Puri sans water?



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Those who have travelled through the enthralling Marine Drive road that links Puri with Konark must have been left awestruck by the wealth of nature in myriad shapes. The road is flanked by the ocean on one side and greenery on the other, dotted with villages which together produce a repository that has survived the vicissitudes, naturally and otherwise.

On the right side, while driving towards Konark, one hardly misses the signboard reading Balukhand Wildlife Sanctuary, a heritage that strived the odds from the time when India was imperial. Beyond the sanctuary limits, a long stretch of forest with casuarina, neem, cashew and a plethora of tropical herbs exists, swelling here and shrinking there, weathering the periodic scrubbing of the tidal invasions and human interventions. While standing on the road eyes hit a prism unravelling the exotica of nature’s revelries, the cascading waves of the ocean flapping at the shores and faint silhouettes of fishing boats, with coloured masts, trying to cruise through the wild waves.

As night falls the reign of nature gets predominant on and around the shores, sprinkled with innumerable red crabs crawling the entire expanse and the predators swarming on this crustacean delicacy. When night matures the blue vault practically rains the glory of a heritage that one can touch and feel. But that is the rosy side of the story.

While the Posco project in Orissa, with the largest-ever foreign investment in the country, faces the eroding heat of protests, the Vedant group is in no way safe from the public anger saturating further, day by day.

The area between Puri and Konark along the Marine Drive is not just about the beguiling beauty and tourist rendezvous that we always talk about, but this is an area which is intricately linked to a chain, so pertinent for human needs.

Water. Imagine what would be the repercussions once a vast expanse measuring over 6,000 acres gets a concrete topping. Yes, that is the grandiose global education dream being peddled by a private sector steel giant. The state government has bent over backward to provide the land to the Anil Agarwal Foundation to set up the Vedant University.

Now, not going into the merits or demerits of the project, let’s talk about what would be the direct and lateral fallouts if the university comes up in that area. Purists pleading for the environment hold the warning placard claiming that the project would simply jeopardise the entire drinking water table of the area, making the city of Lord Jagannath, Puri, thirsty in the coming years. Sounds really nightmarish!

“Puri being a coastal town it has limited sweet water sources and the British had identified such sources and had made strict laws preventing construction on such land or diversion for other purposes,” said Biswajit Mohanty, an environmental activist.

In the absence of surface water sources, Puri is dependent on ground water and any tampering with the system could be counterproductive. Puri town’s per day water requirement is about 26 million litres, but mindless spread of concrete monstrosity to the west of the town has already choked one sweet water zone in an area called Baliapanda. It’s full of hotels and the land was leased out by none other than the district administration with reckless ease. Rules were thrown on the backburner and protests ignored.

Though the town has a population of about 1. 57 lakh, it swells to several lakhs more during the festive and peak tourist seasons. For instance, in 2004 the town received about 41 lakh visitors when, apart from homes, the hotels required huge quantity of sweet water.

The only sweet water zone left is Talabania, to the south-east end of Puri, virtually from where the proposed knowledge empire of Vedant would start, spreading over 6,000 acres. Talabania is the place which is full of sweet water aquifers providing sweet water to the entire population.

“The source of this water is not from any river or stream since there is no such river or stream that charges this zone,” said Biswajit Mohanty. The ‘pundits’ in the power corridors must be knowing that the source for this zone is the area adjacent to the Balukhand Wildlife Sanctuary’s northern side, which is now being proposed to be given to Vedant group for its university. With Baliapanda virtually sacrificed to the hoteliers and developers, the proposed construction by the group may simply preside over the drying up of the sweet water zone. If the district administration can lend a look at the Survey of India’s toposheet, then they will enlighten themselves with the fact that the proposed university area, which remains flooded from June to November, is a low lying area and gets adequately recharged by the discharge of water from the distributaries of the river systems and remains wet till September. But, who cares for such reality checks!

“The stagnant water remains there for about six months serving as an extremely indispensable water sink and absorbs million of litres of fresh water which flows into this area during the monsoons,” observed Mohanty. “ It is no less serious an issue that an excellent water recharging system that has been working for thousands of years should be allowed to die over night,” rued Mohanty.

Even the authorities in the Public Health Department (PHD) are a surprised lot that in the absence of any alternative fresh water source nearby, the area is being sold out for a project which would further exploit the existing ground water for its in-house consumption.

“It is sheer complacency with which the government is ignoring an imbalance to come,” confided one PHD top brass.

It’s really a question of appeasement that governs the psyche of the government since targets are to be met. The BJD government, perhaps, wilfully set its targets so obliviously that any vital lapses stored for the future can simply be ignored.