Union Government forms Tribunal to solve Mahanadi Water Dispute

The central government approved the formation of a tribunal to adjudicate the Mahanadi water-sharing dispute between Odisha and Chhattisgarh, two months after telling the Supreme Court that it was a bad idea.

“The Union cabinet chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the proposal for adjudication of the Mahanadi water-sharing dispute. The tribunal will determine water sharing on the basis of the overall availability in the Mahanadi basin, contribution of each state, utilisation of water resources in each state, and the potential for future development,” a government press release said.

The root cause of the water-sharing dispute is the construction of a reservoir on the Mahanadi by BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh despite objections raised by Odisha, the lower-riparian state. In January, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to constitute a tribunal to adjudicate on the matter within a month. It further ruled that the tribunal should come out with a decision in three years, with a maximum extension of two more.

The Centre’s volte-face on the tribunal came after the ruling BJD in Odisha, which will face the next assembly elections in 2019, went to town with its demands for judicial adjudication. The BJP is also hoping to improve its tally in Odisha — a state with 21 Lok Sabha seats — in the upcoming parliamentary and assembly elections. In the current Lok Sabha, the saffron party has just one seat from Odisha while the rest belongs to Naveen Patnaik’s BJD.

In an interview with HT last month, BJP president Amit Shah named Odisha as a state where his party hopes to improve its tally. “We did well in the local elections there,” he had said.

Incidentally, the Union cabinet decision also comes amid hectic campaigning for the Bijepur bypoll in the state.
While the BJP may hope to reap political dividends from the cabinet decision, the BJD sees the development as a victory of its agitation. The Mahanadi’s catchment area mostly covers western Odisha, the BJP’s stronghold in the state.

“Despite persistent calls, the Centre paid no heed to our concerns. The BJP can’t claim any credit for the tribunal. It is a victory for the people of Odisha,” said Bhartruhari Mahtab, the BJD’s leader in the Lok Sabha.

Analysts point out that as the Mahanadi is an arterial river, agriculture in the state largely depends on its water. “In this case, I think the BJD will be able to claim credit because the Centre had earlier refused to form a tribunal. But tribunal proceedings take a long time, and there are instances of states going back to the Supreme Court after a verdict has been pronounced,” said Jugal Kishore Mohapatra, economist and former Union secretary for rural development.

As per legal provisions, the tribunal will comprise a chairman and two other members (Supreme Court or high court judges) nominated by the Chief Justice of India. Furthermore, two assessors with experience in handling sensitive water-related issues will be appointed to advise the tribunal during the proceedings.

BJP national secretary Suresh Pujari said he will wait and watch how the Naveen Patnaik government presents Odisha’s case before the tribunal. “The BJD has no reason to celebrate the river tribunal’s formation. The state government has failed in all cases involving Odisha’s interests in the past. If Odisha loses the case, the BJD’s demand will boomerang. Let them first try and get a tribunal order halting further construction by the Chhattisgarh government,” he added.

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