Politics of water: The case of the Hirakud dam in Orissa, India


Balgovind Baboo

Although three quarters of the globe is covered with water, there is a crisis for fresh water. In the next two decades many countries might fail to provide safe drinking water to their citizens if there is no cooperative and systematic effort. The best way out would be to store and utilize the runoff in the rainy season. Large dams have been found to be popular for this purpose. While these are useful for flood control, irrigation, navigation, power generation followed by ancillary secondary and tertiary benefits, these also cause untold human miseries. However, large dam construction would be an ongoing phenomenon across the world and more so in the era of globalization as many professionals and politicians tend to believe in mega projects supported by a powerful lobby. In this paper we examine the case of the Hirakud dam, the longest earthen dam in the world, built in Sambalpur district, Orissa, India in the light of a duality in human geography-determinism vs. possibilism-and a neo-Marxist stand point of centreperiphery approach. We find that river Mahanadi has been tamed temporarily in the name of developmental initiative in western Orissa but the political agenda was to save the eastern coastal plain and especially Cuttack city from the ravage of flood. The construction of the dam; the subsequent human sufferings, of the dam oustees and the affected population of about 22,000 households; and the recent concentration of important mile posts of Orissa in the coastal plains have accentuated the long standing cultural differences between the periphery and the centre, the hills and the plains, the silent and the vocal, the simple and the clever. Mindless mining and installation of so many extracting polluting industries and power plants in the districts of Sambalpur, Kalahandi and Sundergarh and the subsequent demand on the Hirakud reservoir and pollution of river Mahanadi led to simmering discontent in western Orissa. Resistance movement before the construction of the Hirakud dam was crushed by the political strategy of divide and rule and the overarching image of the Congress in the early years of Independence. Recent outcry in the form of Western Orissa Liberation Front and Kosala Rajya has resulted in Western Orissa Development Council to take up the problems of western Orissa. While some people in the command area have prospered, the oustees and the affected persons of the Hirakud dam still live under the stigma of reservoir oustees (budi anchalar loka); feel that the coastal people have been the cause of their sufferings and cherish the desire of going back to their homeland in the event of breach of the dam. Let us be careful of the sound of the distant drum!

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