The deepest cut: Political ecology in the dredging of a new sea mouth in Chilika lake - Orissa (India)

Dredging a new sea mouth at the Chilka lake: Government of Orissa. The paper reassess and debates the sanity of this proposition.

This paper published in the journal Conservation and Society reassesses/debates the decision taken by the government to dredge a new sea mouth in the Chilika Lake in Orissa, India, which was based on Geographical Information Systems (GIS) studies.

The paper argues that decisions such as these need to be understood and evaluated by taking into consideration not only the underlying technical aspects, but by also exploring the political and historical contexts in which decisions are taken. 

The paper is highly critical of this intervention and argues that decisions that are solely based on GIS studies do not necessarily depict the reality and that the ecological models that GIS studies produce are not neutral, but are products of historically and politically grounded discourses.

The paper argues that it is the 'environmental orthodoxy' that has constructed the discourse of 'rapidly shifting sea mouth' as the underlying cause for the lake's declining health and that this decision to dredge a new sea mouth to the lake has to be questioned on the basis of its appropriateness and scientific validity.

The paper traces the roots of this decision to the colonial era when deltiac Orissa was discursively reconfigured from a 'flood dependent' to a 'flood vulnerable' environment that was in need to large scale governmental interventions. The paper argues that this shift had its roots in the policies that were designed to safeguard and ensure the productivity of agricultural lands since land was a primary source of revenue for the colonial enterprise.

However, the same understanding continues to prevail in modern times a well, argues the paper. This 'high modernist' institutional culture that favours top down approaches, favours technology driven engineering solutions that rely on sophisticated models to solve environmental concerns, still remain prevalent in Orissa government circles.

The excessive focus on flood control and technofixes has ignored a large body of historical evidence that emphasises the importance of seasonal flooding for the health of the lake. This has also led to attention and direction of resources on resolving ecosystem declines at the catchment level while ignoring the larger watershed development considerations.

The excessive focus on flood control has also led to privileging of the agricultural communities and confidence in the 'expert' advice of the scientifically trained, planning elites while has led to the marginalisation of the practical knowledge, skills and traditional wisdom of the communities such as the fishing communities who depend on the water for their livelihoods and have have long raised ecological concerns regarding activities such as prawn aquaculture.

The paper argues that this decision to site the new sea mouth without taking into consideration the point of view and experiences of communities such as the fisherfolk; and the government's reliance on GIS and ecosystem models that do not take into consideration the concerns of the local communities involved, indicates a narrow compartmentalised and technocratic approach and political nature of these technologies, which need to be questioned and debated.

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