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People Vs. Politics: The Mahanadi River Dispute And The Need For Citizen Involvement – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Ranjan Panda

A ‘double-engine sarkar’ is something the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been promising while seeking votes during all the assembly election campaigns. One engine at centre and another at the state, meaning the same party ruling in both places, would mean better progress than the states where the state governments are ruled by other parties than the BJP. At least that’s the promise.

Defining progress is the catch. Progress can be economic, social, cultural, spiritual, geographical and many more. Defining geography can be the easiest task but defining the rest of the above is always a cumbersome affair. In our current governance structures, we basically define indicators and initiatives of progress based on the state border lines. But there are issues that cut across these defined boundaries. Take for examples, inter-state rivers.  

We are supposed to govern the rivers by taking into consideration policies and plans from all the riparian states. River basin management often goes beyond the ambit of specific riparian states and in many cases ‘national interest’ comes into consideration. So, it’s very natural that conflicts will arise between the bordering states. A flowing resource – water – within the defined geography becomes the contested subject if one state receives reduced flow than the historical normal.  

In such cases, a river becomes as much political as economic. But then rivers are, in the true sense, much more than these. They are ecosystems connected to land, mountains, oceans, forests, communities and almost everything that we look around in a basin. Most importantly, they have given us the civilizations that we boast of and for whose ‘asmita’ (pride) the politicians promise to work once elected.  

People living in Odisha and Chhattisgarh can be called the citizens of the Mahanadi civilization. They vote for the revenue states but eke out a living from the Mahanadi and connected river systems. That sounds spiritual but that’s how river-society relationships have been from the times this connection has existed. 

Both the states are fighting a battle for their due share of water from Mahanadi’s flow for quite some time now. The matter is in a tribunal at the moment. The conflict erupted after the upstream riparian state, Chhattisgarh, decided to accelerate the progress of the state by obstructing more water through dams and barrages and supplying the same to industries, power plants, mining companies, irrigation projects and so on.

Odisha, the lower riparian state, felt the heat as the water flow of the river took a hit. Social and political movements popped up in Odisha and a war was waged against Chhattisgarh. Everyone wanted to assert their socio-cultural, economic and ecological rights over the river.
The state, which is officially entitled to stake its claim, went to the tribunal. The righteous people vanished from the scene once this legal process started. The tribunal has been making very slow progress and the involvement of people in the process is decided by the mercy of the state machineries. 

In every such case, my apprehension that ‘people and their governments are separate things’ get refuelled. Perhaps they are the bogeys of the engines (government) being marketed during election campaigns. Once the engines are on, their rights are gone. This can change if we look things in a people-centric approach.

Now that Odisha has got a BJP government, after defeating the BJD that ruled for almost a quarter of a century, and Chhattisgarh already has a BJP government, can these two engines drive the same people together? At least in the case of Mahanadi, can the civilisation be united by the new political formations? Can the third engine, or the master engine – the NDA government at the Centre – be the guiding force in invoking the holistic senses around the river? 

If yes, then, I have three quick suggestions for the ‘triple-engine sarkar’. First: Form a Mahanadi Civilisation Coordination Committee – taking citizens from all sectors from both the states – and work with them on a peace and conservation framework for the real progress of the river and the civilisation. Second: Do a cumulative environmental impact assessment of all the ‘development’ activities, including dams, barrages, mining, industries, power plants, deforestation, urbanisation, and all such actions that are dependent on the Mahanadi system for water and other needs.

And third: Formulate a ‘green transition’ plan with learnings from the above assessment and help of all Mahanadi citizens through the above committee.   
And do this even as the tribunal continues its assessments. Cooperation in a federal structure is very much possible beyond legal mechanisms, if there is strong will power. Let the law take its own course but let the river and its citizens be given the freedom to flow and progress in a cooperation framework.  

Having the same party ruling in both the states and the Centre is the greatest opportunity Mahanadi has, if the civilisation is serious about real progress that’s socio-culturally acceptable, economically viable and ecologically sustainable.

The article was first published at DownToEarth as Mahanadi got a ‘triple-engine sarkar’: Now what? on 14th June, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more by the author:

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This article was published by Ranjan Panda, a convenor at Water Initiatives

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Christeena Sabu, a research intern at IMPRI.

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