally suitable and adaptable solutions which are economically viable and environmentally sustainable.  The other danger with creation of large reservoirs is that the industries and thermal power plants will start encroaching upon the water as it comes handy for them.  This will surely generate further conflicts in future as we have seen in Hirakud Dam.  As a result, both irrigation and drinking water provisioning will suffer.  By abandoning the Lower Suktel Irrigation project, such future conflicts can also be avoided.

The irrigation project’s design was approved almost a decade and half ago.  In all these years, even though the government could not proceed with the project, it did not do anything either to solve the drinking water and irrigation problems of the area. The current anger and agitations are therefore creation of government’s apathy.  The government should not delay further on this and talk to all the people, both the villagers who fear submergence and the people who are proposed beneficiaries.  A fresh socio-economic and ecological impact assessment of this project should be done and tabled in front of the people.  The government should also work on alternative proposals and place it before the people.  It is after that only any further decision on the Lower Suktel Irrigation project be taken, taking the people of the area on board in a transparent and coherent manner.

[Ranjan Panda is the Convenor of 'Water Initiatives Odisha' (WIO), a coalition of organisations and individuals working on water and environmental issues.  He is also a senior freelance journalist.]

 
 

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