Odisha - Mahanadi is Dying... With Her Children

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The politicians’ greed in both Chhattisgarh and Odisha has left people in the latter state with little water that is highly polluted, and no one cares, as a field visit shows

Ranjan K Panda

Ranjan K Panda

The author is a known expert from India on water, sanitation, environment and climate change issues. He has more than two and half decades of experience at various levels - local to global

Under a scorching sun, with the mercury kissing the 45 degree mark, as the water tanker supposedly carrying filtered water reaches Darlipali village located in the area with three coal mines of the Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd. (MCL) in Odisha’s Jharsuguda district, women of all ages throng to fetch a few buckets of water. That’s the only source of water that looks clean to the eyes, but the quality of which, of course, no one knows.This scene is repeating in this village for three years now, after several decades of struggle.

Odisha and Chhattisgarh, sitting on one of India’s richest coal reserves, have locked horns over the River Mahanadi.Both the states are competing to encash the coal reserve that is housed in the Mahanadi basin and have invited hundreds of industries, including coal fired power plants, sponge iron factories, aluminium smelters, so on and so forth. Odisha complains that Chhattisgarh, that’s upstream of the river, has been obstructing water through several dams and barrages and hence there is drastically reduced flow to Odisha that jeopardises irrigation projects, drinking water projects and ecological services.

When one visits a village like Darlipali in the coal belt of the basin, one gets a confirmation that the inter-state river water dispute is going to go worse in the near future.What’s more, the already existing water wars inside the states – both of them – are going to be fiercer.And in all this, the poor tribal, dalit and other indigenous communities are going to suffer the most.Their fundamental right to clean water doesn’t exist, and the state that is fighting for water obstruction by another state has killed all local water resources with mining and related industrialisation.

Demanding Displacement!

About 85 families live in four hamlets in this village.A few of them, who acceded to the false promises of proper rehabilitation by the MCL, shifted to another area and suffered without basic amenities there too.The rest who stayed back have been demanding to be displaced with latest rehabilitation packages.We visited the village on a few months ago.The day before, a meeting was organised with the villagers by the district administration to convince them about shifting to rehabilitation colonies.This must be the 100th odd meeting in three decades, but the administration has failed to convince them. MCL started acquiring land from 1983.

Under shoddy provisions of the old Coal Bearing Act, all their farm lands and forests, on which they had been traditionally dependent, were acquired by the mines but their homestead lands were not. This means, people are left to die inside mines or else shift at their own cost.Only a few people were provided with some jobs, mostly menial as they had no required qualifications.

Villagers complained that many job holders had to leave their jobs just after a few years of joining because of ill health.People who were living in healthy environment on their lands and forests were forced to become labours at the hands of the mining companies. They could not cope, both with the type of work and polluted workplace.

The three mines that encircle the village have aproduction capacity of 28.35 Million Tonnes Per Year (MTPA).Two of the hamlets were forcefully evicted in the early eighties by using police force and the mines swallowed the only drinking water source of the village i.e. the 8 acre kata, a water body.Forests were destroyed and agriculture became useless because of the thick layers of mining dust.The mines engulfed one perennial stream (named Phuljore nullah) and has polluted another, the Lilari nullah.

The Lilari nullah, now the only source of bathing and meeting other domestic requirements, is highly polluted as untreated mining waste water and other pollutants enter into it freely and openly, as the people complain. Widespread greasy and black substances in abundance are visible to bare eyes.

The entire Ib Valley, under which this area falls, has been found as a severely and critically polluted region on the basis of the Comprehensive Environmental Pollution Index (CEPI) of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).According to views of the board officials, as published in newspaper reports, five mines under the Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL), Samaleswari, Kulda, Vasundhara, Lajkura and Belpahad, have been identified as the major sources of pollution in the Ib valley.

The villagers are solely dependent on the tanker supplied water.Just a few years ago they were dependent on the Lilarinullah for drinking water as well and used to bring water by digging chuans (small wells) in the river bed during summer season.In fact some people still do that because they believe the water supplied through the tanker does not boil the food properly.

It’s only for three years that the tankers are supplying water, that too after a lot of agitations including road blockades, petitioning the District Collector and resorting to many other forms of protests.Even though the tankers come regularly, there are gap periods due to problems either in the filtration plant or the vehicles with the contractor.

Summers of Coercion

The summers are worse as Lilari’s pollution load increases due to reduced water flow.Last month, after sustained agitation, the government has agreed to lay three water tankers in the village to which the water will be supplied from the filtration plant of MCL that is about 7 kilometres away.They started to install the same just a day before we visited.

The message for Darlipali is clear. Unless they agree to succumb to the government and MCL pressure of accepting forced and inhuman rehabilitation, they don’t have right to clean drinking water.

Not very far from Belpahar, the most important town of Ib Valley, the Junanimunda villagers face another unique form of water scarcity.Their village is located on an Under Ground Mines of the MCL.The underground is hollow and the only surface water body, a pond, is highly polluted due to the nearby coal mines.The villagers, for decades, had been dependent on two ‘jharnas,’ small springs that come out from the ground at two places downstream of the village pond.The villagers had constructed walled guards on these springs and used this water for drinking.

Pollution of the pond water and construction of electricity poles on the fields, where these springs have come up, have made the villagers abandon the springs.As such also the dried up pond and excessive heat has reduced the flow of these springs for about a decade.

After decades of struggle, including blockade of the main road that connects the district headquarters to Belpahad and the mines, this small tribal village has not got any justice from the authorities.A water tank was constructed in 2009 at the entry of the village, the government officials promised to link it to the nearby water supply system but nothing happened. The villagers rue, they only got a few days of water supply through this. It now lies defunct.Citing dry rivers, the authorities have even stopped tank water supply to the village.

To laugh at their ill fate, the local MLA has constructed a huge Sai Temple just a few hundred meters away spending near about 5 million rupees. The Forest Department has made an urban forestry project just near this temple and an ‘avenue plantation’ corridor has been developed.All of them could get water, but not the villagers who have sacrificed for the nation, all in the name of development.

Ib is one of the major tributaries of Mahanadi.The Lilari joins the Ib at the Hirakud reservoir, one of world’s longest earthen dams that has become a matter of conflict between the two states. In fact, Hirakud reservoir has led to the faster exploitation of coal by bringing in infrastructural and other developments to the area. Hirakud water attracted most of the industries to the Ib Valley that borders Chhattisgarh.Near to 90 per cent of Hirakud’s catchment falls under Chhattisgarh and that’s another reason that state is now trying to reclaim the catchment by obstructing Mahanadi water through dams and barrages. Hirakud was built in the early 50s and no such large dam has been built ever after in the Mahanadi system.

In this aggression, Chhattisgarh has planned to become the coal power production hub of the nation.And in doing that, it has utilised both government and private investments to build the barrages. Most of these barrages have been built to provide water to thermal power plants under guise of irrigation.

Kelo is one such dam on the Bad Kelo river that joins Mahanadi just above the Hirakud reservoir. It has been completed in 2012 and obstructs a major tributary of Mahanadi, thereby affecting hundreds of villagers downstream Odisha whose lives and livelihoods are completely dependent on this river.

Supreme Concern

Odisha has moved to Supreme Court for formation of a Tribunal for settlement of the Mahanadi water scarcity caused by Chhattisgarh.In case of Kelo, as we visited the dam project at Raigarh, Odisha’s apprehensions were found correct.The dam, that has been built to provide irrigation benefit of 26,800 hectares in 175 villages located in two districts, Raigarh and Janjgir Champa, has not yet provided irrigation to a single hectare of land.

In these four years, industries have already started to draw water. More importantly, the Kelo dam has not been adhering to the terms and conditions mandated in the Environmental Clearance (EC) granted to it by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India.Talking to locals,we got to know that the dam had not been releasing water regularly, as laid down by the EC.

Just about four days back from the day of our visit, acceding to the complaints of Raigarh locals – who had been complaining about the stink of the filthy river for a month now – the dam authorities released some water through one gate.

Focus: Industries

Government of Odisha took several years to recognise this problem despite repeated agitation by villagers. The current concern of the government is being looked into as more of an effort in response to problems the government might face in supplying water to industries than anything else, as can be found out from the villagers’ views and Odisha’s moves. Reduction in Kelo’s flow will reduce the non-monsoon flow into Mahanadi and Hirakud a lot, affecting thereby the prospect of industries to whom the Government of Odisha is committed, bound by agreements, to supply uninterrupted water. The irony is that most of these villagers, be it in Ib basin or Kelo basin, had been displaced by the Hirakud dam project in the 50s. While they are yet to get basic minimum amenities including safe drinking water and irrigation, the fight around Mahanadi’s reduced water is more of a competition between the two states to not fail in fulfilling their promises to industries.

The Mahanadi dispute is more than just a simple fight over water sharing between two states.It is about survival of the people and ecology.Mahanadi is gasping for life, and with it, the local communities.

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