Chatura Sahoo, 35 years, the only earning member of his five-member family, is an agricultural labourer, he belongs to Bankel village of Muribahal block under Bolangir district of Orissa state. He is now an active member of Kankadajore Budi Anchala Bikash Parishada (KBABP), the organisation which is spearheading a movement, to fight for appropriate rehabilitation of oustees of Titilagarh irrigation project.

Farmers of Bankel are determined to obstruct construction

When asked why he is participating in the ‘Stop Construction’ movement at the project site, he brings up two questions which he wants answers to, failing which, he would obstruct the ongoing construction work and was determined not to quit the village, come what may. (a) Will the government ensure six months assured job for me? I was getting it from my landlord, who was giving me Rs 30 per day and a share of paddy crop every year. (b) What is the cost of my leaving this place to go elsewhere? Who will be responsible for restoring food and livelihood security for me and my family members?

Chatura, is among 123 families who are landless and have lost their livelihood following the acquisition of land for Titilagarh irrigation project, from the farmers of village Bankel. With no alternative for survival, they have become frontrunners to rally round demanding adequate compensation. As of now the government has fixed and distributed compensation for 204 families of Mahula pada, a hamlet of Bankel village under Bankel panchayat and Pithapara under Malisira panchayat. The most appalling concern is that the government is yet to identify locations for rehabilitating these project oustees, says Bansidhara Behera, a social worker at Titilagarh.

Significantly, Chatura’s struggle in questioning the state government’s displacement policy, has quite encouraged social scientists, policy makers and activists to pressurise the government to formulate a policy on displacement. Orissa has already earned a bad name for not properly rehabilitating oustees of other projects – Hirakud, Rengali, Upper Kolab, Indravati, Gopalpur, Kashipur, etc.

According to a study by ICSSR (Indian Council of Social Science Research), between 1951 and 1995 in Orissa at least 546,794 people were displaced because of the construction of irrigation and mining projects and for setting up industries. Of these 65 per cent people had not been rehabilitated till 1995. Hirakud dam was completed in 1964 but till today a large number of people have not yet been rehabilitated or even paid the due compensation.

Jagadish Pradhan, social scientist and president of Sahabhagi Vikash Abhiyan, says that during British tenure the government usurped natural resources and productive assets that had been owned by the tribal and common people, in the name of development. Because of the colonial development model, a handful of people favoured by the colonial ruler became rich while the majority was impoverished. The worst sufferers were the tribal and forest dwellers. There were many tribal revolts in the 19th and 20th century. To control the unrest, the government had formulated a few special Acts and provisions to woo the tribal. Pradhan adds, “it was hoped that after Independence the process would be reversed and the new government will give justice to the tribal and deprived sections of society. Many provisions were made in the Constitution including reservation for the tribal, special development efforts for tribal areas and tribal people. However, the development model that has been pursued after Independence is no different in any way from the colonial model of development.”

While people of Kankadajore are struggling to restore their livelihood and are demanding declarations of their villages as fully submerged, people in the proposed lower Suktel dam sites are not allowing the land acquisition team to enter their villages and lands. These two movements in drought prone Bolangir district of western Orissa are allegedly being suppressed by the district administration, because they are not complying with the government’s eviction policy. Though many letters and memorandums have been written, many rallies and demonstrations have been staged, the government is turning a blind eye to the long pending demand. Rather the protestors have faced the wrath of the police and administration and have often been jailed for no fault of theirs, said Goutam Kheti, a former zilla parisad member.

The Titilagarh irrigation project may face such problems given the geological conditions. Quoting a Central Ground Water Board study, Bisikeshan Jani, president of KBABP says, if the rampant use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides was not checked, the vast ground water potential, the only dependable source of water, would become polluted and make it unsuitable for human consumptions. This happens largely in major and medium irrigation command areas, noticeable in western and southern Orissa districts. That is why villagers are demanding the declaration of the village as completely submerged and are seeking proper rehabilitation of people, says Jani.

Kankadajore irrigation project is going to submerge seven villages impacting thousands of tribal people. However, except for a pittance, the villagers have not yet been paid any compensation or received any support for their rehabilitation.
The numbers tell their own story. The rehabilitation advisory committee for this project, chaired by the district collector, decided not to declare Bankel as a fully submerged village. According to the state resettlement and rehabilitation rule, a village must suffer a loss of at least 75 per cent of agriculture land due to a project to be treated as fully submerged, but Bankel is suffering a loss of only 48 per cent of its agricultural land. The villagers of Bankel say that out of 1,284.37 acres of cultivable land of their village, about 692.12 acres will be submerged, and out of the remaining 592.25 acres, about 400 acres will be water logged, following the construction of the dam, just 23 to 100 metres away from these land. While the project report claims the villages are situated 300 metres away from the danger level, a recent study says that these villages are coming under the purview of danger i.e. 50-100 metres away from the proposed dam site.

Ruling out these allegations a senior state government official said that government is all set to combat the drought situation and is determined to prevent the much talked about starvation deaths and migration. That’s why we are concentrating on the irrigation system and above all development of agriculture, he said.

But Trilochan Punzi, who has been working with displaced people of Bolangir, says, “In our country many irrigation projects or flood control projects have been taken up, more to address the needs of the contractors and technocrats than to solve the problems of the ordinary people. There is no dearth of instance of this. The Kankadajore irrigation project which is under construction in Titilagarh subdivision of Bolangir district is a classic example of this.”

The Kankadajore irrigation project is going to submerge seven villages and thousands of people, mainly tribal, are going to be affected. However except for some pittance, the villagers have not yet been paid any compensation or received any support for their rehabilitation. Bolangir district is predominantly a drought-affected area and along with the other tribal dominated and poverty stricken districts of Kalahandi and Koraput, falls in the popularly known ‘KBK’ districts of Orissa. This region of the country has been in the news since the eighties, with reports of starvation deaths, sale of children and frequent migration. Not only is the region poor, backward and underdeveloped, the development process appears to have contributed to the growth of such mal-administration and impoverishment in the region.

The Titilagarh medium irrigation project was started in 1994, under the accelerated irrigation benefit programme of the central government with an initial estimated cost of Rs 26.7 crores, which has been escalated now to Rs 37.21 crores. The project lies across two nullas named Kankadajore and Jamunajore, which are tributaries of river Tel, a major right tributary of Mahanadi. The dam site is located near village Pithapara, nine kilometres away from Titilagarh town in Bolangir. Titilagarh has commercial importance as well, connected with other parts of the state and the country by roads and railways. It still tops the list of the hottest place in the state in summer, where day temperatures registered a blistering 50.1 degree Celsius this year, an all-time high in the history of the area.

Government sources say that this project will provide first class irrigation facilities to land in 20 villages, throughout the work of the canal system, covering cultivable command area of 2,600 hectares from the dam. The project was envisaged for providing irrigation facilities mostly in drought prone areas of Bolangir district, which has predominantly scheduled caste and scheduled tribe population. Besides, the irrigation facilities is expected to provide water supply to Titilagarh town as well. The project in turn would affect seven villages of Muribahal and Titilagarh blocks, and the villages of Bankel and Pithapara will be partly submerged, according to them.

Bishikeshan Jani, samiti member of Bankel panchayat says, “the village and cultivable land of the village would be submerged from three sides by the dam, as a result of which we are loosing about 85 per cent of our land and more than 500 families are going to lose their property and livelihood. Then how do we remain silent?” He further clarified that about 95 per cent of the villagers belong to scheduled caste, scheduled tribe and other backward castes, and a majority of them are agricultural labourers. Taking advantage of their illiteracy, ignorance and simplicity, the nexus of the technocrat, contractors and politicians has initiated the Kankadajore irrigation project which is, in turn, more interested in the drinking water needs of the people of Titilagarh for which they have ignored the interest of the tribal people.

People of the affected villages also claim that this project was started with the main objective of providing drinking water for the sub-divisional township of Titilagarh, which has a population of about 35,000. Pradhan says, “If they were concerned about the drinking water crisis of Titilagarh, there are so many ways to solve it in much lesser time and with much less investment. The ground water table around Titilagarh is very high and in many places one can find an artesian well. Even to get subsurface water one needs to dig just about eight or ten feet and can get plenty of potable water. This could be the cheapest and most dependable source of drinking water for the people of Titilagarh. The perennial and second largest river of Orissa, Tel flows just eight kilometres away from this township. The water that flows in this river even during the summer months can provide drinking water to the entire population of Orissa, not to speak of the tiny population of Titilagarh town.”

Notwithstanding these facts, against the requirement of about 2,000,000 litres of water daily, the town was being provided about 1,100,000 litres daily, says executive engineer of public health, P Parida. He further says, that at present, in summer, tanks and wells have gone dry and the Rs 12 crores water supply project for the town (the foundation of which was laid by the chief minister Naveen Patnaik in 2001) is yet to materialise.

Meanwhile, the state government which has, authorised the contract of this project to state owned Orissa Construction Corporation, has completed almost 80 per cent of construction work, the remaining work would be done within the next six months. “Even though people were informed about the proposed project, but due to ignorance, we couldn’t protest, because from the very beginning we were not invited to rehabilitation advisory committee meetings,” said Prafulla Putel, a resident of Bankel. He added, the cost of land is not fixed properly taking in account the profitability and fertility of land.

Of late, experts have expressed shock over the relevance and utility of these big projects, which are in turn bringing on disaster to natural resources. It is said that one-third of the district was earlier under green forest cover, but the latest satellite mapping shows that this has since halved (government reports claim that 1,106 square kilometres is forest cover of the districts total area of 6,569 square kilometres). The downward trend began after 1985, when in the name of combating drought, millions of rupees were spent to check rainwater, construct irrigation dams and renovate age-old water sources. Ultimately these structures failed to store water.

The government has ignored the plight of the landless farmers, and above all the feasibility study of the dam has ignored the geographical location of villages which are to be submerged. While the government is determined in its decision to not declare Bankel and adjoining villages as fully submerged, the people affected by the project, most of them are farmers and agricultural labourers are continuing with their drive to obstruct the ongoing construction work, in the hope that it will force the state government to rethink its displacement policy.