New Delhi/Odisha: In May-end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Odisha on the occasion of completion of four years of the NDA government at the Centre. He regaled the crowd, comprising BJP sympathisers and common citizens in Cuttack, by listing out his government’s flagship schemes that purportedly helped the people of Odisha and India, and then proceeded to take up the controversial matter of the Mahanadi river inter-state water dispute.
Discussing the Mahanadi row, the prime minister told the gathering: "Nitin Gadkari (Union water resources minister) himself wrote to the CM (Naveen Patnaik) that steps should be taken to resolve the issue in a time-bound matter. A proposal to form a tribunal (was) put forth but that too was rejected (by Odisha)."
An enraged Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in Odisha called his statement “untrue, misleading and confusing”, saying that the prime minister gave the impression that the Centre was in favour of a tribunal when in reality, it was not.
Documents show that the state government had moved the Supreme Court in late 2016, seeking the constitution of a tribunal to resolve the water dispute between Odisha and neighbouring Chhattisgarh. The central government and Chhattisgarh were, however, insistent on negotiations to settle the matter.
Mahanadi row over the years
The water row erupted between the two states a few years ago when the Odisha government objected to certain barrage projects being initiated by Chhattisgarh on the catchment areas of the Mahanadi, which originates in Chhattisgarh and passes through Odisha to merge with the Bay of Bengal. The BJD government complained that the projects were planned without keeping the state in the loop – as mandated in the 1983 bilateral agreement between Odisha and undivided Madhya Pradesh.
On 4 July, 2016, Odisha chief minister Patnaik wrote to Prime Minister Modi, seeking his intervention, and asking that Chhattisgarh stop the projects being undertaken on the Mahanadi as they would affect the livelihood of farmers and people of the state dependent on the river.
On 19 November that year, the state formally wrote to the ministry of water resources under Section 3 of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, seeking formation of a tribunal to resolve the issue. On 2 December, 2016, it also filed a suit in the Supreme Court, seeking an injunction against Chhattisgarh on the construction of barrages on the upper catchment of the river and also demanded Mahanadi Tribunal formation during hearings in the apex court.
The apex court, after holding eight hearings and looking at the consistent stance of the Odisha government seeking a tribunal for Mahanadi dispute, finally directed the central government on 23 January this year to constitute the Mahanadi Tribunal.
Odisha demands, Centre opposes Tribunal
In the course of 2017, it is clear from legal documents that the Centre — supported by the Chhattisgarh government — wanted negotiations on the Mahanadi dispute and had submitted an affidavit in court for the same. It has the Centre saying that “the constitution of a Tribunal…would not be fruitful”.
A part of the affidavit as submitted in the Supreme Court read: "... It is submitted that the legal process in the Tribunal is similar to the process followed by the Negotiation Committee, it is likely that the plaintiff [Odisha] may thwart the legal process before the Tribunal…"
Another part of the affidavit read: "The prayer of the plaintiff is devoid of any merit; therefore the suit is liable to be dismissed with cost. However, it is also in the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act for the Amicably Resolution by the Way of Negotiations."
An 11-member negotiation committee was formed in January 2017 but Odisha abstained from its proceedings, telling the apex court that no negotiation could be done in the matter and a tribunal should be constituted at the earliest.
In October, the Centre told the court that a decision would be taken on the formation of the tribunal by 19 November. "...learned counsel appearing for the Defendant Union of India, states that a decision will be made for issuing the notification (on Mahanadi Tribunal) by 19.11.2017," the apex court order in October said.
In the Monsoon session of Parliament, Minister of State for water resources Sanjeev Balyan also told the Rajya Sabha that “a draft cabinet note (for formation of a Tribunal for adjudication of the dispute) has been prepared."
But the Centre remained tardy on the constitution of the tribunal and was supported by the Chhattisgarh government in its stand.
Rabindra Jena, BJD Lok Sabha MP from Balasore, was quoted as saying that “there is a nexus between Chhattisgarh and the Government of India, both run by the BJP, to see that Odisha is put into difficulty”.
At the 11 December, 2017 hearing, the Supreme Court expressed its disappointment at the central government for not issuing a notification in regard to the tribunal, while the Centre batted for a joint control board for resolution of such disputes. Chhattisgarh's counsel also submitted that the state did not want a tribunal in the matter.
Finally, in January 2018, a bench of Justices SA Bobde and L Nageswara Rao directed the Centre to constitute the Mahanadi Tribunal within a month, ordering that all pending issues be raised before it.
“Having regard to the provisions of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, a submission was made before us that it would be appropriate to refer the matter to a Water Disputes Tribunal under the said Act. We were then informed that such a Tribunal has not been constituted so far,” the order read.
The court also noted that “from time to time, adjournments were sought in the matter on behalf of Defendant No 2 – Union of India”.
Last Saturday, Prime Minister Modi alleged that “when the Centre tried to resolve the issue through discussion, the Odisha government did not cooperate and went on the backfoot”.
When contacted, BJD spokesman and Rajya Sabha MP Prasanna Acharya told Firstpost: "We at no point of time opposed the Mahanadi Tribunal. Whatever the PM said in Odisha was misleading and false. We moved the SC seeking a tribunal."
The Centre has also proposed a Bill on a single tribunal for all inter-state water issues in Parliament. When asked about the BJD’s stand on the common tribunal, Acharya said: "We have not opposed the Bill as it is still under consideration and has been sent to a select committee."
Requests to BJP’s Odisha unit chief for a response remained unanswered.
(MK Singh is a New Delhi-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)
Updated Date: Jun 02, 2018 16:22 PM