- Arundhati Roy
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Today's pick: Subrat Sahu's article on the Lower Suktel Dam Controversy.
April 29, 2013
by Subrat Kumar Sahu
‘We all are living in a gang war… [in which] the state is just another gang!’
- Arundhati Roy
In the wee hour 29 April 2013, at least 10 platoons of police cracked down on a gathering of about 2000 people, sitting in peaceful protest, on the bed of Suktel River, emanating from the magnificent Gandhamardan Mountains. Near Magurbeda village of Balangir district in Orissa, they were protesting against the construction of a dam at gunpoint on the river – their solitary lifeline – that will submerge more than 50 villages and devastate a self-reliant and robust agrarian economy. The forces came, saw the people, started beating them mercilessly, and invaded the ground. Several left injured and 16 of them arrested, including nine women. Among them were Lenin Kumar, poet and editor of Nisan (an Oriya literary magazine), and Amitabh Patra, an activist-filmmaker. Patra had received the severest of blows; understandably so, as he was filming the state-sponsored brutality live: his camera and head smashed. He fell unconscious and, only hours later, was taken to the hospital at the district headquarters of Balangir where he regained his senses.
Thousands of people of the Lower Suktel plateau have been agitating against this dam project for more than a decade now, facing brutal repression time and again. The state terror has magnified manifold since the past 20 days or so, as the state decided to push this project on war footing and complete it before elections next year – owing to unprecedented pressure from (1) the local politician class of all possible hues who have acquired huge tracts of farm land and hope to multiply returns if irrigation is ensured; (2) land mafia of Balangir who have duped and bought land from project-affected people even after the project was notified, which is illegal, in hope of pocketing hefty compensation amount (some of them are also leading a movement to raise the compensation amount); (3) big landholders of the area who have appropriated land from the aborigines (adivasis and dalits) over time; (4) the educated middle-class who see this brand of ‘development’ as a tool of salvation since the entry of a new market culture would cater to their aristocratic lifestyle and greedy capitalist aspirations (this includes many lawyers, engineers, doctors, professors, journalists, traders, contractors, and the likes). So, for the past 20 days or so, there have been unspoken brutalities unleashed on the people who have held the soil inviolate for centuries. More than a hundred people have been arrested so far and scores beaten up badly; a woman has also died of sunstroke while braving police aggression under a scorching sun.
What actually propels the state to get down to such excesses? Let’s have a quick take on it.
Nehru’s temple of doom
The fact that big dams and associated hydroelectric projects are actually NOT intended for irrigation and power-supply to people, as is always propagated, has come clearer to public perception in light of the recent controversy surrounding the Hirakud Dam in Orissa. The Orissa government’s decision to divert 478 cusec of water in 2007, originally meant for irrigation, from the dam reservoir to feed the mushrooming industries has created a political storm in the state in which ordinary folks have come out to the street in resistance. On 6 November 2007, more than 40,000 farmers gathered in front of Hirakud Dam and marched into the ‘prohibited area’ pulling down at least four police barricades in an unprecedented show of ‘civil disobedience’. The police though tried to push the demonstration back with a sudden and ruthless lathi charge, in which more than 35 farmers including women were badly injured, the successful act of civil disobedience by the strong gathering of ordinary people definitely jolted the powers-that-be in Bhubaneshwar out of their wits.
The controversy has even brought to fore how the dam has failed the originally promised irrigation plans and even produces electricity much below the promised and projected capacity. The water-carrying capacity of the reservoir has decreased drastically over the years, and nearly 50,000 acres of land in the irrigation command area has already turned dry. In such a demanding situation, the government’s plan to divert 478 cusec of water to industries would baffle any sensible mind. The fact that one cusec of water could irrigate 100 acres of land would arguably rage the farmers, especially when they were waiting for the government to set the worsening water situation right. Moreover, a large number of people displaced due to this project five decades back have not even been rehabilitated yet. Widespread reporting (for a change) of the harrowing facts that this movement brought forth into public gaze has had people learn a lot, especially that Nehru’s ‘temple of modern India’ for which innumerable sacrifices were made has only turned out to be the ‘temple of doom’ for the people! However, instead of learning from this blunder, the government kept on pushing numerous dams in various parts of the state down people’s throats, clearly indicating that dams are for industries, especially mining, and that industries are more sacrosanct than people.
Invoking the colonial ghosts
The fact that the Naveen Patnaik government has not left any doubt in public perception regarding its war-footing agenda to turn the entire state into an industrial graveyard explains it being so adamant and impatient in pushing several dubious dam projects throughout the state, despite strong opposition from the common folks as well as from environmentalists. Orissa now witnesses a sudden, uncomfortable, and outrageous influx of foreign mining and metal companies to set up shops there by destroying people’s homes, livelihoods, and cultures. These water- and energy-intensive industries, in turn, unleash unbearable burden on the natural resources, and the state government is only tamely obliging, pushing aside people’s needs and well being. Among these, the share of bauxite mining and aluminium-manufacturing units is the largest, especially in the western part of the state.
Supplying electricity and water to aluminium factories has historically been the central reason for the construction of big dams the world over. Europe and North America witnessed a spate of big dams built during the 1900s–1930s, soon after the technology of aluminium manufacturing matured in the West towards the end of the 19th century (Silenced rivers: the ecology and politics of large dams, Patrick McCully, 1998). This is because production of aluminium demands exceptionally large amounts of electricity and water. Producing one tonne of aluminium requires 15,000–16,000 kWh (kilowatt-hours) of electricity and 10,000–12,000 litres of water.
It is little wonder that the present plans for intensive mining of bauxite in Orissa alongside number of big dams, aluminium factories, and rail links actually date back to the 1920s. In fact, British geologist Cyril Fox had then outlined the whole plan for Orissa’s aluminium industry, as a colonial undertaking, involving aluminium factories, dams, railways, and ports, fed by bauxite mines on the main mountains (Double death: aluminium’s links with genocide revealed, Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, 2006). The Orissa government, of late, is only invoking the ghosts of colonial exploitation by welcoming foreign mining giants to dig every bit of the state while making their business easy by building dams, railway tracks, and roads with public and borrowed money, displacing and distressing millions of people and ensuring the state’s long-term indebtedness.
Damning a people
As the general mass is now aware of the warped intentions behind building dams, they are opposing such projects wherever there is an attempt to evict them from their homes and lands. The movement against the Lower Suktel Dam project is one such movement that is in its peak now in the Loisingha block of Orissa’s Balangir district.
The project has an interesting history, which evidently links to the state’s notorious mining agenda. The first survey for the dam project (the Lower Suktel Major Irrigation Project) was done way back in 1979; soon after it came to public knowledge that BALCO had been given permission to mine the adjacent Gandhamardan Mountains for bauxite. But, the government’s contention on the dam project then was also that for irrigation. However, a strong and determined people’s movement threw BALCO out of Gandhamardan in the 1980s and the government eventually scrapped its mining plans there. Interestingly, following that, work on the dam project also did not move ahead from there.
Now that scores of mining companies (including the infamous Vedanta and NALCO) have applied for and are eagerly waiting for approval to mine Gandhamardan, suddenly the dam project has once again become the state’s priority agenda. As people clearly see a nefarious nexus between mining and the dam, they have pulled up their sleeves in opposing it. Moreover, the government is unbending in not making public the DPR (detailed project report) despite demands from all quarters. While the people are united in fighting under the banner of the Lower Suktel Budi Anchal Sangram Samiti, government officials have earlier forced people in many villages to accept the so-called compensation money. Police force has been used mercilessly against the villagers in number of occasions and false cases have been registered against hundreds of them, including teenagers. In 2005, 52 persons (including school-going girls) from Dungripali and Pardhiapali villages were arrested, beaten up badly (two of them later succumbed to the injuries), and sent to judicial custody. They were released on bail after 21 days after the intervention of a local lawyer while the cases are still pending.
The Lower Suktel area is known as the vegetable garden of Orissa and is one of the most fertile land sites of the state. Even without any irrigation programme, the area has never witnessed drought or famine in history. Moreover, its forests are abundant in medicinal plants and revenue-generating tree species, apart from containing a rich biodiversity.
Interestingly, the Suktel River does not have much water to make way for a dam meant for irrigation. Villagers believe that it is a dangerous ploy by the state to first displace majority of the population through this dam project so that there will be few left to oppose when some inane mining giant comes to mine the Gandhamardan Mountains. There is also a plan afoot to interlink the Hati River to the Lower Suktel reservoir considering that Suktel does not hold much water. That makes it clear why a reservoir is needed exactly where it is being built. That would perfectly serve the mining company by providing it with a water source just next door.
The people’s movement against the project here offers a microcosm of the political economy of mining, linked to dams, devastation, and displacement – all in the name of ‘development’ (of a tiny sect of people, as listed in the beginning, whose greed and aspirations are acknowledged by the state as ‘will of the people’)!
While the villagers are resolute in putting up a strong resistance and had till now forced to stop the construction of the dam, meanwhile the government, after setting up several police stations in tiny villages, in the middle of nowhere, and a massive police barrack next to the dam site, has now declared war on its own people.