After failing to extract a single concession on the multiple barrages being constructed by the Chhattisgarh government on the upper reaches of the Mahanadi river at the tripartite meeting brokered by the Centre in New Delhi on 17 September, it is the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) that should have been scurrying for cover.
But instead, the first day of the Monsoon Session of the Odisha Assembly on Wednesday, saw a bizarre spectacle of the BJD going on the offensive and disrupting proceedings in the House from the word go – without even waiting for the customary national anthem to get over — and then rushing to the Raj Bhavan to hand over a memorandum against the Chhattisgarh and central governments addressed to the President.
The Opposition could do no better than crib about the ‘disrespect’ shown to the national anthem and allege a 'well-planned conspiracy' by the ruling party to disrupt proceedings of the Assembly to hide its failures.
The BJD government, in particular Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who has held on to the Water Resources Department since the day he became CM in 2000, has a lot to explain about the series of projects initiated by Chhattisgarh to harness Mahanadi water for industrial and agricultural use.
When the issue first got traction in June this year, the Odisha government initially sought to play the innocent, unsuspecting victim, accusing Chhattisgarh of keeping it in the dark about these projects. As if on cue, the media, with generous help from the Chhattisgarh government, dug out a series of letters exchanged between the two governments on the issue – some as early as 2006 – calling the BJD government’s bluff in the process.
From this point onwards, the Opposition should have gunned for the BJD with gusto. But the two principal opposition parties – the Congress and the BJP – have been unable to derive much political mileage out of the BJD government’s failures. While the Congress found it hard to answer the charge that it was the UPA government headed by it that gave Chhattisgarh permission to go ahead with the Arpa-Bhaisajhar project, among the biggest of the lot, in 2010, the BJP was caught in a dilemma of divided loyalty, unable to criticise either the Chhattisgarh government or the Centre to prove its pro-Odisha credentials.
A past master in the art of converting adversity into an opportunity, Naveen Patnaik pounced on the BJP’s discomfiture to project the BJD as the only party that has the interests of the state in heart and mind. He has announced that the Odisha government would approach the Supreme Court seeking formation of a tribunal under the Inter-state Water Disputes Act, 1956.
Mahanadi is a highly emotive issue in Odisha, since over 60 percent of its population spread over 16 districts, is dependent on it for their livelihood. The Hirakud dam built in the 1950s provides irrigation to thousands of acres agricultural land, besides accounting for a major share of the electricity generated within the state. Any reduction in the flow of water into Hirakud is thus sure to affect agriculture in Odisha in a major way.
On its part, the Chhattisgarh government maintains that it is using just 15 percent of Mahanadi water while 57 percent of it flows into the Bay of Bengal. “The water that flows into Mahanadi from Chhattisgarh can fill the Hirakud five times over,” Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh told media persons in New Delhi after the tripartite meeting, accusing the Odisha government of failing to harness the surplus water for its benefit.
The criticism is not without a basis. The Odisha government has failed to come up with any project to harness Mahanadi water flowing unused into the sea after the Hirakud dam was commissioned in the 1950s. It has toyed with the idea of constructing another dam at Manibhadra at various times, but stiff opposition by local people in view of the vast tract of land that would get submerged in the process has put paid to all such plans.
As the party that has been in power for 16 years at a stretch, the BJD must take a share of the blame of this failure to plan effective use of Mahanadi water. But with some deft positing of the issue, it appears to be winning the battle of perception on the issue.