August 17, 2016 3:24:36 pm
Mahanadi, which was once termed as sorrow of Odisha due to numerous floods and afterwards as lifeline of Odisha, has managed to give the ruling Biju Janata Dal a lease of life. Hemmed in by two recent controversies of police firing killing five Dalits and tribals in Kandhamal district and death of 19 children due to malnutrition in Nagada village of Jajpur district, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik could not have asked for a better issue. Such an inter-state water dispute can swiftly pale other controversies into insignificance.
Opposition Congress on Tuesday may have shut down the entire state protesting the Naveen Patnaik government’s inaction on Chhatisgarh’s attempt in damming most of Mahanadi’s water, it’s BJD which is smiling all the way through. The regional party which over its last 19 years of existence made central indifference as its slogan for its survival has discovered Mahanadi water dispute with Chhattisgarh as a magic solution for the rising popular disenchantment it faces.
While Naveen Patnaik has made it clear that BJD would take the fight on Mahanadi river to all the 30 districts, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister and senior BJP leader Raman Singh is in no mood of giving up on his state’s rights over the mighty river. Singh has said he is willing to talk to Patnaik, but the signs of a new chapter in India’s history over river disputes between states has begun .
At the heart of the dispute between the two states over the 858 km-long Mahanadi is who has first rights over the river that starts from an obscure village in Dhamtari district of Chhatisgarh and meets the sea at False Point of Paradip in Kendrapara district of Odisha. Passing through 16 of its western and central Odisha districts with its network of numerous tributaries and distributaries, the river fuels Odisha’s economy and agriculture. Immortalised in folklore and legendary singers singing paeans to its glory, Mahanadi river strikes an emotional chord in most Odia hearts.
The Mahanadi river has a total catchment area of 141,600 square kilometers, of which 53.9 per cent is in Chhattisgarh, 45.73 per cent in Odisha and very small part in Madhya Pradesh. During monsoon, it has a discharge rate of 57,000 cusecs, but in the dry seasons it is a narrow channel. It used to be a huge headache for Odisha due to the massive floods it caused till 1953 when Odisha built a 25-km long earthen dam across the river at Hirakud in Sambalpur district. The dam turned the sorrow into a blessing as it irrigated over 2.35 lakh hectare area of crop and generated 347.5 megawatt of hydropower apart from being an effective flood control system to ward off devastating floods in coastal Odisha
Chhattisgarh which became a separate state in 2000, at the same time when Patnaik became CM of Odisha, over last decade has managed to get 10 barrages and minor irrigation projects built on the river upstream. The barrages have ostensibly been built for several coal fired power companies who have also used some of their financial resources. Incidentally, Odisha did not let out even whimper on the Chhattisgarh barrages for more than a decade till last month when Patnaik raised the issue at the Inter-State Council meeting in New Delhi. Letters seeking Odisha’s no objection to these barrages from the Raman Singh government were surprisingly ignored by the Odisha govt.
Patnaik since then has written letters to PM Narendra Modi protesting the building of barrages to raising calling attention motion in Parliament without much of a success. However, he has turned the tables on opposition BJP and Congress over the river dispute issue, weeks after the opposition cornered him on the Kandhamal killings and Nagada kids’ malnutrition deaths.
While Patnaik and his party make the dispute over Mahanadi as their lifeline to be one up on BJP and Congress, it has shown the gross failure of his government in building a second dam like Hirakud to use Mahanadi waters. When he became CM in 2000, he had promised at least 35 per cent irrigation of Odisha’s farmlands, but all that he has managed is a measly 21 per cent despite numerous schemes like Pani Panchayat and major irrigation projects. The second dam over Mahanadi’s tributary Suktel in Bolangir district is still in the making as popular resistance has slowed down its construction.
With Odisha showing little interest in Mahanadi till now, it was easier for Chhattisgarh to own the upstream – the crucial segment – of the river. It brilliantly managed to remain under the radar of Central Water Commission, by building minor irrigation projects instead of major projects. During a good monsoon, Mahanadi may run its full course in Chhattisgarh and Odisha, but during an average monoon, the downstream in Mahanadi may have very poor flow. The river is already silting up heavily and a recent IIT Madras study found that the water flow has decreased by 10 per cent between 1976 and 2000 compared to what it has between 1951 and 1975.
Odisha’s long term interests lie in not fighting a long-drawn water dispute with its neighbour with which it shares a lot apart from its border, river and Maoists. Instead of earning political brownie points, Patnaik and Singh need to have more meetings to thrash out the dispute over water than fight it through a water tribunal.
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