A New Dimension of Water Conflict in Orissa: Industry vs Agriculture

Ranjan K. Panda

While water war syndrome is being contested in the internatioanl security discourse, the real water conflict remains as an active flashpoint within the national boundary. On November 6, 2007 some 30,000 farmers stormed Hirakud reservoir on Mahanadi River in Sambalpur in Orissa. The reason is water from the reservoir originally meant for irrigation, is being increasingly given to industries. The mass agitation was faced with police high-handedness injuring many. The November agitation has a state wise political ramification. The chief minister made categorical statement on not giving ‘a single drop’ of water from the reservoir to industries. The Opposition Congress declared to reconsider water allocations to industries if elected back to power. One way the mere size of the protest put a question mark over the state’s industrial overdrive.

Protesting farmers, dependent on the reservoir for irrigation, say that water allocation for irrigation has come down due to increase in allocation to industries. On the other hand the government says there is surplus water in the reservoir. With this presumption, government has allocated industries water from the Hirakud reservoir. It raises a fundamental question: has the state enough water for industries besides irrigation? The question is crucial as two-thirds of Orissa’s population depend on agriculture.On the other hand government has signed MoUs worth Rs. 3,00,000 crores with massive water guzzling industries.

The use of water for industries in Orissa is indeed phenomenal. This raises questions over whether the state will be able to meet future industrial demand of water. During 2002-2003, Orissa allocated 10 billion litres of water for producing 52.21 million tonnes of coal. This is 50 times the total urban water supply in the state. If it is not alarming, the state’s proposed production of steel, for instance, will require 1.2 billion litres of water every year. This is more than five times the total urban water supply, which is mostly sourced from the state’s 11 rivers. An official note on industries’ water needs shows that new industrial units will require 6.22 billion litres of water per day in the next five years. This much of water can support 60 cities the size of Dhanbad which hosts double the population of Sambalpur Of this, 3.52 billion litres a day is allocated or recommended and proposals for 2.34 billion litres are under consideration.

The fact remains there is not much water flows in the rivers. In its own estimate, the State government says that by 2051 the Brahmani river system has to import 2,288.47 billion litres from the Mahanadi to meet growing demands. Astonishingly the industrial demand on Mahanadi’s water will double by then!

Meanwhile, it seems the government has conveniently forgotten about the huge water needs for agriculture in the state. The government doesn’t have specific knowledge about agricultural water needs. The state had 6.59 million ha of cultivable land in 2005, of which 5.9 million ha had the potential for irrigation. Only 2.65 million ha could be irrigated. Orissa is the only major state in the country that has registered increase in the percentage of population dependent on agriculture despite agricultural production has come down. Nearly 85 per cent of its population lives in rural areas and most of them are dependent on agriculture and allied activities. It means to sustain the growing demand on agriculture; irrigation has to be stepped up.

On the other hand government pushes industrialization for securing employment to its 2 million unemployed and another 2 million underemployed youth. The proposed investment in Orissa can create at the most 175,000 jobs only. This is negligible in face of the huge demand for employment that has to come from agriculture.

Government encourages and facilitates industry that will not be an effective employer. People, those who are dependent on agriculture, see this as a direct threat to their source of livelihood. This has triggered the conflict of interests. The Hirakud flare up is just a reminder of million revolts in making on water in India. The immediate response is to strike the crucial balance among various water users.

Author Note
Ranjan K. Panda is a senior researcher and development practitioner, currently heading Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti (MASS), Sambalpur, Orissa