Last week, Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, a BJP leader from Odisha, publicly criticised Chhattisgarh’s BJP Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh over the Mahanadi river dispute. Responding to Singh’s statement on May 29 that “We are using the Mahanadi waters. We will use more in future”, Pradhan said, “Raman Singh’s statement on Mahanadi is condemnable… The BJP Odisha unit is clear on this. Odisha’s interests cannot be compromised.”1
What is this dispute that has pitched two state units of the BJP against each other? This comes ahead of the Odisha elections next year, with the ruling BJD having taken up the issue as a major plank.
The Mahanadi rises in a pool in Chhattisgarh’s Dhamtari district, and travels 851 km to fall into the Bay of Bengal in Odisha’s Puri. The river basin, spread largely over Chhattisgarh and Odisha and partly over MP, Jharkhand and Maharashtra, drains an area of 1,41,589 sq km.
After attaining statehood in 2000, Chhattisgarh started construction of six barrages on the Mahanadi. Until then, according to a decision taken in 1983, Odisha and undivided Madhya Pradesh had agreed to resolve water disputes through a Joint Control Board. Objecting to Chhattisgarh’s barrages, Odisha filed a suit in the Supreme Court (SC) under Article 131 of the Constitution in 2016, demanding a tribunal be set up under the Inter-State Water Disputes Act. In March 2018, the Centre announced a three-member Mahanadi Water Dispute Tribunal (MWDT), following an SC order.
The tribunal so far
On April 17, Union Secretary for Water Resources U P Singh handed over the tribunal’s terms of reference to its chairman Justice A M Khanwilkar. The MWDT has sent notices to the five states to nominate their representatives by August 6.
Since March, the ruling BJD in Odisha has demanded the tribunal begin work immediately and stay construction of all Mahanadi projects by Chhattisgarh. The BJD also wanted the tribunal to instruct Chhattisgarh not to close the gates of the Kalma barrage before the river enters Odisha. In April, the BJD protested over an invitation from the Ministry of Water Resources to the five states to discuss the Mahanadi. It accused the Centre of trying to delay the MWDT’s work.
… and its politics
Fighting anti-incumbency of 18 years, the BJD used the water dispute as a campaign issue against the BJP in the Bijepur Assembly bypoll in Bargarh in February. Bargarh and Jharsuguda are the two districts through which the Mahanadi enters Odisha from Chhattisgarh. The BJD won the bypoll, after playing on alleged discrimination of Odisha by the Centre.
In March, the BJD alleged Chhattisgarh has closed most gates of the Kalma barrage, cutting water flow into Odisha.
Since April, the BJD has run a Mahanadi Suraksha campaign. In the first phase, its MPs and MLAs protested in 15 riparian districts, attacking the MWDT for slow pace of work and the Centre for its efforts to involve MP, Maharashtra and Jharkhand.
In the second phase in May, BJD conducted a Jansachetana Yatra in the 15 districts and reframed the issue from an inter-state dispute to something that affected the livelihood of Odisha’s farmers, fishermen and the Satkosia-Chilika ecosystems. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik specifically targeted BJP leaders, saying, “BJP leaders from Odisha support Chhattisgarh, yet shed crocodile tears (for Odisha)”. On June 2, the BJD announced it will launch the third phase of its agitation.
Odisha BJP’s stand
Since the formation of the tribunal, the Odisha BJP has accused the BJD of politicising the issue instead of focusing on the tribunal. Until Pradhan’s statement, the Odisha BJP had also refrained from criticising BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh. The BJP had instead been targeting the BJD for allowing 53% of Mahanadi waters in Odisha to drain into the sea and for failing to construct irrigation projects. Now, BJP leaders told The Indian Express that the BJD’s well-attended Jansachetana Yatra is “a matter of concern” and “it is important to counter BJD’s propaganda that the Odisha BJP works for Chhattisgarh”.