Dozens of farmers have committed suicide in Orissa in the past one year as the Hirakud dam is no longer serving its purpose, says a new study that warns of a grimmer situation in the coming days if urgent steps are not taken.
The dam, built across the Mahanadi river, about 350 km from Bhubaneswar in the district of Sambalpur, is one of the longest in the world. It is one of independent India's early multipurpose river valley projects.
In the initial phase, it checked floods in the state's coastal areas, provided electricity to factories and homes and supplied ample water in the canals to grow a second crop every year.
"However, now these functions have been considerably reduced," said Rajkishor Meher, a reader in sociology at the government-run Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies in Bhubaneswar.
Government records show 3,509 farmers committed suicide in Orissa in the last 11 years. The opposition Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party have alleged that at least 53 farmers committed suicide in the state in the past one year.
A years-long study by Meher on the plight of farmers at the tail ends of canals served by the dam is awaiting publication in the journal Contributions to Indian Sociology.
"The dam has almost lost its principal objective of irrigation promotion and agricultural development in the region," Meher said.
"The system now hardly generates 30 percent of its installed hydro power capacity because of lack of adequate storage of water in the reservoir, obsolete technology and worn out machinery," said the expert, who has authored several books related to sociology of development and on Orissa's economy.
"Although floods in the Mahanadi was under control for some years, because of the silting of the riverbed by sand downstream of the dam, floods in the coastal region of the state have started recurring in a more aggravating form since 1980," he said.
According to Meher, the dam project had displaced 101,000 people 50 years ago, a majority of them tribals.
"Given the rate of population growth and limited success of the past resettlement and rehabilitation process, it is not unfair to say that around 200,000 people of the original Hirakud oustees might still be impoverished by the project," he said.
The reservoir submerged around 50,000 hectares of good farm land in 300 villages. As against that, it irrigated 157,790 hectares during the Kharif and 97,910 hectares during the Rabi seasons, according to official records.
"But at present due to silting of the reservoir and canals the tail end areas do not get adequate irrigation water for the second crop. The area deprived of a second crop is almost one-third of the created irrigated potential in the command area," Meher said.
"So, the effective irrigation coverage for the second paddy crop is now available for hardly 60,000-70,000 hectares of agricultural land and that is at the cost of loss of 50,000 hectares of agricultural land and disruption of livelihood of around 40,000 displaced families at present.
"Plus, availability of water for agriculture shall be reduced in future, as the area surrounding the reservoir is now witnessing fast industrial growth and mining of coal."
Meher said factories were taking more and more water from the Hirakud reservoir. "Before 1997 the total allocation of water to the industries of the region from the reservoir was 3,191,200 gallons per year. This has increased by 27 times in the past nine years and this is obviously at the cost of water for irrigation.
"In this scenario, the farmers in the tail end are going to suffer more and more."
Meher wanted "immediate improvement" in the water management in the project's command area. "If that is not done many small and marginal farmers who regularly borrow money for farming from various sources at high rates of interest may commit suicide."