Dams and Irrigation Projects in India: Whose Development is it?

Big dams in India stand for the state’s hubris and arrogance. The Lower Suktel Irrigation Project in Odisha is one such dam.

Imagine you were an investor in a business, the cost of which increased 20-fold even before it started. Suppose then that the project was delayed by 15 years. Sounds unreal?

This is exactly what has happened with the Lower Suktel Irrigation Project (LSIP) in Bolangir district of Odisha – a project funded by Indian taxpayers’ money.

The estimated cost of LSIP, when it was sanctioned by the Planning Commission in 1999, was Rs 217.13 croreThe revised estimate of the project, amounting to Rs 1041.81 crore, was approved by the Central Water Commission on November 9, 2010. Now, seven years later, it is estimated that the project will cost well over Rs 4,500 crore by the time it is finished. 

The LSIP encapsulates the essence of how development projects are planned and executed in India — with unreal cost-benefit analyses, flagrant misuse of public funds, and lack of transparent consultation processes. On the one hand are fertile fields sustaining families, on the other, vulnerable communities stand to lose whatever little they have. 

Bolangir is a drought-affected district, so irrigation should be a welcome change. But then, why are so many people opposing the project?

Let’s take a look at the most basic cost-to-benefit analysis here. The ratio of submerged to irrigated land for LSIP stands at 1: 6.9, i.e. for every hectare that is submerged only about  7 hectares will benefit from the proposed irrigation. For a comparison, according to official data, the same ratio for Sardar Sarovar Dam, which saw national and international protests, stands at 1: 50.7.  

In Bolangir district, 5000 hectare of land that would be submerged by the proposed dam already has access to irrigation for farming. This includes facilities like lift irrigation points along the river (constructed by the government), water harvesting structures (set up by NGOs and international funding to mitigate drought), as well as private irrigation wells aided by electronic pumps. The residents of the area have repeatedly called for multiplication of such smaller irrigation projects that will not displace people, and also bring non-irrigated land under irrigation. 

The very first survey for the Lower Suktel Major Irrigation Project took place in 1979. The idea was scrapped, only to resurface in the 90s. In the 15 intervening years, since the foundation stone for the project was laid in Magurbeda by chief minister Naveen Patnaik in 2001, the only thing that has changed is the quantum of water flowing down the river.

There’s 40 percent less water in Suktel now compared to when the project was proposed. The current quantum of water might not be enough to fill up the huge reservoir that the construction of a big dam will create. Witness accounts at the dam construction site corroborate this fear. From his visit in 2014, Stalin K, the founder of Video Volunteers, says: “We saw a huge dam construction but the water coming into it was a trickle, a slow stream. Not nearly enough to fill a dam.”

The 30-metre high and 1410-metre long dam on Suktel will submerge 583 hectares of forests — a potentially disastrous step in a drought-prone area. Despite this ridiculous gap in cost-to-benefit ratio, the LSIP has hardly made any news headlines. Protesters who have organised themselves under the banner of Lower Suktel Budianchal Sangharsha Samiti (LSBAP) have been footnoted as the anti-development hijinks of uneducated villagers. 

A comprehensive report from the World Commission on Dams, born out of an International Union for Conservation of Nature and World Bank initiative, specifically reiterates that though dams are seen as a developmental panacea, the reality is quite different. It says: “Poor accounting in economic terms for the social and environmental costs and benefits of large dams implies that the true economic efficiency and profitability of these schemes remains largely unknown.”

Development-induced displacement: India’s appalling record 

As many as 50 million people have been affected by development-induced displacement in 50 years, according to a 2011 study on the issue; an average of one million a year. One major reason for forcible displacement has been big dams. Over 3000 big dams have been built during the same period in the country. 

Anita Agnihotri, a senior IAS officer and former director, Department of Resettlement and Rehabilitation, Ministry of Water Resources, Odisha, writes (2008) that irrigation projects initiated in the state after independence have failed to provide rehabilitation.  In addition, project costs escalated by 10 to 15 times their original estimates and were delayed by 6 to 15 years. 

Lack of transparency and accountability 

Agnihotri writes that the protesting villagers did not let her or the survey team enter many of the project-affected villages. She concludes that those opposing the project were not made aware of the relief and rehabilitation programme of the government which points to the failure of the officials in charge of the LSIP in conducting a transparent and accountable operation. 

The project has also been plagued by corruption scandals. In 2013, of the Rs 300 crore already spent on R&R, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report revealed that there had been embezzlement to the tune of Rs 64 crores.

Profile of the project-affected areas

Agnihotri’s survey of the villages reveals that those about to be submerged have been settled in the villages and homesteads for 4 to 7 generations, and that the villages had access to electricity, healthcare and educational facilities. 

The LSIP will submerge 29 villages. Among these, the survey report states that 13 villages will be partially affected. However, fact-finding attempts on the ground reveal something else altogether. Amitabha Patra, a local journalist who was beaten up by the police for documenting an authoritarian crackdown on the protestors, points out that partial submergence is a myth, especially during the monsoon: As was seen in the case of Hirakud dam, villages that had never been submerged, were washed-off during the floods of 2011 in the upper region of the dam due to back-water.

Fertile villages and lush forests face threat of submergence 

The catchment area affected by the LSIP has thriving livelihoods — forest-based and agricultural. Families from Kumiapalli and Banchorpalli villages earn between Rs 70,000 and 80,000 per month from selling Kendua/Tendu leaves collected from forests bordering their villages. The Odisha Forest Development Corporation proudly announces on its website that Kendua leaves from Bolangir are the best in quality in the country. The sale of these leaves accounts for 75-80 percent of the total revenue from forests in the state.

Apart from these, cottage and forest-based industries include mahua collection, pottery, iron smithies and above all thriving agriculture. In fact, this area has repeatedly been referred to as the ‘vegetable garden of Orissa. In Unchbahal, farmers on an average own about three acres of land. Manmatha Patte says that his banana farm covering two acres of land earns him Rs 3 lakh per year. Nrupa Nayak, from the same village, cultivates a variety of vegetables on his three-acre plot. His farm gives him an income of between Rs 4-4.5 per year. The government is asking Manmatha and Nrupa to part with their land for a compensation amount of Rs 80,000 per acre. Manmatha jokes about the pitiful compensation package, saying that his current annual income is enough for him to employ some of these government officials. 

In between beating dried sunflowers to harvest the seeds a middle-aged woman from Banchorpalli, one of the 29 villages that will be submerged, voices her discontent at the way the project has been handled: “We elected these politicians. But they are the ones kicking our stomachs, taking away our livelihoods.”

Her fears are not unfounded. Protesters are seen as adversarial, an obstacle. Not people who should be taken into confidence. As the paltry sums offered by the government as compensation reveal, the ‘rehabilitation’ measures are a sham. 

Impoverishment of vulnerable population 

Michael Cernia in his ground-breaking work on forced displacement identified impoverishment, landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalisation, increased morbidity and mortality, food insecurity, loss of access to common property, and social disarticulation as the nine main effects of forcible displacement. 

This is much more likely to affect those who are already disadvantaged socio-economically, ethnically and caste-wise. Agnihotri’s (2008) report reveals that among those about to be displaced by the project, 20 percent are Scheduled Tribes, 29 percent are Scheduled Castes and 46 percent are Other Backward Castes. 72 per cent of displaced persons will lose land in the range of 75-100 percent of their total land holdings. The percentage of landless STs and SCs among those displaced will increase from 78 percent to 87 percent. Bolangir is also an area from where migrants end up as bonded labour in brick kilns in large numbers. The project is making an insecure population further impoverished as average annual income is estimated to decline by 40 percent, 33 percent and 39 percent respectively for the SC, ST, and OBC communities post displacement.

The Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) policy of the state for the LSIP only offers monetary compensation for those owning land—at a rate much lower than the market price. None of these concerns is taken into account while the rehabilitation policy is formulated for those who live at the threat of displacement and submergence by the LSIP. Further, forcible impoverishment of vulnerable communities in the name of development should really make us question the purpose of development.  

Agnihotri’s report, as well as testimonies from locals, reveal that consultative process was not followed, and people’s confidence wasn’t gained. It reveals how flawed the process of development has been. These people are seen as adversaries, enemies who must be subjected to the state’s disciplinary action through police brutality. Video Volunteers’ community correspondents have recorded the police violence on peaceful protesters, attacks on journalists and arbitrary detention of protesters. 

Not only that, the administration has started taking punitive measures by withholding basic services and entitlements such as education, healthcare and housing in order to force people to accept the project on the terms set by the government. 

Attempts to enforce displacement

In Budha Bahal village, the Forest Rights Act (2006) is being violated; traditional forest dwellers are being denied their rightful ownership of forest land by the government. Khyamamani Thakur’s family has been cultivating the land for generations but his applications for ‘patta’ are consistently rejected by officials. He and others in his village with similar rights are consistently turned away by the officials on the grounds that the land is about to be submerged so they cannot be given any ownership documents. 

Since the government has revoked the mandatory free ambulance service in villages like Kumiapalli, several harrowing incidents have taken place.  Susmita Senapati reveals how she gave birth to a stillborn girl child because she reached the hospital too late. Byasadev Thanapati, a neighbour, feels that this is a conspiracy to punish the protesting villagers. “Women have been at the forefront of our protests and this is the administration’s way of getting back at them,” he says.  

Residents of Maniyar Chak Kharva, another village which is supposed to be submerged, are being denied entitlements under government projects like the Indira Awas Yojana on the grounds that their villages are about to be submerged. They reveal that this information was never given to them in writing but this is what the officials say every time people go for grievance redressal.

Protesting hoodlums or keepers of our democratic conscience?

Since 2013, when work on the project actually commenced, protestors have organised themselves into peaceful rallies and demonstrations, which have been repeatedly met with brute police force. Thousands of false cases have been registered against the protestors, and are being fought in civil courts to break their morale. Imagine people lacking economic capital, located in remote rural areas, constantly having to spend money in legal fees and in travelling to the courts in the town of Bolangir. 

Simultaneously, three cases of human rights violation for brutalising peaceful protestors, lodged with the Odisha High Court, have been going on since the past three years with no judgement in sight. The LSBAP has been spending an average of Rs 10,000-15,000 per month to fight a case in the National Green Tribunal. While the LSBAP struggled to keep up with the prohibitive costs of the case, the state’s case was fought by the Odisha Advocate General. The LSBAP petitioned the NGT to dismiss the project on the grounds that the actual work had only commenced in 2013 whereas the environmental clearance from 1998 stipulates that the work should begin within 5 years from date clearance is granted. The NGT ruled in favour of the government because the latter produced evidence that work on building roads and officers’ residences had commenced in 1999. 

If this is not a travesty of justice then what is? A project sanctioned in 1998 is still in the early stages of work. The bureaucracy and state’s stubbornness in pushing through this project might lead one to believe that it has nothing to do with the desire to help the area and its people flourish.  

All is not lost. There’s still hope for the brave bunch of women and men upholding true democracy — the protestors of LSBAP. In a recent judgement, the High Court in Odisha quashed the land acquisition notification issued by the government as invalid on the grounds that the first notification for acquiring land for the project, under the Land Acquisition Act (1894), was issued in 2011. The second notice under Section 6 of the Act, which should have been given within a year, was issued only in 2015. This was only done for two villages who had petitioned the Court, but it opens up avenues for further cases.

Of the original 29 protesting villages only 14 retain the perseverance to carry on the fight for justice and survival today. It’s a race against time with immense odds stacked up against them. Their adversary is the state which is coming down with retaliatory force: arrests and police violence which has maimed people. But also more sinister tactics like denial of services.

The road ahead

It’s important to demand transparency and accountability from the government. ‘Development’ has become a catch-all phrase in the name of which all sorts of injustice is being perpetrated and more importantly, justified. It is time to seriously ask whose development is this and for whom?  Suktel is a river that emerges from the bauxite-rich Gandhamardan hills. Protests in the 1980s stopped plans to set up a mine here. Today, a dam that submerges irrigated, fertile lands and benefits so few is raising the question whether the dam is the first step in setting up that mine. 

Locals have proposed alternatives to the big dam at a much lower cost. Multiple small embankments along the river will help irrigation across a much larger area with far less damage to the surrounding area as well as the residents. Big dams in India stand for the state’s hubris and arrogance. These are monumental constructions that have caused untold misery to millions. It is time the taxpayers start asking as to why should they continue to fund the Odisha government’s foolhardy pursuit of a doomed project.

Video by Community Correspondents

Article by Madhura Chakraborty, a member of the VV editorial team

This story was co-published with Newslaundry

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