Impending Ecological Anarchy: Orissa will turn into a Barren Land!

Ranjan K Panda

The eastern Indian state of Orissa will turn to a mass of barren and desert like lands in another 150 years, warned Water Initiatives Orissa (WIO). This is an alarming finding considering that the whole world is observing this year as the year of deserts and desertification with the theme, "Let's stop dry lands from turning deserts". Desertification is a process of productivity loss of lands. When severe, it leads to permanent damages. Many parts of Orissa, specifically the western and southern uplands, have developed symptoms of desertification; they have further degraded from drought prone to desert prone areas. WIO has reached this conclusion using State data (Orissa Economic Survey; rainfall and temperature data from Climatologically Data of Orissa) which was also substantiated by a public perception survey conducted by Sambalpur based NGO, Manav Adhikar Seva Samiti (MASS).

WIO, a half-decade-old campaign dealing with water issues, under the auspices of MASS, has published these alarming findings in the cover story of WIO's bi-monthly Oriya language Newsletter, 'Panira Dagara' (the Water Messenger) in its latest Jan-Feb 2006 issue. The report claims that in the last 13 years, from 1991-92 to 2004-05, severely degraded land in the state has increased by 136 percent, barren land has increased by 69 percent and land converted to non-agricultural uses has increased by 34 percent. This is about 7 percent of Orissa's total geographical area. By 2004-05, as high as 17.5 percent of Orissa has turned barren or unsuitable for agriculture. The way mineral and water guzzling heavy industries are being pushed, the rate in which forest cover is thinning in the state, the rapidity with which the climate is showing changes and the rate at which degradation is increasing, the state may turn a desert even faster.

In mining and industrial districts like Raygada and Jharsuguda agriculture lands are already shrinking very fast. In Raygada district un-productive lands is nearly 174 percent higher than cultivable land. Such lands amount as high as two/ third of Jharsuguda's total cultivable area. "The way lands rapidly becoming barren and degraded, desertification is anything but a reality now," observes WIO.

Desertification will affect the livelihood of millions of people, as dependence on agriculture in the state is very high. It has been estimated that 29 lakh hectares of land have already turned barren. According to state agriculture department statistics, about 4.33 million hectares of Orissa's 6.56 million hectares of agricultural land suffer severe erosion and declining fertility. That is as high as 66 percent of total agricultural land.

Undoubtedly, the rate at which Orissa's climate is changing is worrisome. A study (M Mohapatra and U C Mohanty, “Spatio-temporal variability of summer monsoon rainfall over Orissa in relation to low pressure systems,” Journal of Earth System Science, Vol 115, No.2, April 2006) has revealed that rainfall days are reducing by a day in every 5 years in Orissa. Pattern of rainfall is adding to the pains. Information gathered from Government's rainfall records have revealed that rainfall in coastal districts of Baleshwar, Puri and Ganjam has increased, while in the Western and Southern parts of Orissa, it has decreased drastically. The recent rainfall averages in Bolangir and Nuapada districts are hovering at threatening level of around 1000 mm.

Information gathered from weather department indicates that while the global mean temperature rose by 0.5 degree Celsius in the last 50 years that of Orissa rose by 1 degree Celsius. Weather is becoming alarmingly extreme. In a decade, average of highest recorded temperatures has increased by 4.4 to 6.6 degree Celsius and the average of lowest recorded temperatures has further decreased by 3 to 5.1 degree Celsius in various parts of Orissa.

"Development emphases of the State Government have narrowed down to industrialization only without any attention given to land and agriculture, that sustain close to 90 percent of rural population," according to the WIO report. Congregation of polluting and heavy water and mineral consuming industries will further aggravate land degradation in the State.

Conservative estimates have put that if the proposed steel plants starts functioning they will alone emit 392 million tonnes of Carbon Dioxide by 2010. Further, those industrial units, at the present count, will require at least 527 millions of clean water and release those as pollutants. Washington based Institute of Policy Studies (Daphne Wysham “Destroying Orissa, Fuelling Climate Change,” Institute for Policy Studies (USA), April 1997)has cautioned that by 2010 Orissa will emit 7 to 10 percent of Global Green House Gas emission.

Two of the major rivers, Mahanadi and Bramhani, are already water stressed as far as irrigation and riparian use is concerned. Though the Government claims to have created irrigation potential for 41 percent of cultivable lands, the fact that agriculture productions still fluctuate wildly in line with rainfall and the fact that agriculture sector growth in the state has plummeted to negatives is a matter of serious concern. These water guzzling industries will further make situation worse, said the report.

Industrial explosion and population is leading to stress on degrading forest. According to 'State of Forests Reports' published by the Forest & Environment Department, between 1986 and 2003, actual forest cover has shrunk by 4,797 sq kilometers although areas classified as forest land by the state Government has increased by 2,351 sq kilometers in the same period. Soil erosion due to forest degradation is serious in 52 percent of total geographic area of Orissa.

When the whole world has geared up to mitigate the challenges of desertification, situation in Orissa is starkly the opposite. There is hardly any effort seen at the state government level to recognize this threat and work towards mitigating these. The Government seems least concerned and its policies hardly reflect any concern for desertification threat at sustainability of agriculture or environment. 2006 is being observed throughout the world as the year of Deserts and Desertification. The state should commit itself to reverse the process of desertification if its serious about poverty eradication and sustainable development.

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