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An interview with water activist Ranjan Panda about the inter-state water dispute and how coal-fired power plants are the real trigger of the conflict over the waters of the Mahanadi river

A fisherman casting his net in the Mahanadi River (Photo by Bikash Das)

India has a long list of inter-state river water conflicts. The recent conflict between the Odisha and Chhattisgarh governments over the water of the Mahanadi river is the latest addition.

Odisha’s largest river, the Mahanadi, originates in the Sihawa mountain in the Dhamtari district of Chhattisgarh. It flows through Chhattisgarh and then Odisha, along its 851 km-long course, before joining the Bay of Bengal at Odisha’s coast.

The conflict between the states started in July last year, when the Odisha government, led by regional outfit Biju Janata Dal (BJD), objected to the construction of some barrages upstream Mahanadi in Chhattisgarh. The Odisha government accused the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Chhattisgarh government of depriving Odisha’s farmers of water from the Mahanadi by constructing the barrages. The Chhattisgarh government responded saying that it was well within its right to build the barrages to expand irrigation facilities for the farmers in the state.

Taking the fight further, a belligerent BJD sent a 12-member delegation to Chhattisgarh to inspect some of the projects being constructed upstream, a move opposed by the BJP. They greeted the delegation with protests.

Since then the issue has snowballed into a major political fight between the governments as well as the BJD and BJP. Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has written several letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking his intervention in the matter.

The BJD, which has been in power in Odisha for the past 17 years, has built up a political movement around the Mahanadi, hitting the streets as well as raising the issue in parliament. The party has been demanding that the central government form a tribunal to resolve the water sharing issue.

The Odisha unit of the BJP – which has been trying to dislodge the main opposition Congress in Odisha to be the main challenger to the BJD by 2019 – accuses the BJD of playing politics over the Mahanadi waters.

On Thursday, responding to BJD members in the Lok Sabha on the Mahanadi water issue, Union minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation Nitin Gadkari said that negotiation was a better way to resolve the dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh as a tribunal would take a long time to sort it out.

However, while Odisha and Chhattisgarh fight it out on the pretext of guarding “farmers’ interest”, experts say that the problems lie elsewhere. The Mahanadi is a water-stressed river and rampant industrialisation in both states has made matters worse, they say.

Noted environmentalist and water activist Ranjan Panda was among the first few in Odisha, as well as in Chhattisgarh, to raise the issue of the ecological and environmental degradation of the Mahanadi and to predict an impending water conflict between both states back in 2006. Convenor of Water Initiatives Odisha, a research body focusing on the water resources of Odisha, Panda made several trips to the Mahanadi basin across Chhattisgarh and Odisha to understand the real impact of water scarcity on the people living along the basin, especially farmers, fisher folk and other indigenous groups, due to indiscriminate industrialisation and contentious dam projects. Panda, known as the ‘waterman of Odisha’, says that coal-fired power plants are the real trigger of the conflict between the two states. What the Mahanadi needs is much beyond a tribunal, he says. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Water activist Ranjan Panda (Photo by Priya Ranjan Sahu)

What do you think is the root cause of the ongoing battle between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over the Mahanadi waters?

It is the Hirakud Dam, Asia’s longest earthen dam, to be specific. Our water planners have been resorting to dam building to control rivers for years and if you look into most of the conflicts over inter-state rivers, and even trans-boundary river basins, dams have fuelled the conflicts in the majority of the cases. See the examples of the Narmada (Sardar Sarovar), Tehri, Farakka, Mullapperiyar, Parambikulam Aliyar, Almatti, Baglihar and many others. Even the Polavaram conflict that Odisha is fighting with Andhra Pradesh is due to the construction of a large dam project.

Dams control and hence kill rivers, and thus give rise to conflicts. They fuel conflicts with regard to displacement and other issues while being built, and then more conflicts as long as they stay in the river, colonising the river water for a few and thus depriving many more from their share of water.

When the Hirakud Dam was built in the 1950s, it was considered as a “modern temple”. But it only benefited a portion of Odisha. Chhattisgarh (then a part of undivided Madhya Pradesh) has possession of almost 90% of the dam’s catchment area but no rights over the Hirakud waters. That is the reason why there was always a dissatisfaction and resentment brewing among the people and leaders there against Odisha. A former finance minister of Madhya Pradesh had categorically told me this. Many people and politicians from Chhattisgarh, with whom I have been interacting, confirm this.

If around 90% of the catchment area belonged to Madhya Pradesh (and now Chhatisgarh), how was it maintained?

There was no agreement between Odisha and Madhya Pradesh (or Chhattisgarh) to protect and manage the catchment areas jointly. There is no law in this regard in the country. However, the state governments – with help of the central government – should have done something.

In the absence of any common plan and cooperation, the upper riparian state took the liberty to treat the catchment area at will. Now that things have come to a pass where the so-called development upstream is starting to hurt Odisha, the state government is resisting. Chhattisgarh’s dams are now the bone of contention. Dams are the real problems and both the states are responsible for this conflict.

You have been warning the governments for more than a decade, as we can see from your activities and statements. What have you been apprehending and what have you said?

Since 2006, the Odisha government went on a MoU signing spree with coal-fired power plants and other industries. That is the reason we started to look into the impact of these power plants on the Mahanadi. Coal-fired power plants are heavy water guzzlers. Our search led us to information on similar moves by the Chhattisgarh government. The way both the governments started committing water to these plants and other industries, we realised that the Mahanadi was going to be dried up completely to meet their needs. Mahanadi is cursed by coal. A major portion of its catchment – both in Odisha and Chhattisgarh – bears coal. Mining activities were already killing the river in several ways, so addition of the power plants would be disastrous. So, we started raising our voice and warned the governments about consequences unless they stopped this madness.

How is coal cursing the Mahanadi, can you please give us a few examples?

The Mahanadi houses a huge coal deposit. While Chhattisgarh has 16% of total coal deposits of the country, Odisha has over 24%. Unfortunately, the maximum of this lies in the Mahanadi basin. Coal mining has not only eroded the basin’s forests and top soil, thereby inflicting a lot of ecological destruction, but also has polluted the river heavily.

The real culprits are the coal-fired power plants. While the Chhattisgarh government has signed MoUs for about 1,40,000 megawatts (mw) of such types of plants, the Odisha government is planning to generate about 58,000 mw power by burning coal. Most of these plants have been committed water from the Mahanadi and its tributaries. If all these water guzzlers start operating at the same time, the Mahanadi will be completely dry.

An analysis done by the New Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment on around 25 coal fired power plants in the Mahanadi basin having an installed capacity of a total 20,763 mw has found out that the total water consumed by these from Mahanadi is about 1.59 million cubic metre per day or about 0.51 billion cubic metre per year. That is almost 40% of daily domestic water requirement of the entire population dependent on the Mahanadi.

We at WIO had done a calculation of water requirement by Odisha’s ambitious 58,000 mw power plan and found that these will require 2,297 million cubic metre of water, which is equivalent to the daily domestic water requirement of six states the size of Odisha. The Mahanadi cannot sustain the coal plants and conflicts will grow further.

What will be impact of such plants on the environment?

Coal-fired power plants are not only water guzzlers but also the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. They pollute local lands, crop fields and water bodies to a dangerous extent. Coal fly ash has carcinogenic heavy metals and has been a matter of worry for the Mahanadi and Hirakud reservoir. Power plants have been openly violating environmental laws to release fly ash into the Mahanadi river time and again. Ironically, both the Chhattisgarh and Odisha governments have been siding with polluting coal plants and there is hardly any punishment for these power plants despite their continuous pollution of the lifeline river of both the states. The Ib Valley in Odisha is a “critically polluted area”, according to the Central Pollution Control Board norms, but that has not stopped the government from allowing so many power plants in one cluster, putting the people and the environment at severe risk.

If coal-fired power plants are the main culprits, why is Odisha fighting with Chhattisgarh over dams and barrages?

Chhattisgarh had built 179 dams and barrages on Mahanadi and its tributaries earlier. All these put together have already been obstructing/using about 13,500 MCM of water annually. The current conflict is surrounded around some new dams and barrages that have been built over the last one and a half decades.

There are about nine barrages which are being built by Chhattisgarh in recent times. All of these together would be obstructing/using around 1,027 MCM water annually. These dams and barrages that Chhattisgarh is building under the guise of irrigation to farmers are actually meant to provide water to coal-fired power plants and other industries. Our calculation says that at least 48 power plants have already been promised water from these barrages in Chhattisgarh.

The Hirakud Dam in Sambalpur district of Odisha (Photo by Priya Ranjan Sahu)

While the total power generation capacity of these plants could not be assessed, data available for 11 thermal power plants put the total power generation capacity at 17,075 mw. Then there is one steel plant of 3.2 million tonne per annum capacity. Only these 11 coal plants thus would be drawing 680 MCM of water annually from these barrages. Imagine if all the 48 plants are given permission to draw water, what will be the fate of the river?

Odisha is thus rightly fighting the barrages built by Chhattisgarh. In fact, Chhattisgarh did not hold any discussion with Odisha while building these barrages. The Central Water Commission has also not done its job properly and has allowed the upstream state to continue with some serious illegalities.

At Hirakud dam, the biggest irrigation project for Odisha, the water flow requirement during the monsoon period and non-monsoon period is 27,796 MCM and 17,800 MCM respectively for the dam to be able to meet all its commitments, including discharge of minimum environmental flow. Statistics provided by the Odisha government points at a constant downward trend of non-monsoon water availability in the Hirakud reservoir. From 1990-91 until recently, the water availability has reduced from 8,000 MCM to a little over 5,000 MCM. That’s scary and means the dam is already dead. All the barrages, which the Chhattisgarh government claims are ‘non storage facilities’, will be used as reservoirs during non-monsoon period and power plants will suck water using deep bore intake wells from the Mahanadi.

You have been maintaining that Odisha is not treating Mahanadi any better and the fight is not for farmers but industries?

Yes, that is true. While Odisha is blaming Chhattisgarh for obstruction of water for dams and barrages and for the industrial allocation of water, it has also been treating the Mahanadi as a commodity and not a natural resource. Odisha’s aggressive agitation against Chhattisgarh is more for providing water to industries than to the farmers. Odisha has not only invited many coal plants and other industries to the Mahanadi by selling the ‘surplus water’ theory – which it considers a myth now – but has also been diverting water from the Mahanadi, especially from Hirakud, from farmers’ share to industries. In the early 1990s, the Odisha government made a change in its water allocation plan in a secretive manner, without consulting farmer organisations or anyone else, to prioritise water allocation for industries. The water from the Hirakud dam that was not able to meet the total irrigation target even after 40 years of completion was given away to industries. The farmers started to feel the impact of this by the mid-2000s and started agitating.

In October 2006, 30,000 farmers formed a human chain covering the Hirakud dam from one end to another, demanding that the Odisha government scrap its plan of giving away 478 cusec water to industries, which had already started to shrink irrigation coverage. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik then assured that not a single drop of water meant for farmers would be diverted to industries. However, while irrigation from Hirakud has shrunk further, the allocation to industries has gone up to 630 cusecs even though industries have been defaulting on payment of their water taxes to the tune of thousands of crores of rupees for decades.

The story goes beyond the Hirakud dam. For all practical purposes, the Mahanadi has been handed over to industries. The government has allocated water from the river to 128 industries, that stands at 61% of total water allocated to industries from all rivers of the state. The Mahanadi has been completely sold out to industries by both Chhattisgarh and Odisha governments.

What do you think both governments should be doing?

The governments must immediately understand that the Mahanadi belongs to the farmers, fisher folk, forest dwellers and all the 40 million odd people living in the basin. It also belongs to the ecology it supports and in return gets support from. Mad rush for coal plants and industrialisation is killing the river that is already severely impacted by climate change. The water yield of the basin has reduced by more than 10% due to monsoon shortfall over the last three decades, a recent scientific study has found. That is the highest among all rivers of India that were considered to be ‘water surplus’ basins. A majority of the farmers of the basin depend on rain and the basin has faced consecutive drought for three years. These are real alarm bells that the governments must wake up to. The governments need to work together and make a cumulative ecological assessment of all the mines, industries, thermal power plants and urbanisation projects and if needed, some of the projects should be scrapped. India is already trying to phase out coal in line with its climate action commitments. These states should work in a basin-wise approach of cooperation and decide to phase out coal completely by 2050, and decide to build no new plants from now on. We are asking them for a ‘Peace and Cooperation Charter’, which is possible with mutual dialogue and not conflict which they seem to be getting entangled in around the fight for the remaining reduced flow of the river without looking into rejuvenation of the river.

Odisha is demanding formation of a tribunal. Do you think the tribunal will solve the matter?

Going by the existing legal provisions – the Inter State River Water Disputes Act of 1956 – what Odisha is doing is right. I am rather surprised that the central government, which first blamed Odisha of being complacent, is now being complacent itself. Under the current law, the central government should have already constituted a tribunal for the Mahanadi, but it has not kept its promise made both in parliament and at the Supreme Court. That goes beyond the principles of cooperative federalism. A tribunal formation now becomes imminent and the Centre must do it without further delay.

Having said that, I would also like to point out that tribunals have not proven to be effective in dealing with inter-state river water disputes, nor have they been able to deal with real issues of reviving a river, giving rights to farmers, fisher folks and other indigenous communities. What they would do at the most is to work out a formula of water sharing out of the existing water. But there is no guarantee that their formula will be adhered to by the states in conflict and that no further conflicts will erupt.

Look at the Cauvery conflict as an example. The conflict over the Cauvery river dates back to more than a century. In 1892, an agreement was reached between the princely state of Mysore and Madras Presidency (now Karnataka) in which Mysore was asked not to build any irrigation reservoir without prior consent of Madras. This agreement failed and a new one was reached in 1924. But the conflict never got solved and the Tamil Nadu government asked for the formation of the tribunal in 1974, even before the 50-year term of the second agreement was over. However, persuasion by the then prime minister and political negotiations made Tamil Nadu withdraw the demand. This led to fresh negotiations and a new formula of water sharing was worked out, which continued for 15 years, but then a tribunal had to be formed in 1990 as conflicts continued. The tribunal gave an interim order on June 25, 1991, asking Karnataka to release 205 thousand million cubic feet of Cauvery water annually to Tamil Nadu (including six thousand million cubic feet (tmc ft) to Puducherry). Karnataka objected and this delayed the implementation of the order. After seeing lot of submissions, affidavits, arguments, counter arguments, political battles, negotiations and agitations, the final order was passed in 2007, almost after 17 years, allocating 419 tmc ft water to Tamil Nadu and 270 tmc ft to Karnataka. Kerala and Puducherry were given 30 tmc ft and seven tmc ft respectively.

It did not end there, as petitions and counter petitions were filed in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has been intervening in this case but the conflict, with many violent protests, has been growing by the year. We have all seen how in September 2016, pro-Kannada people set fire to vehicles and attacked government offices in Bengaluru, protesting against the latest order of the Supreme Court. Petitions and review petitions were then filed  and despite the intervention of the Supreme Court, the conflict is not ending.

The root cause of the fight is therefore scarcity by design of development and the Mahanadi is already a stressed river. What Mahanadi needs is much beyond a tribunal. It needs both the states to immediately start dialogue and common action to save the river from dying further. A lot needs to be done to protect the catchment of the Hirakud reservoir as well as restore the basin ecology, which is now severely degraded owing to mining, industrialisation and urbanisation. We seriously need to rejuvenate our rivers and plan development in an eco-sensitive manner. Or else, we will end up having more conflicts by the year. I sincerely hope both Odisha and Chhattisgarh realise this. Both have to decide to shun large dams and coal forever.

This article has been republished with permission from The Wire. The original can be found at this link.


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