Today seemed to be a day of interviews for me with various news channels. As Hirakud dam, Asia's longest earthen dam and the largest dam on Mahanadi, turns 60; the day is certainly one of reflections.
When this dam was built, immediately after India attained independence, it was considered a modern temple by the then PM of India Jawaharlal Nehru. People who were submerged and were thrown out of their homes and villages could never get properly compensated. It is said, more than 8000 families are yet to get any compensation even though the Dam celebrates 60 years of existence.
The dam has certainly created the rice bowl of Odisha with the command area irrigation, but has destroyed sustainable farming practices and traditional irrigation. It has increased dependence of farmers on poisonous pesticides and invited industries that keep sucking its water without doing anything to recharge the river and replenish the water they draw. The same farmers, who once prospered with Hirakud water, are now fighting a battle for survival as industries snatch away their share of water.
The displaced people were virtually thrown inside the forested areas and were mostly left to themselves to develop their own farm lands and rebuild their livelihoods. Most of them are yet to get the benefit of assured irrigation even though their ancestral lands have been used for irrigating others' fields, to supply water to industries and urban areas.
The dam, that was originally built to control floods in coastal Odisha, has now spread flood menace to western Odisha as well. It miserably failed in power generation targets too. There have been disastrous environmental impacts of the dam, starting from climate change to desertification. However, there is hardly any mechanism in our systems that study the dams' multiple impacts thoroughly. That's the reason, our planners keep pushing for more dams.
The Hirakud dam is old and ailing. It's designed life span is 100 years but several problems, including siltation and cracks, is surely going to end majority of its functions much before that. Chhattisgarh is now blocking more water than before and soon will deprive the dam of water that is needs to stay alive with its multiplicity of functions.
Time the government and people debate these issues and plan a strategy of decommissioning of the dam in a way that does not affect the irrigation and water supply to people at least. Rest of the functions can be done away with!
Convenor, Water Initiatives Odisha (WIO)
Mahanadi River Waterkeeper (Member, Global Waterkeeper Alliance)