Mahanadi row gains political significance in Odisha

Bhubaneswar, Hindustan Times | ByDebabrata Mohanty
Jan 08, 2018 06:46 PM IST

The Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal has found a handle to counter the BJP, which is the new threat on the block.

Raising the twin issues of regionalism and central neglect has helped the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) counter anti-incumbency in Odisha many times in the past two decades, successfully keeping political rivals at bay.

A view of the swollen Mahanadi river flowing near Mundali in Cuttack.(File)
A view of the swollen Mahanadi river flowing near Mundali in Cuttack.(File)

However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turned out to be a challenge that could not be shrugged off as easily. Although the party managed to win just one Odisha seat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it piggybacked on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nationalistic credentials to rapidly become a force to reckon with.

The party scored a ninefold jump in zilla parishad seats during the 2017 panchayat elections, giving the BJD a major scare and pushing the Congress to the third position.

For a time, it seemed as if the BJD had no option but to brace for the impending saffron triumph. Fortunately, in Mahanadi water dispute, the Naveen Patnaik-led party has finally found a handle to counter the new threat on the block.

The dispute

The Raman Singh-led BJP government in Chhattisgarh has been building six industrial barrages on the Mahanadi, a river that over half of Odisha’s population depends on, for nearly seven years now. The first sign of a dispute with the upper-riparian state became visible when BJD parliamentarian Dilip Tirkey raised the issue in the Rajya Sabha in July 2016.

The BJD says these structures will prevent water from reaching at least 24 million residents of Odisha at a time when the Mahanadi is witnessing an 80% reduction of flow in non-monsoon months. Chhattisgarh denies the claim, stating that the barrages only store monsoon water that otherwise drains into the Bay of Bengal.

Stressing on the party’s claim, BJD leader Bhartruhari Mahtab moved an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha to discuss the formation of a river water tribunal under the Inter State River Water Disputes Act 1956. Though speaker Sumitra Mahajan promptly rejected it, none of the BJD members seemed particularly unhappy. They had finally found an issue to whip up popular sentiment against the BJP.

“The Mahanadi dispute is to the BJD what the Ram Mandir to the BJP,” said a senior party leader, underlining Patnaik’s need to counter anti-incumbency in the run-up to the 2019 assembly polls. Hemmed in by rising farmer suicides due to agrarian distress in western Odisha, Patnaik could not have sought a better issue to raise his evergreen central- neglect cry.

Mahanadi’s importance

The river, which runs through at least 20 of Odisha’s 30 districts, virtually fuels the state’s economy and agriculture. Apart from providing at least 60% of the state’s 42 million population with subsistence, the Mahanadi also forms a big part of Odisha’s cultural ethos. On the environmental front, as many as six biodiversity hotspots in Odisha, including the Bhitarkanika wildlife sanctuary, Chilika lake, Tikarpada sanctuary and Chandaka elephant reserve, directly depend on the river.

Once feared by residents for the destruction it wreaked through floods, the Mahanadi became Odisha’s lifeline when the state government built a 25-km-long earthen dam across its expanse at Hirakud, Sambalpur district, in 1953. Besides acting as an effective flood-control system, the dam irrigated over 2.35 lakh hectares of cropland and generated 347.5 megawatts of hydropower for the state.

What’s at stake?

The river water, 90% of which is said to flow during monsoon months, provides subsistence to over 30 million people spread across Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The Central Water Commission estimated in 1947 that in its worst possible years Mahanadi would have at least 20.61 million acre feet (MAF) of water flowing through the river on an annual basis. Of this, Odisha should get 12.28 MAF, while the rest can be used by Chhattisgarh. Experts, however, term the data outdated in view of the reduced water flow in recent years.

“The flow of water in the monsoon came down from 26.15 MAF in 2005 to 13.24 MAF in 2015 due to erratic rainfall,” said Sarat Kumar Mohanty, retired chief engineer of the Odisha water resources department. “Moreover, the non-monsoon flow of water on the Odisha side almost halved between 2005-06 and 2014-15.”

This water flow will fall further after Chhattisgarh constructs six industrial barrages — Kalma, Saradi, Basantpur, Mirauni, Sheorinarayan and Samoda — on the Mahanadi. Incidentally, four of the structures have already been completed.

The Chhattisgarh government defended the ongoing projects by stating that they would impact less than 4% of the river water. “These barrages are designed to store monsoon water, so they can be used in the summer. No non-monsoon water will be stored,” said HR Kutare, engineer in chief of Chhattisgarh’s water resources department.

Political fallout

In mid-2016, the BJD claimed in Parliament that Chhattisgarh’s dams would choke the Mahanadi — turning the river into a veritable stream. Patnaik then sought the establishment of a water dispute tribunal under the River Water Disputes Act-1956 to determine the sharing of non-monsoon water between Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The demand was rejected by the Centre.

While replying to a series of questions on the Mahanadi river issue in the Lok Sabha last week, Union water resources minister Nitin Gadkari requested the Odisha government to settle the dispute with Chhattisgarh through discussion. Gadkari said that the Centre acknowledges the right of Odisha to demand a tribunal and that it would ensure it is done in the next three months.

“A composite tribunal which will merge all the tribunals of various states is on the anvil and once that becomes a law, Odisha will get a tribunal on the Mahanadi water dispute with Chhattisgarh,” said Gadkari.

This decision could hurt the BJP’s electoral prospects in the western Odisha districts of Bargarh, Sambalpur and Bolangir, where the party did well in the local body elections last year. The BJD is already turning it into a poll issue through rallies and padyatras, telling the people how the Centre is sacrificing Odisha’s interests in favour of neighbouring Chhattisgarh.

The BJD has rejected Gadkari’s dialogue proposal saying discussions on the matter would make sense only after the Chhattisgarh government halts construction work on the river.

“There is no point in discussing the issue with Chhattisgarh as the Centre has not asked the neighbouring state to stop construction work along the upstream of the river Mahanadi,” said BJD spokesman Prashanta Nanda.

BJD MP Mahtab has also questioned Gadkari’s suggestion of holding discussions instead of a tribunal. “The Centre earlier expressed its inability to restrain Chhattisgarh from constructing the barrages and that is the reason why Odisha is not coming forward to sit with the centre for discussions,” he said. Last month, Mahtab was busy painting the Union government as biased in the Lok Sabha. “The Centre is supposed to maintain neutrality when a water-sharing dispute arises between two states. However, the neutrality of this government has been compromised,” he said.

The BJD’s campaign is finding resonance on the ground.

Jaydev Pradhan, a farmer from Sonepur’s Ulunda block, said that he has never seen the Mahanadi in such a pathetic state during peak monsoon as he did this year. “This August, the riverbed was so dry that you could actually play cricket on it. If that is how the river looks like in monsoon, imagine how it would be in summer months. Where will we get our water from?” he asked.

Several kilometres downstream of Sonepur, boatman Uddhab Behera seemed just as worried. “This time, the mighty Mahanadi resembled a small pool,” he said.

(With inputs from Ritesh Mishra in Chattisgarh)

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