Preparedness of Odisha on Inter-State River Water


Early this month, the resolution of Union Cabinet to constitute a special purpose vehicle- Polavaram Project Authority (PPA)- has caught Odisha government napping. Instead, the news has  attracted cautious criticism from state government. With General election in full swing and Telengana Statehood is commencing- it is beyond obvious that political parties, , leader of oppositions including incumbent State and Union governments would left no stone unturned to gain political mileage of blame game. It is less important to read between the lines on timing of PPA. Moreover, it is pertinent to understand the efficiency of Odisha government on its resolute preparedness of existing inter-state river water disputes as well as emerging disputes due to water shortage and climate change.


The Union government's compulsion to form PPA is logical due to Telengana State formation. To resolve any inter-state water dispute, the Union government may resort to conflict resolution through 1956 Act as well as to means of dialogue and negotiation platforms. The PPA is not a Constitutional body unless approved by Parliament which is remote in present scenario.  Assessing the thorny road ahead after June 2 when Telengana becomes 29th State, the Union government pressed for keeping the project under Ministry of Water Resource (MoWR) as a national project. Has Union government discussed with riparian States like Chhattisgarh and Odisha which already put objections against the project in Supreme Court, to form this PPA?  It is highly frustrating as a Federal Unit that the Union government wouldn't inform or solicit consent from State governments especially Odisha in this case. This is one of the worst examples of Union-State relation under UPA-II.


The purpose of the PPA is to expedite the Polavaram project hurdles from various ministries at the Union and generate investment and process the project. But, PPA must not be the approving authority. It is either the apex court or mutual beneficially agreed riparian states who shall approve the project. This is where a transboundary environmental impact assessment should be mandatory which India is flouting so far. In 2009, with the request of Andhra Pradesh government, the project become a Central project following MoWR guidelines. The Andhra  government submitted a revised budget of INR 16010.45 Crores including agreed budget for protective embankments in Chhattisgarh and Odisha amounting INR 621.64 Crores. However, in 2012, Prime Minister Office directed Planning Commission to withhold any financial clearance until Supreme Court's verdict on Odisha Government's filed case against the project. No verdict or stay-order against the construction of Polavaram project or against declaring it National Project has been pronounced by Supreme Court so far. Shall PPA represent Union government in existing pending cases related to Polavaram in Apex Court? It's a legal matter which would be taken care of by legal luminaries engaged in such cases since 2007.


On May 5, the Odisha Government after 'reading' the Union Cabinet resolution responded through media that it will resort to apex court on rationality of PPA.  It should be noted that Supreme Court appointed an inspection panel in 2011 to find out if the construction of the project is carried out in terms of Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal (GWDT) Award in 1980. The Panel concluded that the project so far has not violated GWDT.


In Principle, the viability of project has been cleared but clearances from Ministries and verdict from apex court are awaiting. What are the action plan of Odisha? What Odisha government can best do beyond resorting to apex court? Yes, the easy part is to wait and watch and be reactive occasionally like appealing to Supreme Court.


Interestingly, It's not quantity of water sharing between the riparian states but the height of dam and submergence of areas in Odisha due to flood have been the bone of contentions. One aspect is still unanswered, whether the riparian States really oppose the project in the interest of the people of their State, or opposing for the sake of opposing as Andhra Pradesh is going fast or resorting to vote bank politics? Has Odisha any  plan to mitigate those problems of submergence of vast forest areas and drowning of portions of Malkanagiri district? No need of white paper on this project now. The state government must ensure the exact people who will be displaced and forest areas that will be submerged proactively to substantiate its argument not only in Courts but in public domain. The Environmental Impact Assessment could have taken suo motto by the Odisha government in the villages which would be submerged with or without informing AP government. Has the leadership in Odisha took initiative to negotiate with Andhra Pradesh or other riparian states on this project?


The Indira Sagar (Polavaram) multipurpose project is located on river Godavari near Ramayyapet village of Polavaram Mandal of West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. The Andhra Pradesh government has started this project in October 2004. Since, it has gone to rough weather with non-compliance of environmental assessment, proper survey, non abiding existing  laws and large scale displacement and submergence of forest and inhabitants. Without protective embankments, in Odisha, there will be submergence of 4 villages and 648.05 hectare of land, whereas in Chhattisgarh, there will be submergence of 8 villages and 795.59 hectare of land as per AP government submission on February  2014.  Can this be refuted or substantiated by Odisha government?


Further, be it utilisation of its own share of water in case of interstate rivers, or utilisation of its own waters, Odisha should proceed with a well cut out implementable plan given the present scenario of rehabilitation issues, forest and environment concerns and place the plan before the Union government and neighbouring States pro-actively. Odisha may also revisit all the interstate agreements, drawn or not drawn, to plan for future. This will certainly pave path for settlement of water disputes and comprehensive development of water sector in the State. Andhra Pradesh has already spilled the beans by going ahead with the Polavaram Project for the larger interest of people of Andhra Pradesh, as argued, even within a very hostile and negative environment. Probably, Andhra understands the principle of acceptance that such huge investments once made has to be realised, if necessary by twisting the arms of Acts and Rules.


Perhaps, Department of Water Resource (DoWR) and Chief Minister of Odisha have been shying away from face to face negotiation with adjacent neighbouring states on either Polavaram or Vanshadhara or Mahanadi Rivers. Since 1946, the leaders of Odisha have shown successful negotiated outcome on inter- state water with other neighbouring states. As we move forward, Odisha will have increasing inter-state river disputes with neighbouring states. The government must find a long term approach within its DoWR to deal with such skirmishes in near future.


Inept inertia shall not protect interest of Odisha.

Author Note
Dr Avilash Roul (Ph.D.), Senior Fellow (Water, Energy and Environment) at Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict (SSPC)- a Delhi based think tank. Abridged version published in The Hindu, May 13, 2014.