Orissa's killing fields: A tragic irony

May, 2010

Value Based Learning

 The NDTV report below describes how some of Orissa's farmers have responded to crop loss due to  bad monsoons and water shortages.

Scroll down to the end of the article for questions based on the Earth Charter’s ethical principles to evaluate the situation. 

NDTV (New Delhi Television) Correspondent, 3/17/2010, Sambalpur, Orissa

Over 40 farmers in Orissa engaged in rain-fed farming ended their lives between September and December last year following a total crop loss because of a bad monsoon. 75 per cent of agricultural operations in Orissa depend completely on rains and even areas close to major irrigation projects are still deprived of irrigation cover.

As NDTV found out, families which were displaced 50 years ago when Hirakud, one of India's biggest river dam projects was built have yet to enjoy the fruits of their sacrifice. Bidu Kisan was among the 5 small farmers in Sambalpur district who killed themselves in November last year. Bidu took pesticide after a bad monsoon and subsequent pest attack destroyed his crop. He had taken 5 acres on lease and a loan of 15,000 rupees at 25 per cent interest from a local self-help group. The government says his death had nothing to do with crop failure, a claim his family disputes. "It was all because of the crop loss. He was deeply worried about repayment of debts and chose to end his life", says Deepa, Bidu's widow.

Ironically, Bidu's family is among those displaced 50 years ago by the Hirakud dam project. While big industrial units continue to draw water from the reservoir, farmers in this village, that's barely 20 kms away, have to depend on the mercy of the rain God, even today. Draupadi Bag, a villager, Khapsadera says, "We don't get water even for a decent bath. Don't you see how farmers are killing themselves because there's no water for their fields?”

According to Ranjan Panda, Secretary, Water Initiatives in Sambalpur, "The government is talking of a subsidy for pump sets, when there is no source in the villages to pump out water from. Water is a basic need and people here have been demanding irrigation facility. The government is yet to act on that."

75 per cent of Orissa's agriculture is rain-fed and over 80 per cent of farmers small and marginal. With input costs rising and no hope of getting irrigation facilities or insurance cover, just one erratic monsoon is as bad as poison.

Hirakud Dam is built across the Mahanadi River, about 15 km from Sambalpur in the state of Orissa in India. Built in 1956, the dam is the world's largest earthen dam. Behind the dam extends a lake, Hirakud Reservoir, 55 km long. Hirakud Dam is one of the longest dams in the world, about 16 mi (26 km) in length. It was the first major multipurpose river valley project started after India’s independence.

The main purpose of the Dam was to check the massive flood that was affecting a large part of coastal Orissa. But construction of the dam greatly affected the natives of the western part of Orissa. Nearly 150.000 people were affected by the Hirakud project and nearly 22,000 families displaced. They are yet to be rehabilitated and receive their due compensation from the Orissa government. In the original estimate, an amount of $2,580,000 USD was provided for payment of compensation to the affected people. After revision, the amount was reduced to $1,935,000 USD and the total compensation paid to the people was, in reality, only $645,161 USD. A large number of families were evacuated from their hearth and homes without compensation from 1956 onwards.

 A value-based ethical framework for evaluating social and ecological events, conditions and practices  Anita L. Wenden

Ecological sustainability
• Find websites on the internet which can help you understand the link between climate change, monsoons and rain patterns in Orissa.
• Refer to your findings to decide whether erratic monsoons and lack of water in Orissa are due only to natural phenomenon or also indirectly to human activities.

• The reporter entitles his article ‘the killing fields’. What is the violence he refers to?
• Were the problems caused by the monsoon dealt with nonviolently? those caused by the construction of the dam project? Explain your view.

Social Justice
• In constructing the dam, did the government use its power and wealth to benefit all the groups in the state? If not, which groups suffered? Which of their human rights were violated? Which groups benefited? How?
• The government plans to provide subsidies for water pumps to help the farmers. Will this lead to an effective and just resolution of the farmers’ need for water? of the effects of the monsoons? Why? Why not?

Intergenerational Equity
• If the social and ecological problems described in the NDTV report are not addressed equitably, how will this affect the quality of life of small and marginal farmers in future generations? members of the whole Orissa community?

Participatory Decision-making
• Has the government solicited the concerns of affected individuals and groups in dealing with the problems of Orissa’s small and marginal farmers?
• Have citizens taken their own actions to deal with the problem?
Were responses to the plight of the Orissa farmers guided by the Earth Charter’s ethical principles? Or does it violate them? Share your views with a friend and/or