In India’s history of inter-state river water disputes, battle over Mahanadi is the latest one. Thankfully, the conflict erupted late but unfortunately the awareness about the plight of Mahanadi also came late to the riparian states that have locked horns over the river.
Odisha should have woken up to the problem at least a decade ago. Since 2006, the Water Initiatives Odisha, a civil society coalition working on water, environment and climate change issues that I am associated with, has been warning the state about obsessive barrage constructions by Chhattisgarh without considering its impact on river flow and ecology. After a decade-long denial, Odisha woke up in June 2016 when Water Initiatives shared with the media a leaked document of the state government asking for an urgent report on Chhattisgarh’s constructions.
As expected, the government began to oppose the same barrages which their spokespersons earlier claimed would not hamper water flow in the river. The government started a two-way battle: one at the official level and another at the political party level. Public protests by the party started inside the state and the Members of Parliament from the party took up the matter in Upper and Lower Houses. Opposition parties and civil society also began protests. Thus, Mahanadi became a campaign agenda for the state’s Panchayat elections.
The chief ministers of both states met with mediation of Uma Bharti, the water minister at the Centre. The meeting failed as the Central government supported Chhattisgarh’s stand. This was expected as political combinations play a dominant role in determining solutions to such disputes. Odisha then demanded for formation of a tribunal which may be formed anytime now, after 15 months from the date the official conflict started. The Centre is now trying to establish a permanent tribunal for redressal of all such disputes. If the formation process of that comes in way of the Mahanadi tribunal, things may get further delayed.
Strong but uninformed
Over these months, as we observe the role of various stakeholders in the process, it has become clear that urban civil society and people, who have been at the forefront of many agitations inside Odisha in support of the “fight for Odisha’s swarthh (interest)” have basically been “conflict mongering” without seriously looking into its consequences. While there is no comprehensive analysis of the cumulative impact of all the dams, barrages, coal-fired power plants, industries and urbanisation in the basin available as yet; these groups have been cherry picking data in support of Odisha government to establish that the state is losing its share of Mahanadi water. That’s why many protests are being planned without looking into peace and cooperation. True, there is crisis, but no one knows the extent of it.
Researchers who have studied river conflicts across the world believe that an elitist group of civil society actors emerge to support the decision-makers by defining water as an “existential necessity”. Studies have found out that hydro-hegemon basin states have relative advantages due to their geography. The state that has the capacity to physically capture more water enjoys the advantage. In Mahanadi-like conflicts, those who jump to ‘conflict mongering’ necessarily jump into judgements that decide, even before any proper assessments are available, the type of crisis. Their ability to mobilise funds and people, and organise protests helps them to create a public perception of the crisis without the necessary scientific and cumulative assessment of the exact crisis. Such supporters are vital for the lower riparian state no doubt, but that should not shut the doors for independent views and perspectives coming the government’s ways. Getting swayed away by civil society actors who toe government lines, howsoever powerful in forming public opinion, may not help in solving the water conflict.
Why dams do not work
As a fallout, wrong notions about the crisis may creep in and solutions may get delayed. Politicians may win elections by taking advantage of such fights for “swarthh of the state”, but Mahanadi, the people and biodiversity that directly depend on it may be impacted badly. Both the riparian states have asserted their rights to grab water from the river to feed the increasing demand of the industries, coal fired power plants and urban areas. Farmers are losing their rights over Mahanadi water.
This is a matter of concern, especially when it comes to the stakeholders’ opinion on dam building in the public domain. Most of them demand more dams over Mahanadi to capture the water flowing as “waste” to the Bay of Bengal. Ministers and spokespersons of the Chhattisgarh government have also been accusing Odisha of not doing enough to build dams within its own territory. Some Odisha politicians and civil society groups suggest dams as a “perfect response to Chhattisgarh”. But they forget that there is no “waste” water and competition with the other state causes more damage to Mahanadi and Odisha.
Hirakud, Asia’s longest earthen dam, is the only major dam on Mahanadi and has been a controversial one ever since it was built. The original Hirakud dam project had proposed two more dams downstream of Hirakud. Given a chance, the Odisha government, aided by its water managers and engineers who are also mostly dam propagandists, will go ahead with such plans. Previous attempts have been halted only due to strong opposition by local people and ecologists.
What Mahanadi needs is ecological rejuvenation and not dam building. Conflict mongering people must, therefore, refrain from such demands. Or else, Odisha will have to engage itself with many battles: one with Chhattisgarh, and several with its own people—the farmers, fisher folks, forest dwellers and ecologists. Let the conflicts lead to cooperation, not dams!