India’s sixth largest river Mahanadi is now witness to a bitter political fight between its two major riparian states.
A river that is already fighting for its life because of excessive exploitation of the water by industrialization and negative impacts of climate change can hardly afford this fight.
But the states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh are fighting and it seems this will lead to a war. This war is not going to do any good for the cause it is being fought.
The current episode of the fight that started about a month back following the leaking of an internal letter from the Odisha government’s water resource department has already engulfed the entire state in a big movement against neighbouring Chhattisgarh.
Odisha’s ruling party Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has taken the lead in it and many others, including civil society and media, have joined the force.
Odisha says the upstream state is intercepting Mahanadi waters to an extent that will dry up the river and make the Hirakud Dam dysfunctional.
Chhattisgarh discards this allegation and claims it has all rights to utilise each drop of water of Mahanadi within its geographical territory.
Odisha is projecting itself as a victim in this, as all lower riparian states do in such cases.
The debate has travelled from streets to Parliament and the chief ministers of both the states have already flagged off war signals.
Responding to Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh’s claim over Mahanadi, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has said that he will fight for Mahanadi water till his last breath.
In this political slugfest what subsides is the real debate about the health and well-being of the river herself, and the millions of people and other species dependent on her.
More than a half of people in each of the states depend on Mahanadi for all their needs including drinking water, irrigation, other livelihood needs and above all for maintenance of the ecological balance of this region.
The genesis of the conflict
Ever since the Hirakud Dam was constructed in 1957, both the states (Chhattisgarh was then part of Madhya Pradesh) have been engaged in battles of discontent and differences.
There was no bipartite agreement between the two states with regard to this largest earthen multi-purpose dam project of Asia.
In various meetings organised between the two states, Madhya Pradesh kept raising the issue of utilising Hirakud dam’s catchment areas to provide ensured water supply for the rice bowl of eastern India that falls in this region.
In fact, about 87% of the dam’s catchment lies in Chhattisgarh and 88% of water at the dam site is contributed by that state.
The Chhattisgarh government has been pursuing their Mahanadi irrigation plan to utilise each drop of water and augment irrigation up to 50% in the catchment.
They have also been pushing for 5% power from the Hirakud reservoir. These issues have always remained the bone of contention between both the states but not much of a coordinated effort was ever tried out.
In 1983, the CMs of both states reached into an agreement to establish a joint control board to review the progress from time to time of survey, investigation, planning, execution and operation of joint inter-state irrigation and or power project(s) and to discuss and resolve any issues.
However, this board was never established and the states continued to manage Mahanadi in their own ways and the coordination meetings were reduced only to discussions of flood control operations of Hirakud reservoir during monsoon.
Mahanadi, in official terminology of both the states, has been a water surplus basin and there has virtually been a competition between them to invite investments marketing the river water as a cheaply available natural resource.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the basin is bestowed with a huge coal reserve. Following economic liberalisation, the rush for establishing coal -fired power plants has put the river to severe stress.
Studies as early as 2010 pointed out that out of the 118 proposed projects being pursued by Chhattishgarh, for which data was available, 33 plan to draw water from the Mahanadi.
The water requirement of projects drawing water from the river stands at 1,500 mcm per year. If the water requirement of projects drawing from its tributaries – Lilagarh, Hasdeo and Seonath – is added, the withdrawal jumps to 2,700 mcm, adding to the withdrawal of around 1000 mcm by existing industries.
Thermal power plants, known to guzzle water, would be drawing close to 1,500 mcm every year. The estimate is based on data of just a fragment of the projects planned.
The dependable water availability in the Mahanadi (measured at Kasdol upstream of Raipur) over the last 10 years is an average 1,528 mcm annually, according to state water resource department. With industry set to withdraw 3,700 mcm, water budgeting in the state will clearly be highly deficit.
In fact, government spokespersons including ministers of Chhattisgarh government have openly admitted that most of the dams and barrages being built upstream are meant for coal fired power plants and other industries.
Downstream, Odisha also has been committing a major chunk of Mahanadi water to such industries.
River set to die,needs urgent attention
The real issue, therefore, is the way we are treating the river.
Chhattisgarh may have the right to obstruct the flow it thinks is its due share, however, without a cumulative impact assessment of the entire river basin it would be virtually impossible to tell how much of an obstruction would not harm the Hirakud Dam and the flow downstream.
All data that both the governments are now putting up are fragmented and outdated.
While the current spurt in political fight has brought in the right attention and awareness of both the public and policy makers, the solution is in a dialogue.
And such a dialogue is only possible by rebuilding the trust, which means transparency in information sharing and cordial approach in coordination.
The governments should trust each other as well as the people and form a coordination mechanism that takes on board not only the government officials and politicians but also others who are able to help resolve this issue amicably.
Ranjan Panda is a researcher, environmentalist and activist. He is known as the Waterman of Odisha.