Even as the foundation stone for the Lower Suktel Irrigation Project to construct a dam over river Suktel at Magurbeda, 30 km from here, was laid by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on November 24, 2001, 15 years down the line, it still remains a nonstarter.
Approved and sanctioned under Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme (AIBP) in1996 at the cost of Rs 217.16 crore, the Suktel dam aims to provide irrigation benefit to 31,830 hectares of land in three blocks of Bolangir district, namely Bolangir, Punitala and Loisingha, besides Tarbha block of Sonepur district.
The Suktel river is a tributary of the Tel river and originates from Harishankar and an earthen dam of 30 meter is proposed to be constructed on it.
According to initial estimate, a total of 26 villages, including 16 fully and10 partially, will be submerged. However, a further assessment and demand by people added three other villages as partially affected and total number of affected villages rose to 29.
However according to the latest report, only two dam based villages, Pardhiapali and Koindapali, would be fully submerged and rest 27 villages would be affected partially.
After the foundation stone for the project was laid, two groups of villagers emerged. While the one, Budi Anchal Agragrami Sangha, supported the construction of the dam and the other, Lower Suktel Budi Anchal Sangram Parishad, opposed it claiming it would result in loss of their native place, land, home, forest and livelihoods.
“We are opposing the construction of the dam over river Suktel from the beginning as it would result in loss of our land, forest and livelihoods, besides displacement of people from their native land .We believe in a zero displacement policy and development. If the Government wants to provide irrigation then it should look into the other options like construction of check dam, establishment of mega lift irrigation point which are less expensive and do not cause displacement. We would continue our opposition to our dam till it is dropped,” said Satya Banchhor of Lower Suktel Budi Anchal Sangram Parishad.
Out of the 29 villages, few villagers have received the compensation money towards their land/house. In the meanwhile they have neither been displaced nor rehabilitated. The villagers who received the compensation money have exhausted it and living in uncertainty. Khuntpali was the first village to receive compensation in 2004.
“Till today in 15 out of the29 villages, compensation amount has been given to people although not completely,” informed Superintendent Engineer, Lower Suktel, Belalsen Bhoi. According to sources, a large scale corruption to the tune of Rs 66 crore was detected in the project by an audit of the Government of Odisha. By forging records in connivance with lower Suktel officials, several people took away huge amount of money.
According to sources, after the project started, many people, mostly from outside of the project area of Lower Suktel, purchased land hoping to get more money once their land is acquired for the project.
In the initial stage the height of Lower Suktel dam was 36 meter, which was reduced to 30 meter subsequently. And after reduction in height, 29 villages are estimated to be affected.
Amidst the allegation of corruption and opposition by local people, the construction of spillway work started in April 2013, which was again opposed by people resulting in clash between local people and police.
Amidst all this, the arrival of Land Acquisition Policy of 2013 changed the scenario. The new land acquisition policy promised to pay higher amount of compensation to the displaced people. This created discontentment among people as a section of people who have already received compensation would get less value for their land and home, while the fresh ones would get more.
And demanding implementation of the new land acquisition policy, several organizations including Bolangir Action Committee, Budi Anchal Agragrami Sangha, staged dharna. In fact, almost a month ago, members of Budi Anchal Agragrami Sangha led by Upendra Sahu staged dharna before lower Suktel Superintendent Engineer office. Sahu was attacked by miscreants. He alleged that an official of lower Suktel masterminded the attack.
“We have appraised the situation to the Government and sent our proposal for implementation of the new land acquisition policy. Last year, the project cost touched Rs 2,500 crore from the initial estimate of Rs 217.13crore. Already Rs 586 crore has been spent. We expect to complete the project by 2025, if everything goes well,” said Superintendent Engineer Belal Sen Bhoi.
According to sources if the new land acquisition policy is implemented, the project cost would touch Rs 4,500crore by the time of its completion.
Now many opine that the Government can provide irrigation facility to farmers by setting up seven to eight mega lift irrigation points, rather than going for the huge complex project.
Till today the administration has not been able to enter 14 villages where the Lower Sutel Budi Anchal Sangram Parishad is active and villagers are opposing the project.
Ironically even as financial transparency is the buzz word of both State and Central Government, even after detection of Rs 64 crore corruption and other irregularities in this project, the crucial matter has been virtually overlooked.
Suktel is a dry river. The quantum of water flow in the river has gone down by at least 40 per cent ever since the project was approved. When the dam would be completed how much water would it store and provide assured benefit to farmers is now a big question.
However, even after spending Rs 586 crore, hardly any rehabilitation has taken place. A bill board in dam site proclaims to complete the spillway work by 2017. Going by the present pace, cost escalation, corruption, procedural and policy changes, it will be foolish to set any deadline for the project completion in near future.