“O government! Open your ear and listen to us ,We do not need Suktel dam.”
– writing on a wall in GS Dungripali, one of the villages that will be submerged if the Dam comes up
piccourtesy- down to earth
Context / Background
The river ‘Suktel’ originates from Gandhamardan Mountain (situated in between Balangir and Bargarh districts) in Orissa and flows into ‘Tel’ river. As a part of Lower Suktel Irrigation Project, Government of Orissa plans to build a dam on Suktel river which will be located 20kms from Balangir. According to Government of Orissa (GoO) this irrigation project will wipe out all miseries of people in Balangir which is otherwise known for its droughts and poverty. If the project promises such bright future ahead, why is it that people are protesting against the project for more than a decade now? The issue is much more complex than it seems to be and it is understood by the people in the area – at least those who have been with the ‘Lower Suktel Budi Anchal Sangram Parishad (LSBASP). In the following section we will explore more about the hidden and not so hidden agenda of this irrigation project and the larger politics behind it, the wrath of devastation, the evolution of a mass struggle and the process so far apart from understanding the organizational structure and systems.
The Project & the Scale of Devastation
The water resources department, GoO describes Lower Suktel irrigation project as a ‘major irrigation project’ where a dam and a spillway will be built. According to the GoO the dam will fully displace people from 16 villages and people of another 10 villages will be partially displaced. The survey that was done in 1996 pitched the figure of displacement at 4160 families which is much less than the real number. The GoO has apparently identified the land in three villages to build the rehabilitation colony. Around 638 hectare land will be affected due to this project. There are plans to hand over non-forest areas to the forest department for afforestation and GoO has a provision of Rs. 159.26lakh for this.
The dam project is stated to be planned with a help from the World bank worth Rs.600 crores.
The compensation package for a displaced family include 20 decimal homestead land, 2 acre irrigated land or 4 acre non-irrigated land, money to build the house, financial assistance for one year, money for relocating in new place plus Rs.500/ -.
The GoO has obtained the required permissions from Central Water Commission, Forest Department and Pollution Control Board. This project entails an investment of Rs. 217.13 crores and the GoO has already given the permission for the same.
The number of villages to be affected as given by the government seems unrealistic and has not been updated with the changes in plans. The original height of the dam that was cited by the government was at 36 meters which is now slated to be at 56 meters. This essentially means many more villages coming under water. At least 142 villages (86 full & 56 partial) are estimated to be affected due to this dam/irrigation project.
Loisinga block of Balangir, with 48% tribal population, which will be affected by the project is known for its extremely fertile land. The thick forest around the area and through which Suktel river flows is known for rich flora and fauna and is said to be home for wild animals. The fertile land enables people to produce very good quality vegetables such as parwal & brinjal, mahul, mango, jamun, jackfruit etc and crops. People not only in Balangir district but also many other districts in Orissa are benefited by this produce. The area has a massive reserve for Kendu leaf.
There will be a loss of at least Rs.10crores due to the felling of trees which will lead to minimal rains ultimately affecting the eco-system of the area. It is not understood how a dam can be built and effectively used for irrigation on a river which is already not heavy flowing and without rain, it will be a dry river.
The Ground Swelling and the Process so far
There was enough speculation among the people about the project despite rigorous attempts by the state to create a favorable opinion among the masses about the project. In 1997, the then district collector Bijay Arora organized the first ever public hearing in Chudapali, one of the villages which will be affected due to the project. More than ten thousand people from 26 villages, which were said to be affected, came to the public hearing. The district collector invited 30 representatives from the gathering to present their views on the construction of the dam in the name of irrigation. Everyone except one representative voiced against the dam. The only person who did not cite against the dam had only said that the dam is ok as long as it does not damage the road. The district collector ironically concluded the public hearing saying that people have no objections to the dam. This was unacceptable to people who had gathered there and especially when 29 out of 30 had opposed the dam construction.
It is on that very occasion and at that place, people gathered there decided to organize their energy and fight against this conspiracy. The deceitful act of the government led to the formation of a campaign under the banner of ‘Lower Suktel Budi Anchal Sangram Parishad’ (LSBASP). A Parishad was formed in each of the 26 villages that were to be affected, according to the government record, due to the project. An eleven member team was constituted in each village with a President and a vice-President to intensify the campaign and mobilise the affected communities.
Mobilisation on the ground grew as people understood the hidden agenda of the dam project. The politics behind the dam project was becoming clear as people could see a direct connection between the dam project with the mining plans in Gandhamardan. It must be noted here that the mining plans in Gandhamardan, which faced strong opposition in 1980s, is resurfacing now since as many as 200 companies trying to get permission. Strong peoples’ resistance in Gandhamardan in 1980s had forced the company to go back even after investing 32crores. Biju Pattanaik’s government finally scrapped the project in early 1990s. But the agenda of the state to give the mountain for mining remained and it looked for ways and means to get there. The dam project, otherwise portrayed as an irrigation project, was designed to get to Gandhamardan. It is rather ridiculous to even have a dam on a river which usually does not have enough water throughout the year. The reservoir is planned as such that water could be ultimately sourced from it for mining purposes in the Mountain, especially for the proposed refinery in Taankapani, a mere 20kms from the reservoir.
This inter-linkage was not difficult for people in Suktel area to understand and when they realized the actual danger inherent in the irrigation project, the struggle even became much broader. The support and solidarity action became much more vigorous as many other movements and peoples’ organizations joined in this struggle across the state.
Sensing the danger from the government in going ahead with the project, LSABSP adopted the strategy of establishing a shrine to worship ‘Banadurga’ at the entry point in Pardhiapali village – giving a clear signal about the protest. The project faced a strong opposition from people when the government decided to lay the foundation for the project in 2001. LSBASP mobilized 30 thousand people on that day to stage a massive protest. Deterred by this agitation on the ground, the administration hurriedly located another place away from the village for the chief minister to lay the foundation stone for the project. The administration applied section 144 apart from issuing warrant against few agitators in the new area so as to keep the agitators away.
Defying the repressive measures of the administration broke the police barricade and entered the area cordoned off for the programme. Shouting slogans against the project, the youths waived black flags to the chief minister. Interestingly, the Pashim Orissa Krushaka Parishad, a government outfit in an act to appease the chief minister intentionally interpreted it wrongly and communicated to him that the group is happy about the project. Unfortunately, the state of Orissa has a chief minister who does not understand Oriya and also such protest measures. Police arrested around 70 protesters in addition to the warrants it had already issued. This was vehemently protested and demanded their release by 30 thousand people who had gathered there to oppose the project.
LSBASP continued to contact people in all the villages and build collective strength through various mediums such as cycle rally, mashal yatra, village meetings and so on. The village-wise Parishad unit was effective in building one voice of resistance. On the human rights day in December 2001, the Parishad mobilised around 10-12 thousand people and submitted a demand letter to the collector and also sent it to the President of India. Interestingly, the President’s office responded and asked for papers (20 sets) on their struggle and suggests ways of irrigation without constructing a dam. Being a mass organization, the Parishad has always given primacy to the needs of the campaign on the ground and thus the requirement cited by the President’s office was beyond their bound. The Parishad communicated to the President’s office about the their inability to accommodate the request and urged him to visit the area to understand the situation first hand.
LSBASP asked the administration on 18 November 2001 about the reasons for not consulting people before going ahead with the project.
As the Parishad intensified its campaign, the state tried to mobilize people with lucrative offers. In 2002, people of 6 villages decided to withdraw themselves from the Parishad as they fell into the state tricks of compensations and benefits. The administration continued to motivate people through various ways such as taking the village Sarpanch into their fold. The roles of the land acquisition officer (LAO) and the bank officials have been extremely destructive as they have decided to play to the tunes of the state agenda and have continued to mis-guide people. This has led to people saying yes to compensation and rehabilitation deals and another 4 villages have got added up who have dissociated themselves from LSBASP by now.
The usual trick played by the LAO is to motivate the panchayat sarpanch and getting the entire village say yes to the offers. There are several instances where he alongwith the loan officer in the bank have told people to take compensation and build houses in the same area so as to get more compensation later. In the area, there are absolutely new houses coming up rapidly. This goes alongwith the line maintained by the Rural Development Commissioner (RDC)of the state who recently said that ‘there will be only compensation and no rehabilitation.’
Despite public outcry and massive demonstrations by LSBASP, the administration went ahead and distributed compensation in Khutpali village in 2003. A massive demonstation was organized in front of the police station by LSBASP and the administration assured that no more compensation will be distributed without consulting the organization. Apprehensive about the motive of the administration, LSBASP continued to strengthen its struggle on the ground. It ahs been demanding the admistration to make the ‘detailed project report’ public which the administration has been evading. The rift between Khutpali and GS Dungripali is growing as it is fuelled by the administration.
Compensation was distributed in Parjhapali on 11 January 2004 with heavy police presence. In fact the police did flag march in the entire area to keep off the people from resisting the process.
LSBASP has always communicated its displeasure about the manner in which the administration has motivated people to take the compensation. The leadership has always maintained that they are against the dam construction and thus no question arises about discussing compensation package. They find it very unfortunate to see the RDC engaging in mobilizing the people as Gagan Dhal, the RDC once said that compensation will help people to buy vehicles which they could use during the construction of the dam and earn a living. Ever since the villages have fallen into the clutches of the administration and accepted the compensation, there is an increase in the number of egg and liquor shops, vehicles and new houses in the area. The happiness of those who have taken money is short-lived
For LSBASP 11 May 2005 was the day when the administration and the local representative made the biggest blunder so far. The day was slated for bhumi pujan by the administration and as usual there was a heavy deployment of police. The local MLA Narsingh Mishra, whom people used to have a lot of faith, had assured people that there would be no such activity in the area till the administration makes the documents public and till people agrees to go ahead with the project. On this day he duped people and got the police to raid GS Dungripali village. People in the village recount that day with horror and anguish as they stood mute spectator to the dastardly act of the police. Police picked up 70 people including minor children. Each house in that village was ransacked by the police and women were abused severely. There were 15 platoons of police deployed for this task.
People also retaliated and it can be left to imagination to think what would have happened to the local MLA if he was there. It was kind of a ceasefire that continued for quite sometime. It took more than a month for LSBASP to mobilize support and get the people released.
This gruesome act of the administration has left the people in other villages completely baffled and scared. According to a villager in Kaindapali, “we saw what happened to people in GS Dungripali as police beat people mercilessly. It was cruel and we do not want to face the same situation. Police can do that to us also and we do not want that. That’s why we said yes to taking compensation when the administration came to us.” Kaindapali is one of those villages where the people have taken compensation but now refuse to move if they are not given equally fertile land and appropriate house to stay. This is the village where a man has got Rs. 6/- as compensation in lieu of his big house. So, one can imagine the skewed way of calculations as far as compensation is concerned.
Earlier this year, 2008, the present collector said that the collectorate will engage in any kind of discussion with LSBASP only if it agrees for dam construction. This put off the leaders and they decided to meet the RDC who showed sympathy but expressed his inability to do anything. The helplessness of the state government is vividly seen all over the state. In fact, the state government is in this kind of a situation not by chance but by choice where all the decisions are made in serious consultation with the corporate and international financial institutions.
The main slogan of the movement is “Maribu pache chati pati, nai chadu; Maribu pache Daribu Nai.”
The stated objective of the dam is to irrigate Balangir and flood management. But the fact remains that ground will be prepared for mining companies to take over Gandhamardan Mountain which has a rich bauxite reserve in the name of community development by way of compensation during the irrigation project. This will essentially destroy the age-old practice of lift irrigation in the area. As mentioned earlier, this area produces maximum variety of vegetable in large numbers and the production here caters to at least 6 big towns in Orissa.
IN last more than a decade LSBASP has seen people coming together, drifting away under pressure, state repression and so on. But the resolve of the organization is far from shying away from the struggle. The organization has the following demands:
– No dam for irrigation – promote lift irrigation
– no displacement
– the rich bio-diversity can not be compensated
– government must make the DPR public
– stop state repression in the area
– withdraw the false cased filed against people in 2005
The organization functions as a mass organization and draws strength and solidarity support from like-minded groups and individuals. Each village where the organization is active has a Parishad which amalgamates with the collective. LSBASP is led by a President and vice-President who are also office bearers in the Parishads in their respective villages. Women have continued to play major role in demonstration, rallies, mobilizing people in their villages. The organization recognizes the contribution of women in the struggle but does not have a policy to have them at the decision making body. The common notion, as shared by a number of Parishad office bearers, the office bearers have to do a lot of running around and women are not in a position to do so. This is the reason, according to them, why women do not figure in the list of office bearers in any of the villages actively involved in the struggle.
Written by — Mamata Dash