Barricading the River of Life

By Bhishm Kumar Chauhan
Saradih (Chhattisgarh) [India], Mar. 4 (ANI): With its lush green fields, meandering streams, large ponds of clear water that shines like glass in the soft sunshine -nature seems to be at its pristine best in Saradih panchayat.
Situated in the heart of north Chhattisgarh in Janjgir Champa district, the region is charecterised by the river Mahanadi that runs through.
As is the case for many a community living in river basins, the Mahanadi is at the core of life here. The river is entwined with the land and its people, this life-giving source providing precious water for their needs.
The river basin is fertile ground; the entire area recharged with the flowing water is prime agricultural land. Paddy is the main crop here and it is cultivated in abundance. Apart from large farmers, the community, a large section of them dalits -are small and marginal farmers. Some are landless. They get work as agricultural labourers but they also grow vegetables on the small pieces of land available to them. The soil and the water of the Mahanadi are a boon, giving them succor.
But something is changing here. This prime agricultural land with its easy access to water has beckoned industry to this area. Under the state government, some seven barrages are in different stages of construction down the Mahanadi. These are expected to supply water to a number of power plants proposed to come up in the area. One of these barrages is taking shape in Saradih, its gigantic concrete structure standing out in stark contrast to what is essentially a pastoral landscape.
There is an uncertainty, a sense of unease amongst the people here as industrialisation is making its presence felt into the world they have known. How will it affect their lives, their fields and their ways of cultivation? There are many different questions but an underlying concern- will this disrupt the life that has carried on from their time of their forefathers?
Vimal Narayan Dani, Sarpanch, Saradih says "The Bairaj Pariyojana (a local term for the barrage construction) will take a toll on us. Many farmers have had to give up their lands and not got enough compensation."
The strain is increasingly palpable amongst a community that has known only the pastoral life over generations. Setram Jaiswal, a farmer laments, "I owned a piece of land that was acquired by the government for industry. The compensation I got is very small, nor have I got a job in any of the industries here. I don't have any other means to earn a living. The only option I have is to migrate".
For the 20-25 families who earn a living by cultivating vegetables on not only the river banks, but also on 'islands' in the midst of the river- the tension is mounting. They know that once the barrage comes up, the land available to them will go under. They are staring at a gloomy future. The water that has sustained their livelihoods till now could be the water that prevents them from the source of their earning.
"Many people in our area catch fish from the Mahanadi and sell it to earn a living. The barrage is bound to affect this " says Vimal Narayan Dani, his forehead furrowing. He fears that the water level will rise and fishing will be difficult, perhaps impossible. "What will happen to them, their families then?"
The question on everyone's mind is whether this industrialisation will give them jobs, especially those who have lost their lands to the project? The answer to this crucial question is not forthcoming. What people feel is that with the barrage coming up, the water from the river will be supplied to industrial enterprises in the area. They will probably stand to lose in more ways than one.
It is an unsettling scenario opening up. The unfortunate thing is that a viable alternative is not apparent to them. Nor is any effort being made by the state government or the district administration towards this, to ease their concerns. These developments have prompted the community to come together for a common cause; to collectivise and take up their concerns with the administration.
In a form of protest, a 'Jal Satyagraha' was recently undertaken in the waters of Mahanadii. A group of the 'Satyagrahis' went to meet the District Magistrate (DM) on the issue. Apparently, The DM gave them a sympathetic hearing and assured them that he would take up the matter with the representatives of industry in the region. According to him, this could be a step for livelihood opportunities opening up, particularly through Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) projects undertaken by these companies.
Whether this is reason to hope and cheer- only time will tell. It is however obvious that there are no quick-fix solutions. The issues at stake are fundamental ones that raise questions of industrialisation in predominantly agricultural-based regions; of compensation for land acquired for industry and ownership of natural resources in this case, the life-sustaining waters of the Mahanadi. Do these lie with the community or can they be diverted for purposes other than the benefit of the very community whose life it touches, shapes.
The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr.Bhishm Kumar Chauhan, who is associated with Charkha Features. (ANI)

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