In line with the Supreme Court’s order in January, the Ministry of Water Resources last week notified the setting up of a Tribunal to resolve the dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over the sharing of the waters of the Mahanadi river. What is the background to the dispute and, going beyond the political rhetoric in both states, who are the parties actually affected by it?
The Mahanadi rises in a pool 6 km from Farsiya village in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district, and winds 851 km broadly east to fall into the Bay of Bengal close to the temple town of Konark in Odisha’s Puri district. The river basin is spread over Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and small parts of Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, and drains an area of 1,41,589 sq km, with a maximum length of 587 km and a maximum width of 400 km. Some 54.27% of the basin area is agricultural land, and 4.45% is water bodies, according to the National Water Development Agency, an autonomous society under the Ministry of Water Resources, which studies the river systems of peninsular India.
The Chhattisgarh government, in its reply to Odisha’s plea in the Supreme Court for an injunction to stop work on six industrial barrages upstream on the Mahanadi, provided the following timeline.
#In 1983, the Chief Ministers of Odisha and undivided Madhya Pradesh agreed to resolve “all water disputes by a mechanism of Joint Control Board” to “review the progress, from time to time of survey, investigation, planning, execution and preparation of joint inter-state irrigation and power projects” and to “discuss and resolve any issues.”
#In 2000, Chhattisgarh was created.
#In November 2016, Odisha filed a complaint in the Supreme Court, and in the following month a suit under Article 131 of the Constitution (disputes between states and the Union, or among states) to plead for the setting up of a Tribunal under Section 3 of the Inter-state Water Disputes Act, 1956.
#In its reply in December 2016, Chhattisgarh asked Odisha to form the “Joint Control Board” proposed by the 1983 agreement.
#In January 2017, the Centre formed an 11-member negotiation committee to resolve the dispute. Odisha insisted on the Tribunal instead, and stayed away as the committee met in February 2017. The committee held a meeting again later that year.
#Meanwhile, the Union government’s statement in Parliament to set up a tribunal was overturned with Minister of Water Resources Nitin Gadkari’s proposal to form a joint control board for “early resolution of the issue.”
However, on January 23, 2018, the apex court directed the Centre to notify a Tribunal to adjudicate the dispute. The Tribunal, which the Centre notified on March 12, has been asked to “determine water sharing among basin states on the basis of the overall availability of water… contribution of each state, the present utilisation of water resources in each state and the potential for future development”.
In its 2016 plea to the court, Odisha asked for Chhattisgarh to be restrained from constructing and operating six industrial barrages, Samoda, Seorinarayan, Basantpur, Mirouni, Saradiha and Kalma, “pending constitution of the Tribunal”. Biju Janata Dal MPs had said in Parliament that year that the damming of the Mahanadi by Chhattisgarh would choke water supply to Odisha. The state had moved court after the Centre rejected its demand for a Tribunal. “These are purely illegal constructions for the benefit of industries carried out by Chhattisgarh, which has been choking the water flow to the Hirakud dam in Odisha,” BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab had told The Indian Express after the Cabinet decided to set up the Tribunal last month.
“The joint control board was not constituted for 35 years and it was intended to look into construction of smaller projects and not for resolving inter-state issues,” lawyer representing Odisha in the apex court Mohan Katarki told The Indian Express. “As for the negotiation committee that was set up by the Centre, we rejected that because it was intended more as a fact-finding body than a negotiating one.” Chhattisgarh, on its part, has rejected Odisha’s claims, and told the court that the plea was “misconceived, baseless”, and “premature and not maintainable”, according to the reply filed by standing counsel for Chhattisgarh, Atul Jha.
The dispute has become a political issue in Odisha. Following the BJP’s success in the local body elections of 2017, the BJD sought to use the Mahanadi to portray the BJP as being anti-Odisha and pro-Chhattisgarh (where it is in power), a pitch that it amplified during the campaign for the February 24 Bijepur Assembly bypoll, a crucial test for both parties ahead of the Assembly elections of 2019. The Centre announced the setting up of the Tribunal four days before the vote. However, the BJD won easily, and declared that the Mahanadi water dispute had played a decisive role in the election.
According to Shripad Dharmadhikary of the Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India, a non-partisan citizen’s group, the inter-state dispute has taken the focus away from the older, more relevant struggle of small farmers against large industrial interests in both states.
Back in October 2006, about 25,000 farmers had formed an 18-km-long human chain around Burla near Sambalpur in Odisha to protest the government’s decision to provide water from the Hirakud reservoir on the Mahanadi to upcoming industries. The farmers had pointed to the “adverse impact” this would have on farming.
“Orissa started allocating water from the Hirakud project to industries,” Dharmadhikary said. “That, combined with the poor maintenance of the canal system, provoked a very strong struggle from farmers in Odisha.” This clash between farming and industrial interests was at the time visible in Chhattisgarh as well, where similar allocations were being made to thermal power plants, Dharmadhikary said.
Over the past few years, however, the narrative has changed — in Odisha, specifically. Dharmadhikary said, political compulsions have nudged it in the direction of, “We are not able to give water to our farmers because Chhattisgarh is bringing in new projects”.
Experts such as Dharmadhikary argue that while the Mahanadi Tribunal will follow “conventional, established paradigms of water management”, it may be time, “to revamp the way we think about water disputes”, and look at actual stakeholders beyond just the state governments.
(With Sampad Patnaik in Bhubaneswar)