Maha battle over water

The Mahanadi’s water is important for both the farmers and industries of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Instead of squabbling over it, the states need to come up with a plan to use the water judiciously.
Mahanadi river
Mahanadi river

It’s a battle that dates back to 1957. Two states of India--Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Odisha--have fought fiercely over the water of the Mahanadi they share. When Chhattisgarh was carved out of MP in 2000, it inherited both the Mahanadi and the conflict with Odisha over its water. To put things in perspective, the Mahanadi has a total catchment area of 1,41,600 square kilometres, of which 53.9 percent is in Chhattisgarh, 45.73 percent in Odisha and a very small part in Madhya Pradesh. 

This time around, the conflict between the states is over Chhattisgarh’s plan to build barrages over the river. Water resources minister of Chhattisgarh Brijmohan Agrawal justifies the government’s action by saying that the barrages have been proposed to check the flood water that flows to the sea unutilised and not to disrupt the natural flow. As per the recent news reports, the chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik is against building of dams and barrages on the Mahanadi in Chhattisgarh citing farmers’ welfare as the reason. In fact, both governments cite farmers and their crops as reasons for the face off whereas in reality, it is not the farmers in these states but the industries that use the lion’s share of water. 

The story thus far

Earlier, there was no bipartite agreement between Chhattisgarh (then Madhya Pradesh) and Odisha over the use of the Mahanadi. As the industrialisation in Odisha started much earlier than Chhattisgarh, the Odisha government was free to consume the river water unregulated. Allocating water to the industries was not a problem for Odisha then. Later, when MP began to oppose this, the chief ministers of both the states signed an agreement in 1983 to establish a joint control board. This board, however, never got materialised and the states continued to manage the river in their own ways. 

Before 1991, the industrial use of the water from the reservoir was nominal. But it has increased steadily over time. Going by a report on the data available from the water resources department of Odisha on the water allocation for the industries, the total industrial allocation of the Mahanadi’s water in Odisha has hiked from a mere 13 percent in 2000 to 62 percent now. Odisha’s industrialisation was rapid, to say the least. Since 2002, the Odisha government has signed more than 100 MoU with the industries. The over allocation of water to the industries has affected the irrigation adversely and has led to conflicts between industries and farmers.

Things began changing with the formation of Chhattisgarh as an independent state. Since a major portion of the Mahanadi basin lies in Chhattisgarh, the government of Chhattisgarh wanted to maximise the use of the river. Six hundred check dams were planned to capture 30 percent of the Mahanadi’s flow for industrial, irrigation and domestic use. With the increasing intake of water by Chhattisgarh, Odisha finds itself in dire straits; it can no more draw water as per its wish. It’s neither able to meet the demands of its farmers, nor is it able to fulfill the water demand of industries as per the MoUs. “Industries that are using Mahanadi's water from Hirakud (Odisha) fear that the barrages made in Chhattisgarh will further affect the access and availability of water to the industries and the industrial production in Odisha,” says Alok Shukla, leader of Chhattisgarh Bachav Andolan, a people's forum in Chhattisgarh working on human rights issues.

This tug of war between the states apart, there are other problems that the Mahanadi is facing. A study conducted by IIT Madras found that the river is already silting up heavily due to which the flow of the river has been affected. The water flow has decreased by 10 percent between 1976 and 2000 compared to what it was between 1951 and 1975. “The proposed barrages by Chhattisgarh would affect the flow of the river and would create a barrier for the Odisha government to satisfy the growing water demand of the industries in Odisha,” says environmentalist and water sector expert Manoj Mishra.   

Farmers vs industries

Since 2002, as Odisha started getting more industrialised, the farmers in the Mahanadi basin started facing water shortage. Until 1990, only two major industries were in operation around the Hirakud reservoir. Now there are 26 large iron, power and aluminium plants. The Hirakud dam was built primarily for irrigation and hydropower, but the industries were given priority in water usage. Moreover, the Water Allocation Committee (WAC) of the Odisha government has allocated 1419 cusecs of water to 61 industries and other organisations in addition to those who were allocated prior to the formation of WAC. Out of these 61 industries, 37 are drawing water from the Hirakud dam alone.

From 2005 to 2007, there have been frequent irregularities of water supply to the Sason canal on the left bank of Hirakud dam for irrigation affecting the livelihoods of nearly 60,000 farming families in the Sason canal command area. But, instead of allocating water to farmers, the Odisha government gave priority to industrial growth. Many industrial units such as Vedanta Alumina, Aditya Alumina and HINDALCO were laying pipelines and constructing intake wells inside the reservoir to draw water. The government favour to the industries affected the availability of water to the farmers to such an extent that in 2007, around 30,000 farmers stormed the Hirakud reservoir in Sambalpur to protest the increasing diversion of Mahanadi water meant for irrigation to industries. (Read full report here) Then, to appease the farmers, the government announced that the farmers will have priority over water usage from the Hirakud reservoir, and only surplus water will be supplied to industries. Despite that, the farmers’ struggle for water continues even now. 

“Mahanadi flows 72 km by the Athamalik sub-division (the longest for any sub-division in the state) which is perennially drought-prone. It is more than five decades since the government promised us an irrigation project. Providing water to the farmers has never been a priority for the Odisha government. Most political parties in the country say that the water belongs to farmers, but none take a stand against industries. Why point gun at farmers when the culprit is someone else?” asks senior farmer leader Ashok Pradhan.

With the demand for Mahanadi's water increasing, there is a need to implement equitable water management practices. This is only possible when water use of the industries is regulated in a coordinated way. In July this year, the Modi government had convened a meeting among officials of Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Central Water Commission to resolve the issue. The constitution of a joint control board was again recommended. Chhattisgarh agreed to constitute the joint control board, but the Odisha government is yet to give its consent. Meanwhile, let’s wait and watch how this story unfolds in the near future. 

Additional reading on the Mahanadi conflict from the Water Conflicts Forum:

Integrated Water Management of the Mahanadi Basin

Groundwater in the Mahanadi River Basin

Water Allocations and Use in the Mahanadi River Basin

HASDEO BASIN: A Situation Analysis in the Context of Environmental Flows

MAHANADI RIVER BASIN: A Situation Analysis

Agricultural and Industrial Water Allocation and Use in Mahanadi Basin: A Summary Report

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