Breathing life into a dead river in Odisha
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Emotional about river’s rejuvenation, villagers say it will touch lives of 10 lakh people in 425 villages 

October 22, 2022 09:33 pm | Updated October 23, 2022 12:08 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

The Sukapaika river in Odisha’s Cuttack district, which has been dead since the 1950s, is waiting for its rejuvenation. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Sukapaika river in Odisha’s Cuttack district, which has been dead since the 1950s, is waiting for its rejuvenation. Photo: Special Arrangement

A small river which stopped flowing 70 years ago in Odisha’s Cuttack district is set to be rejuvenated as the State government has started working on its revival plan following a recent direction from the National Green Tribunal (NGT). This is probably the first serious attempt being made to restore a river to its original shape in Odisha. 

The Sukapaika River originated from another river, the Mahanadi, near Ayatpur village. It flowed 27.50 km before meeting the Mahanadi again at Bankala. In 1950s, the State’s water resource engineers had in their wisdom closed the Sukapaika river mouth enabling development of the Taladanda Canal System, a major canal of the State. This led to the river dying a painful death and the process was aggravated by agricultural encroachments that had sprung up on the riverbanks.

Villagers stage a protest demanding revival of the Sukapaika river in Odisha’s Cuttack district. Photo: Special Arrangement

Villagers stage a protest demanding revival of the Sukapaika river in Odisha’s Cuttack district. Photo: Special Arrangement

“Villagers realised the importance of the river when they faced a groundwater crisis a few years ago. The water table wasn’t getting recharged by the Sukapaika river anymore. Agriculture was hit and the river channel turned into a garbage ground,” said Swarup Rath, the main petitioner who moved NGT in 2021 demanding rejuvenation of the river.

On September 28, the NGT’s Eastern Bench directed the State government to make budgetary provision for the river’s revival and complete rejuvenation by March 2023. Though the target of reviving a dead river in span of six months sounded ambitious, the green tribunal had made its intent clear.

“The State government is readying plans to rejuvenate Sukapaika River,” Suresh Chandra Mohapatra, Odisha Chief Secretary, told The Hindu. Mr. Mohapatra recently held a high level meeting of engineers and discussed various aspects on breathing life into Sukapaika. Tenders will soon be floated. The government has, however, set a target to complete the renovation within 18 months.

Engineers involved in planning and execution said it was possible. “The State government has approved ₹49.67 crore for rejuvenation of Sukapaika River. This is not a huge amount and so the government need not show reluctance. But it requires government’s determination to make it happen,” said Sisir Das, counsel for the petitioner in the NGT.

People’s movement for revival of river

Dr. Pratap Chandra Rath, a Hyderabad-based renowned cardiologist who hails from the region, was among the first to encourage people to build a movement for rejuvenation of Sukapaika. Subsequently, grassroots-level representatives gathered and resolved to exert pressure on government for the cause.

“What made people realise the need for revival of the river was that most tube-wells were becoming defunct due to depletion of groundwater. Irrigation was the biggest casualty. The situation came to such a pass that people were not able to use any waterbody to perform last rites as they were dry. Traditional fisherfolk became jobless. Villagers encountered a host of problems without the river,” said Nrusingha Prasad Das, a resident of Bodhapur village.

In 2019, a people’s march for the river’s restoration attracted the attention of government authorities. As the movement gained momentum, public hearings were held, comments were sought and there was overwhelming support for breathing life into Sukapaika again.

Emotional about river’s rejuvenation, villagers say it will touch lives of 10 lakh people in 425 villages.

River mouth to be opened

A decision has been taken to open the river mouth which was closed in 1950s and let Mahanadi water flow into Sukapaika again.

In various affidavits, the Water Resource Department had informed the tribunal that the process had been set in motion. Cuttack District Collector in his report said as the project would change 50-year history of an area, compensation (rehabilitation and resettlement package), project evaluation, cost benefit analysis, project documentation, inter-department co-ordination and checking of water level during lean and non-lean seasons would have to be given priority.

Earlier this year, Chief Engineer (drainage), Cuttack, informed that the detailed project report (DPR) had received approval in the 133rd meeting of the State Technical Advisory Committee.

The Committee had recommended construction of one sluice on Mahanadi Right Embankment, construction of cross drainage work over distributary, construction of four village road bridges and renovation of an entire drainage channel.

The project would also require land acquisition. On this front, project proponents are happy that though people had undertaken agriculture on the riverbed after it became dry, no concrete structure came up. It is likely that making the land encroachment-free again would be easier.

The issue of diverting Mahanadi River water was also deliberated in detail. Flood water was measured at gauge site in Mahanadi River at Kisan Nagar in the years 2017 and 2021. The water level remains above 13 metres for 13-44 days in a year in the monsoon period. However, at the proposed sluice site at Ayatpur, 9 km upstream of the gauge site, the water level would be about 14.50 m to 15 m during this period.

It was assessed that approximate minimum discharge in Mahanadi at that point should be 1,14,240 cusec. This would facilitate entry of Mahanadi flood water into Sukapaika Drainage Channel for more number of days in a year than those observed at Kisannagar. This would be helpful for rejuvenation of the dead channel to a great extent.

“Rivers have been integral parts of civilizations. People’s lives will definitely change for the better if Sukapaika is restored to its original shape. We hope it happens at the earliest,” said Sayed Sajid Ali, a resident of Praharajpur and another petitioner in NGT.

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