Hirakud Dam and Plight of Its Oustees

Displacement for larger public interest has been a welcome phenomenon in a democratic and welfare state like India. Correspondingly, when it comes to restoration and adequate rehabilitation of the displaced, the state has to be proactive and provide a model of ethics and democracy. However, the past accounts and existing circumstances clearly suggest that there has been a severe abdication of this responsibility on the part of both the regional and central governments in considering the plight of the Hirakud dam oustees, particularly those who have not been properly rehabilitated yet.


The idea of the Hirakud dam project was potentially dynamic and productive since it was intended to serve multiple purposes for the substantial population of Odisha. But the circumstances clearly underpin that the dam oustees have been grossly neglected and deprived from their legitimate rights by the state power till date, that is, even after more than 63 years of the completion of the project. Primarily, the dam was proposed for flood management, hydropower production, irrigation and navigation. There were several justified reasons for the construction of a dam on the Mahanadi river at Hirakud. 

However, the initial phase of land acquisition and people displacement was trouble-ridden and the affected people staged agitations and showed their unwillingness. Despite people’s resistance and indifference, they were persuaded for the greater cause and displaced with the assurance of immediate rehabilitation and adequate compensation for their sacrifice. There are several accounts over the circumstances of post-stage development. This includes a dark history of rehabilitation ventures and inadequacy in its fulfilment of the purposes originally spelled out. Time and again, the displaced people have organised under the banner of Hirakud Budi Anchal Sangram Samiti, which has been spearheading movements since a long time for compensation for the oustees of the dam project, but without many adequate and constructive outcomes.   

Displacement and Rehabilitation 

The construction of the dam induced a major displacement of people in Odisha and undivided Madhya Pradesh. About 1 lakh people, excluding Madhya Pradesh, were displaced in the erstwhile Odisha alone. The construction work of the dam started in 1946 and was completed in 1957. All land above river level (RL) 632 feet was acquired under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894 (Government of Orissa 1968). By the time the construction was complete, it submerged 325 villages (291 villages in Odisha and 34 villages in undivided Madhya Pradesh) covering 1,83,000 acres of land, including 1,23,000 acres of cultivated land (Government of Orissa 2007). 

The government of Odisha announced its rehabilitation policy as early as April 1946, when construction had started. The policy included both the methods of cash compensation and physical rehabilitation. Compensation for lands likely to be submerged proposed in the feasibility report ranged from ₹50 to ₹1,000 per acre, according to their classification1 in terms of productivity. However, in reality, they were paid more or less at a rate ranging from ₹200 to ₹600 per acre, which was much lower than the market value back then. Similarly, the amount of compensation for submerged houses was too little and insufficient to construct a new home elsewhere (Government of India 1947). Besides that, each household was willing to accept compensation in money which would be paid according to the value of the land and house lost; and those who were willing to accept compensation in kind would be provided land and houses. The government promised that the resettled villages would be provided with modern amenities like water, electricity and the resettled evacuees would be vested with the proprietary right on the lands allotted to them. As a part of rehabilitation initiatives, 12 colonies were established for 28 villages. 

Deprivation and Sociopolitical Stigma     

The nature of deprivation and stigma is found to be profound and widespread among the oustees. Here the accounts of the first generation, that is, the successors of the evictees and who had witnessed the impact directly have been taken into consideration. Their narratives related to problems induced by the megaproject, can be categorically understood in terms of landholding, agricultural inputs, gain and loss, sociopolitical withdrawal and stigma, unstable sources of economy leading to abject poverty and inadequate schooling, higher education and availability of basic public amenities despite the occasional assurance in election manifestos. Deprivation has been an unabated and widespread cycle in the life of dam oustees. 

Agricultural practices were major sources of livelihood for the people prior to their displacement. They had substantial fertile household land possession and it was fairly distributed among them barring exceptional existence of the landlord system. Paradoxically in the present situation, neither do they possess ownership of even a marginal piece of land nor do they have any sustainable source of livelihood. Fishing and forest collection, although common practices among these people, often do not provide a stable livelihood. People living in colonies and on the bank of reservoir also work in urban areas like Ib thermal power station located at Banharpali, Gumadera, Belpahar, Brajarajnagar, Jharsuguda and Sambalpur on regular basis, where they are mostly engaged as unskilled wage labour in hazardous conditions and, in very few cases, they are employed as skilled workers. 

Absence of ownership of land among these people leads to deprivation at many levels. The displaced people feel dishonoured and deprived for not owning even small landholdings, for being treated as encroachers and for their inability to avail the support offered by the government to the people living under the panchayat raj. Now, they have started developing a sense of distrust and hopelessness with a grave sense of disappointment against the government. Lack of proper compensation and rehabilitation by the government forced the displaced people to move to different places to settle themselves. It resulted in a severe livelihood crisis, with the spread of health hazards and disease in their initial period of self-resettlement. Submergence of their land under the Hirakud reservoir forced them to reel under various socio-economic crises and marginalised them in various aspects of their life (Nayak 2010). 

As many as 34 villages settled on the surplus land, acquired by the government, of the reservoir are not treated as “revenue units” which caused exclusion from all revenue-related developmental schemes. People living in these villages are often looked upon as encroachers and the voices of these people are not paid much attention to in public meetings held at the local levels starting from village panchayat to block level forums. Balgovind Baboo (2009) reveals the fact that “some 4000 families have not received their compensation and it would be difficult to do so now as most of the records have been destroyed.” However, the people settled in the colonies  mostly depend upon forest collections and marginal agro-products for their livelihood. The 34 displaced villages have settled on the bank of the reservoir and  mostly depend on fishing and cultivation in the surplus land.2 Other than cultivation, fishing has been a major source of livelihood for the people of these villages. 

One of the outcomes of this project has been that these displaced families are now being treated as encroachers on the reservoir land. At the initial stage of the resettlement on the surplus land, the water resources department used to lease lands to these farmers for cultivation on a yearly basis. The reservoir administration also discontinued leasing out this land for cultivation in recent years. These villagers have been helplessly struggling for obtaining revenue village rights and land rights on their settled land. 

In 2005, the government of Odisha decided to provide 0.10 acres of homestead land to the displaced people. However, there is very little progress in this regard. On 22 August 2011, the revenue minister of Odisha declared that the non-revenue villages in the peripheral region of the reservoir, falling between 630 to 632 reservoir levels will be regularised.3 These villagers are presently described as encroachers and denied basic facilities for the last 53 years (Choudhury et al 2012). Compared to other villages in the region, these villages have poor access to schools, colleges, post offices, health centres and road connectivity. At the time of construction of the dam, different traditions and cultures of the people of western Odisha were affected severely due to bitterness of displacement. The displaced people lost connections with their neighbourhood and community assets. Now due to diverting water to industries, livelihoods of thousands of farmers and fishermen are at stake (Thakkar 2009). 

A typical incident of deprivation is found in Tetiliabahal, a village of 15 families located in Banjari panchayat of Jharsuguda district where all families are classified as below the poverty line. There is no facility of electricity and drinking water. Children of the village walk up to 7 km to get to school (Pradhan 2017). Commenting on the plight of the displaced, Baboo (2009) argued that “they felt completely alien in the new locality and suffered from the stigma of “reservoir oustees.” Their overall life span was low as they suffered from mental trauma and hard physical work so essential to survive in the new places. Women suffered more than men and kids suffered from stolen childhood without proper schooling and merry-making.” Participation in sociopolitical affairs by the displaced, which contributes in the productive development both at the individual and collective levels, has been found to be restricted. Often, they have been victims of sociopolitical stigma. For instance, if a person requires a residential or caste certificate from the tehsil office, they require to be certified by the sarpanch,  where the concerned sarpanch reveals the identity of the person. These practices often leave the people at the mercy of the village chiefs at the local level of governance. However, certification is not a requirement for a person having landownership or patta. Such circumstances create a sense of identity crisis, destitution and statelessness among oustees. Prior to displacement, people used to have substantial land possession adhered with self-sufficiency and esteem. But today they live at the sympathy of the village chief and officials of the local government. The relevant question asked by all the evictees, is why they should beg for their identity and certification of residential affiliation? Why should they not be restored with minimum respect even after several decades have passed to their sacrifice, for the larger public interest? 

Oustees also narrate that due to indifferences to their identity, they often prefer to withdraw themselves from taking part in various sociopolitical affairs. This further escalates their impoverished condition. The Government of Odisha claims that payment of ex gratia compensation and distribution of homestead land, agriculture land, and land records of rights to the displaced, have been duly completed along with the provisions of basic amenities. The regional government in its defence claims that people have been duly compensated. But in reality, thousands of people, particularly of those 34 villages who are considered as encroachers, have not been not compensated with the land for housing and cultivation, as promised at the time of displacement, and till date. Some people got cash compensation almost at the end of the 20th century, at a grossly unjust rate when compared with the market value of the land at that time. There are hundreds of appeals placed before the tehsil-level officers, district collectors and revenue divisional commissioner for settling their dues and demands but their appeals have not been taken seriously yet by those concerned officials.     


People have developed a sense of distrust towards the state. The customary irresponsible behaviour of the regional government in particular is causing a trust deficit among the displaced. Nevertheless, given the challenging circumstances, their trust can be restored even after more than 70 years of hardship that they have had to face. Without further delay there is a need for immediate constructive intervention on the part of the state government so as people can live a respectful life. 

Since there has been immense delay in addressing the problem in a comprehensive manner, certain obvious situations, such as land encroachment, distribution of available marginal land among the successors, political affiliation and social distance have been created by the passage of time. Hence, the government has to develop need-based strategies to deal with the complex nature of the problem and to restore the faith of the displaced. The responsible local governments have to take the matter seriously and constructively rather than keeping a distance from the issue. There is a need for organised teamwork by the eyewitnesses of displacement living in these villages, revenue officers and local police officers led by the district collector. There should be provisions of punishment and disciplinary action against the non-cooperative elements in the work towards rehabilitation and settlement initiated by the legitimate authority.  There is a need for proper coordination between ground and apex level machineries, including the chief executives, of the government on a priority basis till the end of the settlement process. 

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