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Industry vs agriculture: The battle over water in Hirakud

By Ranjan K Panda

Before 1997, total allocation to industry of water from the Hirakud reservoir was 31,912 lakh gallons per year. In the nine years since, an 'allocation committee' has allocated 27 times more water to industry. This has, of course, been at the cost of water for irrigation

Around 8 am on a lazy December morning, 60-year-old Fakira Hota, a farmer, was instructing his farm labourers on the day's activities. It's the beginning of the dalua (rabi) season and the village is busy. But, says Hota: "This is nothing. Ten years ago nobody had spare time during this time of the year, as they not only had to harvest their kharif (monsoon paddy crop), they had to begin the dalua crop at the same time. Now only one-fourth of our village gets irrigation in the dalua season. On 25% of the land we do pyra-cropping (a crop that uses soil moisture only) of pulses. The rest stays fallow."

There's a web of canals crisscrossing this command area of the Hirakud reservoir system. It's hard to believe Hota when he says that only 25% of cultivable land gets irrigated. But his fellow villagers echo his words.

Hota's village -- Tamamura in Subarnapur district -- is around 80 km from the Hirakud reservoir. Yet, the villagers are feeling the 'tremors' of rapidly changing activities in the region. "Industry drawing water from the reservoir is nothing short of a tremor," says Ashok Panda of Kaudiamunda, a nearby village. "It's paving the way for the farmers' burial."

With the onset of another cropping season in the command area, which is recognised as the rice bowl of Orissa, the sense of uncertainty among these agriculture-dependent communities is palpable. "Our crop area has reduced and we are planting the dalua crop on only one-third of cultivable land in the village this time. And we are not sure of even this harvest," says marginal farmer Ratan Bagarti of Ghantopali village, in the same district. "The irrigation area is shrinking year by year," Hota explains, as industry is being provided water at the cost of irrigation.

Such fears are being transformed into huge public resentment. On October 26, the farmers formed a human chain stretching 20 km, from Hirakud at one end to Burla at the other end of the dam. More than 20,000 farmers participated -- the first sign that farmers are emerging as a single homogeneous group. Farmers' organisations and other concerned groups joined hands and called for a huge public demonstration at Bargarh town on January 10, 2007. They called the demonstration chetabani samavesh (ultimate call), which was supported, among others, by Magsaysay award-winner Rajendra Singh.

Meanwhile, the protest is steadily growing with the farmers' union taking the lead. By neglecting peaceful protests to the emerging threat, the government is forcing disgruntled farmers and oustees to become more militant in their approach. "The government is responsible for such a situation," says Dilip Padhi, secretary of the Hirakhand Nagarik Parishad (HKNP). The Parishad is a body of intellectuals and professionals working with people's concerns. "It seems the government wants people to become militant," he warns. His organisation had earlier petitioned the President of India on the plight of farmers and reservoir-displaced communities that are subjected to deprivation in the face of increasing allocation of reservoir water to industry. In the petition they requested the President to direct the government to conduct a detailed technical study on the availability and allocation of water from the Hirakud reservoir, and the consequences of water allocation to industry. "Under direction from the President, a team of engineers visited Sambalpur for two days and pronounced their findings in a two-page report. But there is no mention of the present capacity of the reservoir, present demands on the reservoir, and future projections," Padhi complains. He calls it "a process nothing short of a mockery". "It's a funny report," says Bhagbat Prasad Nanda, president of the HKNP. "While admitting that due to industrial water allocation power generation will suffer, the team has suggested that industries can be asked to compensate for financial losses arising out of shortfalls in energy production. This is no answer to our pleas."

"The committee never verified the present facts. They not only placed industrial allocation at a higher level, when it was supposed to be at the bottom of the priority list, but by relying on an outdated assessment of the live storage of the reservoir made back in 2000 they also arrived at erroneous conclusions," alleges activist and farmer leader Lingaraj.

Prima-facie, this contention has merit and deserves attention. Last year too, when monsoon rainfall was significantly higher than normal, the water level in the reservoir was more than three feet below full reservoir level; only 87.3% of the reservoir's live storage was filled by November when the reservoir is supposed to be totally full. At the time this article was written, the dalua season was still to get under way, but the outflow was 52% more than the inflow to the reservoir. "From now onwards the water level will only fall and more drastically with each passing day till the next monsoon," said Ashok Pradhan, president of the Sambalpur Krushak Suraksha Sangathan (SKSS) that is leading the movement.

Water allocation to industry was at the bottom of the priority list of uses as late as November 26, 1990, when the government earmarked 0.350 million acre feet (MAcF) of reservoir water for industry. "Though few industries were drawing water from the reservoir prior to that, industrial allocation was never on the list, let alone the priority list," explains Nanda. "This marked the beginning of the effects of globalisation on the Hirakud reservoir,"

A series of other policy changes, including the water policy and the formation of the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) in place of the erstwhile irrigation ministry heralded a new phase in the history of the Hirakud reservoir. Before April 1997, when the irrigation ministry became the MoWR, total allocation to industry from the reservoir was only 31,912 lakh gallons per year (LGY). After the formation of the MoWR, the task of allowing water for industry was vested with an 'allocation committee'. Astonishingly, and in only nine years, this committee has allocated 27 times more water than the pre-April 1997 level.

Since the Hirakud reservoir was created, in the 1950s, it has been shouldering the burden of providing water to industry. Before the formation of the MoWR, Hirakud's share was only 6% of the state total. After the MoWR was formed, Hirakud's share stands at a staggering 30.4% of total industrial allocation made in the state.

A lot of water has flown through the reservoir since the 0.350 MAcF earmarked for industry in 1990. "That decision was taken on the presumption that the reservoir has a live storage capacity of 4.72 MAcF," says Padhi. A study undertaken five years later assessed the live storage capacity at 4 MAcF, an annual capacity shrinkage of 0.41%. A study made in 2000 assessed the live storage capacity of the reservoir at only 3.91 MAcF. The rate of capacity shrinkage -- 0.51% per annum -- was significantly higher. Calculated at this rate of reduction, the reservoir's current live storage capacity will not be more than 3.79 MAcF. "By allotting so much of reservoir water to industry, the government has completely ignored other significant changes that have happened in regard to the Hirakud reservoir in the intervening 16 years," says Pradhan of the SKSS.

Indeed, there have been a number of significant changes in the Hirakud reservoir. Inflow to the reservoir has drastically fallen. Retired chief engineer of Orissa, Dr Bishnu Prasad Das, has raised a serious concern -- that by 2025, dependable inflow to the reservoir will fall to as low as 8-10 MAcF. To be functional, the reservoir requires at least 15 MAcF of water.

There are several areas of concern. Owing to reduced rainfall and an increase in the number of projects in the state of Chhattisgarh (where 90.2% of the Hirakud reservoir's catchment lies), average dependable inflow to the reservoir reduced to only 16 MAcF by 2000; during the project-formulation stage it was as high as 25 MAcF. There have been instances when water inflow to the dam was far less than 16 MAcF.

Whatever the reasons, it's the farmers who are feeling the pinch. "We don't know the technical jargon. But we strongly object to government officials certifying that irrigation is not suffering and will not suffer in the face of industrial supply from the reservoir. We know that our crops are dying. For the second consecutive year water could not be released into the Sason canal at the beginning of the kharif season. We firmly believe that this has happened due to the steel plant that is lifting water from the reservoir not far from the canal head," says Pani Panchayat apex committee president Murari Purohit.

Industries have just started drawing 0.031 MAcF of water, and already the farmers are feeling the effects. And they are outraged that the government, instead of attempting to provide irrigation to the dry command areas, is blindly advocating industrial supply. "We invited all the MLAs and MPs of the area to the chetabani samavesh. It will become clear whether they are sincere in supporting the masses in this ultimate fight for survival; otherwise their duplicity will be exposed," declares Lingaraj.

Clearly, the battle lines have been drawn and the region appears to be headed towards greater conflict. Unless something is done about the government's apathy towards the problem, a war over water is inevitable.

(Ranjan K Panda is an Orissa-based researcher and writer)

InfoChange News & Features, January 2007