A hydro-power project in western Orissa, proposed to be constructed at a cost of Rs 2,600 crore, has triggered widespread protests in the area. Individuals, mass organisations and leading political parties have joined forces in a bid to stall the Sindhol power project.
The Orissa government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the National Hydro-Power Corporation (NHPC), a central PSU, on July 21, signalling its resolve to go ahead with its plan to set up three hydel units in Sambalpur, Sonepur and Boudh districts.
The government declared that the proposed plants would have an installed capacity of 320 MW and that Orissa would receive 12 per cent of the output for free. The government also announced that 1 per cent of the cost of the power generated will be spent on peripheral development activities in the region.
But the local people, wary of being displaced, aren't buying the idea. Warning of huge disruption in the area, former MP and eminent social activist Bhawani Sankar Hota exhorted the government to dump the proposal to evacuate people from their dwellings to accommodate the power plants. “It would wreak havoc. We will not allow the government to go against the will of the local people,” Hota told the media in Sambalpur.
He warned that the people of the area were ready to fight tooth and nail if the government opted for a rigid line on the issue. He said the proposed project is a replica of the Hirakud Stage III project that was abandoned due to stiff opposition by local people and Opposition leaders during reign of the Congress.
Going by the present power production status of Hirakud and other hydro-power plants of the state, Hota claimed that the actual generation of the proposed units would be only 150 MW. He asked the government to scrap the proposed project as the same amount of power could be generated in the Hirakud and Chipilima power plants by improving the infrastructure and facilities there.
It was disclosed by the government during the signing of the MoU that the JVC between Orissa Hydro Power Corporation Ltd. and NHPC Ltd would implement Sindhol-I (100 MW), Sindhol-II (100 MW) and Sindhol-III (120 MW) hydro electric projects.
The former general manager of OHPC, Karunakar Supakar, blamed the government for making this move without undertaking any fresh survey in the region. He asked the government to disclose the actual position of the proposed project with regard to the exact extent of human displacement and loss of land. “When the government claimed that the project would not disturb any inhabitant of the region, there was no clear-cut substantiation of such a claim," Supakar said.
Water Initiative Orissa (WIO), a social organisation, has reacted sharply and asked the state government to initiate public consultations before going in for such a project. “Successive governments have been prevented by public opposition from going ahead. I do not understand why the present government is bent upon green lighting the project,” he said.
Sources revealed that during the 1980s, the then chief minister JB Patnaik had proposed the construction of the Manibhadra dam but had dropped the idea when the people of the entire region opposed the plan. In 1996, the project was revived under the name of Hirakud Stage III. The then Union energy minister NKP Salve visited Chipilima to push the issue. However, in the face of strong public resentment, Patnaik had promised to bury the proposal for good.
Again in 2003, during the Rairakhol Assembly byelections, Naveen Patnaik stated the project was ”no longer relevant”. Later that year, the then energy minister SN Patra made a press statement that “even though the Sindhol project has been under discussion at various levels for the last 15 years, no detailed project report has been prepared so far. According to preliminary investigations, this project will submerge 28 villages and displace 1850 families. So the government has decided not to implement it.”
In the 1990s, the state government inserted an advertisement in various language newspapers revealing that the project would submerge 118 villages, which would include 40 thousand acres of fertile agricultural land, reserved forests and homestead land.
Meanwhile, the Sambalpur Sangram Samiti has decided to launch a massive agitation against the project. Its members told the press that the Samiti would visit the proposed areas soon to motivate the people to support the agitation as the project would bring nothing but misery to the villagers. Submitting a memorandum to the government, the members of the Samiti demanded that the proposed project be scrapped.
"We do not want displacement anymore. We do not have faith in the state government as it has miserably failed to provide compensation to people affected by the Hirakud dam project after 55 years after its construction," convener of the Samiti and senior Communist leader Ashok Bisi said. The district presidents of both Congress and BJP have also decided to oppose the government on the issue.
On the other hand, on July 24, Sambad, an Oriya daily, organised a readers' convention in Sambalpur to discuss the implications of the proposed project. The editor of the newspaper, Saumya Ranjan Patnaik, declared the project ‘a dead one’ when not a single participant spoke in favour of the project. "The state government should not undertake a project when a majority of the people are clearly against it”, the editor said.