Odisha, CG need to go beyond conventional approach

  • The conflict between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over the distribution of water from Mahanadi river is said to have started in 2016 when Odisha alleged the existing and proposed dams and barrages in Chhattisgarh will dry up the river down-streams and affect Odisha’s people, industries and ecology.
  • Environmentalists, concerned citizens and civil society organisations allege both the states are neither doing justice to their people nor the river, rather using it to appease industries and for political gains.
  • While building an Inter-State Cooperation Framework is the need of the hour, changes should be brought in the laws at national level to establish the rights of communities over river and the river’s own right, say ecologists.

Even as two Indian states – Odisha and Chhattisgarh – have locked horns for years over distribution of Mahanadi river water, public discontentment is brewing in Odisha as the water-level of Hirakud dam situated in Sambalpur district plummets beyond limits during the non-monsoon season. The tenure of the tribunal that was set up under the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act (ISRWD), 1956 to resolve the issue has been extended by two years or till the submission of the report. The tribunal was supposed to give its judgment on March 11, 2021, but failed to meet the deadline as a common information format for sharing information between states could not be finalised.

The conflict is reported to have started in July 2016 when Odisha, the lower riparian state, alleged the existing and proposed dams and barrages in upper riparian state Chhattisgarh will dry up the river down-streams and affect its common people, farmers, industries and ecology badly.

While Chhattisgarh has around 2000 dams and barrages on the river, the bone of contention is 12 irrigation projects – Ravisankar Sagar dam, Hasdeo Bango dam, Murrum Silli Dam, Tandula dam, Sondur dam, Dudhwa reservoir, Ghongha dam, Kharang Reservoir, Mongra Barrage, Moniyari tank and Kodar Reservoir. These dams have been constructed under the guise of minor irrigation projects, but in reality they have been supplying water to industries. Six industrial barrages – Saradih, Sheorinarayan, Basantpur, Mirouni, Kalma and Samoda – further escalated the conflict. Annual allocation of these barrages to industries is 1405.66 MCM, alleged activists of both the states who are fighting for the ecological entity of Mahanadi.

Chattisgarh’s dams, barrages could reduce water flow to Hirakud

According to Odisha-based engineer Lalit Mohan Patnaik, Chhattisgarh has 10 percent more catchment area in the Mahanadi river basin, than Odisha. While around 30,000 million cubic metre (MCM) water is harvested in Chhattisgarh, 27,000 MCM is harvested in Odisha. Odisha apprehends that when all the 2000 dams and barrages in Chhattisgarh will start operating together, Mahanadi will be converted into an elongated pool with storage potential of 829 MCM of water during non-monsoon period.

The flow into the Hirakud dam has been reduced to 1/3rd during the non-monsoon period and when all the dams and barrages of Chhattisgarh will start working, the inflow into Hirakud dam will be reduced to almost zero, added Patnaik, who is also an independent environmental services professional.

According to a 2018 study, Mahanadi: Coal Rich, Water Stressed, conducted by noted water expert Ranjan Panda, who is popularly known as the “Mahanadi River Waterkeeper”, “Data submitted by the Odisha government points out a very bleak picture with regard to the water flow. The present flow from Chhattisgarh that has 90% of the catchment area, to Hirakud dam, stands at 19,237 MCM but the state’s future demand will be 23,651 MCM. It means the net flow from Chhattisgarh catchment area will be minus 4,414 MCM.

Hirakud receives 2,119 MCM from Odisha that holds only 10 percent of the catchment area. Thus, when all the potential of Chhattisgarh’s projects is utilised, the total inflow to Hirakud will be reduced to only 2119 MCM. But the requirement of Hirakud stands at 18,175 MCM. That means Chhattisgarh’s dams and barrages would make Hirakud completely redundant, the study mentioned.

Political dispute

The dispute has become a political issue both in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal sought to use Mahanadi to portray the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as being anti-Odisha and pro-Chhattisgarh, while Chhattisgarh’s ruling BJP terms Odisha’s points as politically-motivated geo-sentimental arguments and tries to garner support from the ruling BJP at Centre.

Pradeep Sharma, advisor to the Chief Minister (CM) of Chhattisgarh on Planning, Policy, Agriculture and Rural Development, told Mongabay-India that the state, being present on the ridge area of the river, is taking all measures for water conservation and thus contributes to a healthy flow of water to its valley area that is Odisha. Rather, Odisha is failing to utilise its water properly.

Chhattisgarh’s former Chief Minister Raman Singh, in a public statement in 2017, had claimed that the state uses only 4 percent of water while Odisha uses 14 percent and the remaining 82 percent gets wasted into the sea. Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik had, at that time, refuted Singh’s claims in a discussion with journalists and alleged that Singh was “not cooperative” in resolving the Mahanadi dispute. Justifying his government’s demand for a tribunal to resolve the river water dispute, CM Patnaik, in 2018, as the dispute continued, had said that several meetings between the two states have failed to yield any result. The Odisha government, thereafter, through an affidavit, had contended that as per the tripartite agreement on Mahanadi water sharing between the Centre, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the latter should release 1.74 million acre-feet water to Odisha during the non-monsoon season, but in vain.

Amid this conflict, environmentalists, concerned citizens and civil society organisations of both the states maintain that both these states are neither doing justice to their people nor the river.

Impact of mines, power plants and industries

Both the states have committed themselves to mining and industrialisation which they claim is for the purpose of ‘development’ and have been promoting Mahanadi as a water surplus river to invite more investment. Thus, while the conflict is centered on the reduced flow of water, the impact of coal mines, thermal power plants (TPPs) and other industries is ignored by both states. Odisha and Chhattisgarh each have signed around 120 MoUs with industries that are sucking enormous amounts of water, said Ajit Panda, an environmental activist from Nuapada, Odisha.

Thermal power plants and farmlands compete for Mahanadi’s water. Photo by Ranjan Panda.

The existence of so many TPPs, which are the major water guzzlers, surrounding Hirakud reservoir has been a major cause of concern. Major TPPs in Chhattisgarh (Raigarh) are by JSPL and DB Power; and in Odisha (Jharsuguda) Odisha Power Generation Corporation (OPGC) and Vedanta (Sterlite), the study by Rajan Panda, maintained.

The TPPs not only use significant amounts of water but also generate heat and pollution resulting in a drastic reduction in agricultural production. The fly ash disposal needs thousands of hectares of land and thus renders a lot of land barren, the study added further.

Lives of riparian communities at stake

Darlipali, a riparian village in Odisha’s Jharsuguda district is located inside three coal mines of the Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd (MCL). According to Gobinda Karali, a resident of the village, “About 95 families are currently living in Darlipali after MCL shifted 93 others on the false promise of proper rehabilitation. We stayed back demanding the latest rehabilitation packages, but we are repenting.”

“We are living like sub-humans amid intense air and water pollution and severe water scarcity. After mines swallowed our only drinking water source that is an eight-acre pond, destroyed our perennial stream, Phuljore nullah, and polluted another stream Lilari nullah, scanty and irregular supply of tanker water has been our only hope for the last few days. When tanker fails to provide water, we have to depend on the black and greasy water of Lilari nullah that has been shrunk and heavily polluted by the mines. Most of us suffer from chest pain, cough, skin diseases several other ailments related to air and water pollution,” Karali rued.

The construction of a dam on river Kelo, a tributary of Mahanadi, by Chhattisgarh has further fueled the degradation of basin ecology and impacted the livelihoods of riparian villagers. A team from the Odisha government that visited Chhattisgarh in 2016 had alleged that the latter has been illegally supplying water from the irrigation project to industries instead of using it for drinking and irrigation purposes.

The Kelo dam in Chhattisgarh impacts residents of both states who have reported water shortage and crop failure after the dam construction. Photo by Ranjan Panda.

Raigarh-based environmentalist Ramesh Agrawal’s opinion supports Odisha’s claims. He also added that thousands of acres of forest lands have been lost to the dam.

The project even irks Chhattisgarh residents. Villagers of both the states have been facing severe water shortage and crop failure, said Rajesh Tripathy (50), a Raigarh city inhabitant, who lives just 500 metres from Kelo river bank. Tripathy added that Kelo, a perennial river earlier, stops flowing post monsoon at Minupada near the dam due to the extraction of water by more than 35 industries which include coal mines, TPPs and sponge iron units. Hand pumps in the basin area have gone defunct; talabs (ponds) have dried, and the pollution of the river due to coal dust and the release of effluents by major companies has made things worse. Out of 26 varieties of fishes found abundantly in the river, 15 have vanished, added Tripathy.

More than 30,000 farmers and around 10,000 fishermen families in Chhattisgarh and as many numbers in Odisha have lost their livelihood, said Ganesh Kachhwaha, Chhattisgarh convener of Mahanadi Bachao Jivika Bachao (MBJB), a people’s organisation that works for the restoration of river ecology and livelihood of riparian communities. “In 2017 summer, the Chhattisgarh government had issued a circular directing the farmers not to practice rabi cultivation citing water scarcity, but there was no such direction for industries,” he added.

Ashok Pradhan, Convenor of Paschim Odisha Krushak Suraksha Samanwaya Samiti, said that industrial allocation of water has dried up irrigation canals. Since 2003-04, there is no water in around 70,000 acres in the tail end of the command area of the Sasan canal of Hirakud dam. This area was well-irrigated earlier, he maintained.

MBJB’s Odisha convener Ananta Panda said, “Farmers used to cultivate country variety crops without using chemical pesticide and fertiliser. However, due to water scarcity, they are opting for hybrid and drought-resistant varieties.”

Inter-state cooperation framework for river rights

“It is unfortunate that both the states are treating Mahanadi as a commodity, not a natural resource,” said Ranjan Panda. Urging for building an Inter-State Cooperation Framework for Management of Mahanadi River Basin to resolve the issue, he said, “It is high time the riparian communities and the tribunal worked to rejuvenate the ecological entity of the river. Changes should be brought in the laws at the national level to establish the rights of communities over the river and the river’s own rights,” he added.

The Mahanadi conflict that is at a budding stage, has to take a cue from other conflicts like the Narmada case and Krishna and Godavari disputes and there is a need to discuss issues affecting the basin and its local communities. Ecological concerns and concerns emerging from climate change, which were hardly an issue for most of the river conflicts, need to take the centre stage, he emphasised.

Talking in favour of the inter-state cooperation framework to resolve the conflict, Goutam Bandopadhyay of Nadi Ghati Morcha, a Chhattisgarh-based outfit that works for rejuvenation of water bodies, suggested that a large Central budget with state share and a long term plan like that of the ‘Ganga Rejuvenation’ is the need of the hour to revive Mahanadi. He also opined for the formation of a separate commission with representatives from both states. “Universities should be roped in to support the commission with research-based information,” he added.


Banner image: A partially dried and polluted patch of river Mahanadi that caters to the needs of hundreds of industries of both states. Meanwhile, farmers, fishermen and residents in the region do not have adequate supply of water. Photo by Ranjan Panda.

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