'Odisha's waterman'

Ranjan Panda of Water Initiative Odisha, is a researcher, environmentalist and activist. He describes the threats to rivers and water bodies of Odisha

By Jitendra
Published: Friday 22 March 2013

Ranjan PandaWhat kind of fight are you leading in Odisha?

In Odisha, our fight has multiple facets. We have a network called Water Initiative Odisha. This is a group of civil society, academia, NGOs and farmers. Our group includes people from different parts of the state and we raise larger concerns. Our group started with drought proofing efforts through revival of water bodies in drought-prone areas and then spread to cover all aspects of water issues in the state. We are also focusing on policy because of the persistent problems of encroachment and pollution. We established this network 20 years ago when we were students, but we have rejuvenated it in the past decade to talk about water issues. We believe that water bodies like rivers and ponds also have right to be healthy as ecological entities.

What cause has the network taken up recently?

For the past four years, we have been running a campaign to save the river Mahanadi. Urbanisation and industrialisation along the river are a real threat, and the river has been used to dump garbage and untreated sewage. We are also campaigning to preserve the Hirakud water reservoir which, though it is a flood control dam, is vital in providing irrigation to the rice bowl of the state.

Our organisation recently initiated a dialogue between the citizens of Odisha and Chhattisgarh as the governments of both states do not have any mechanism in place to manage the Mahanadi.

We have also started a campaign in the past six months in response to the new water policy of India which declared access to only drinking water as a right. This water is limited to 140 litres per head per day, and the rest is a commodity. We are involving children in this campaign as swimming and diving in a flowing river could be considered a childhood right. Our campaign involved 300 children forming a human chain along the bank of the Mahanadi. We started with Odisha, but plan to spread our message across the country.

Can you describe the details of your campaigns?

Our campaigns are at the advocacy level. We organise seminars, write letters to ministers and authority figures, and push media campaigns. Media has been a big help all along and with their help we have been able to reach out to both policy makers and communities on pertinent issues. We are organising dialogues and raising awareness about our initiatives in the community through media, our member organisations and individuals.

What kind of programme are you pursuing in the community?

We organise meetings with people, making them aware about the condition of the Mahanadi river and other water resources. We are also supporting people’s fight against the ecologically devastating coal fired thermal power plants, a lot of which are coming up in the state.

We are trying to connect the dots of all these different struggles. The government, to contain all these struggles, is trying to put them in isolation. The government’s efforts aim to cut stretches of rivers into pieces. It says ‘if one has sufficient downstream water, there is no need to be concerned about upstream water’. Farmers are giving up agriculture because irrigation has suffered. The government is giving away water to industries. So, at many places, it has been justified that there is no need for water. The government doesn’t give cumulative pictures and figures. There are numerous thermal power plants coming up on rivers. The cumulative impact of these plants are not taken into consideration. We are trying to build a network of people, and to increase their awareness of water issues.

We are also raising the issue of the Baitarni river. But our focus is on awareness campaigns, monitoring and advocating policy change. At Baitarni, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is financing an Integrated Water Resources Management Project. The people of the basin have been ignored in planning this and the basin is being given away to industries and mining at cost of drinking water, irrigation and ecology. We had a series of meetings with people on monitoring projects planned along rivers.

We are concerned about climate refugees due to rising sea levels in coastal areas, drinking water issues because of fluoride contamination in the western belt, as well as salinity in coastal areas. WIO is trying to gather information, disseminate it and start dialogues on these issues.

Has this effort led to any policy change?

To some extent we have succeeded in putting pressure on the government. Now the government has decided to study flood plain management and prepare a policy for it. It is due to our advocacy that the government has taken some steps to identify and demolish buildings erected on flood plains and has already served notices to some. Let’s hope this is implemented.

We are now pressuring the government to draft a policy for fly-ash management. This is major menace. Odisha has become a dumping ground for fly ash because of increasing number of thermal power plants. The thermal power plants near water bodies may lead to big disasters in coming days. They are going to kill the rivers. The chief secretary recently said that they are seriously considering a fly-ash policy. Our efforts get visible at some level of decision-making of the state government. Similarly, we are also talking about an energy policy.

Is your network facing any type of legal hurdles?

Not yet. But we are supporting those people who have been fighting legal battles on the Mahanadi issue.

We are trying to keep track of water tax, penalties, and tax evasion by industries. But we are not directly involved in legal action. We are planning to go to court against release of effluents into the Hirakud reservoir.

What about problems with industrial sites?

The government is only allowing industrial projects and investment to come up in the state. It does not care about ecological costs. The state is somehow taking natural resources for granted, and thinks that rivers and water bodies are there to dump industrial waste. That is why we are trying to challenge the mindset of the government.

Siting industries at the bank of rivers and canals gives the industries opportunity to easily flout the law. They can overnight throw pollutants in rivers.

There are few incidents of fly-ash ponds breaching canals. There are number of things that suggest it was deliberately done. The state pollution control board only serves notices, but no visible action is taken to curb industrial pollution. Effluent treatment plants should not be located on the banks of rivers and water bodies.

There is a need for a strong policy which will specify the distance of industrial sites from water bodies. It can solve a lot of problems.

We are also raising awareness about keeping floodplains free of encroachment and garbage. Industries are violating rules with the help of flowing water and garbage is being dumped unabatedly. In Hirakud reservoir, which supplies homes downstream with drinking water, there are many industries along the bank which dump effluent at night, and it all goes downstream. One cannot find out which unit has thrown it into the reservoir water. There is a need for a monitoring unit to check this menace. In many cases, industries are getting permission without proper environmental clearances. And wherever they get such permissions, they flout the rules without any fear of law.

Apart from all these efforts, what are your larger concerns?

I have a concern regarding the human race. We are of the mindset that only a human has the right to live, other things do not. Our emotional attachment to water bodies is reducing. If we do not revive them, the next generation will not see this free flowing river.

I feel urban populations are water insensitive when it comes to the use and abuse of water. Urban people accuse the poor of wasting water as their activities are visible. In fact, it’s the urban people who consume more water and misuse more. There is going to be a civil war between rural and urban India. In urban areas, young people grow with the idea that natural resources are a commodity. We should not leave the fate of our water to the decisions of the bureaucracy. These people have failed badly to manage our water. Rural people who are water-sensitive and water-judicious should be brought on board in policy making. Before we are compelled to drink urine, we should work to maintain the flow of water.  

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