Friday, October 15, 2010


Water was shimmering almost all the way to the horizon. Th e gates of the Hirakud dam, more than 50 years aft er it was built, stood as sentinels guarding the Nehruvian legacy that dreamt of the ‘modern temples of India.' I am on a trip to Orissa to work on a story for the year end issue of our sister publication Th e Sunday Indian. I recall how we used to feel proud as children when the Hirakud dam was touted as the longest dam in the world; and along with Bhakra Nangal Dam, the Nehruvian thrust that would propel India towards becoming an industrialised and prosperous nation.

But, like so many other Nehruvian dreams and legacies, the Hirakud dam too is now becoming a mute testimony to the cruel joke that ‘development’ is playing on the common citizens of India. For decades, the irrigated fields near Hirakud dam produced record harvests and made the farmers of this area genuinely prosperous. Many of these farmers are migrants from Andhra Pradesh who have toiled hard for generations to leverage irrigation and water to build economic security – and even prosperity. Now, many of these farmers are committing suicide.

The reason is simple: this part of Orissa is witnessing rapid industrialisation and steel plants plus other industrial projects are mushrooming with amazing speed. They are all hungry for water, and lots of it. What better source than the Hirakud dam. Local farmers are already realising with dismay that ‘industry’ almost always gets preference over ‘agriculture’ when the state machinery is concerned. So these huge steel plants and other projects have started taking away water that for generations irrigated the fields of the farmers and generated golden harvests. Of course, they are protesting; but then the state is making its priorities very clear. It wants industry. One of the most ironical and cruel aspects of this is that the original ‘oustees’ of the Hirakud dam now face ‘displacement’ yet again because the state now wants the land they were forced to resettle in for ‘industry’.

This is not very different from the manner in which land has been snatched away from common citizens in the name of development. Virtually, all over India, places like Nandigram and Singur have become symbols of the tyrannical manner in which the State compels local people to hand over land for industrial projects and so-called SEZs without paying adequate compensation. Something similar is happening with water. Local farmers have depended on the water discharged by Hirakud dam for decades to irrigate their fields. Now that the same water will be diverted for industrial projects, who will compensate them for the loss of livelihood? Mark my words, this issue of the State forcibly diverting water for ‘industry’ is going to trigger violent protests.

In any case, the manner in which we manage water reflects how feudal and predatory our State still is. Bureaucrats and those with money have virtually unlimited access to water in their houses and use it extravagantly. People living in slums actually buy water everyday – oft en paying as much as Rs.20 per bucket. In Mumbai, officers of the Indian Navy get water supply for barely half an hour everyday. Th e powers that be have no such problem. So much for the egalitarian society Nehru dream about.


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