Mahanadi: Odisha Fighting a Losing Battle

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By Sandeep Sahu

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik asserted earlier today that the government is ‘fully prepared’ for the tripartite meeting on the Mahanadi dispute on September 17. But does the announcement reassure the people of the state that Odisha would make a strong case at the meeting brokered by the Central government that would make it difficult for the Chhattisgarh government (and the Centre) to ignore Odisha’s legitimate concerns? Perhaps not. A closer analysis of what the CM said would make it clear why.

“We have just held a detailed meeting on Mahanadi water issue. We are fully prepared for the discussion with central government on 17th of this month,” the Chief Minister said and then followed it up with “I welcome suggestions from individuals, social organisations and political parties on the issue.”

If the government is already ‘fully prepared’ for the meeting, where is the scope for suggestions from other stakeholders? Is it not rather late in the day to invite suggestions? Why did the government not take the initiative to consult these sections so far when the issue has been on the boil for well over a month now? Having spurned outright the Opposition plea for convening an all-party meet on the issue to formulate a consensus, does it really expect ‘political parties’ to come rushing to offer their pearls of wisdom after today’s announcement by the CM?

The truth is the Odisha government has been on the back foot ever since the row over Mahanadi blew in its face a few weeks ago. It first sought to brazen it out saying Chhattisgarh had not informed Odisha about the series of projects – the most prominent of them being the Arpa-Bhaisajhar and Kelo projects – it had undertaken in the upper reaches of the river. But when the media dug out one correspondence after the other between the two governments – some of them dating back to as early as 2009 – it tried to change tack claiming the neighbouring state had not provided ‘complete’ information about the projects.

Every step that the Odisha government has taken since the dispute arose has been marked by ad-hocism. After first announcing that a team of senior engineers from the Hirakud Dam would visit Chhattisgarh for an on-the-spot assessment of the projects undertaken by it, the government baffled everyone by making a fresh announcement that a BJD delegation – and not an official team – would visit the neighbouring state to take stock of the ground realities. There wasn’t even a charade of sending an official delegation.

Even allowing for the fact that the lines between the ruling party and the government have been all but obliterated by this regime, this decision was well nigh impossible to swallow. How on earth can a government take a call on an issue based on a report submitted by the party that rules it? Why did the BJD delegation that visited Chhattisgarh take a month to submit a report? Who exactly did it submit the report to – to the government or the party? (Since the Chief Minister also doubles up as the party chief, there is no way one can be sure!) Did the delegation base its assessment on the ‘field visit’ it undertook or on some other materials collected from extraneous sources too?

In hindsight, it is not difficult to understand why the BJD government rejected offhand the eminently sensible suggestion by the Leader of Opposition to convene an all-party meeting on the issue. It was clearly apprehensive that the Opposition parties would call its bluff at the meeting. Caught on a cleft stick, it then sought to wriggle out of the situation by coming up with the bright idea of a Kalash Yatra along the areas on the banks of Mahanadi.

In sharp contrast, the Raman Singh government has gone about its business after doing painstaking groundwork and meticulous planning, deftly using sections of the media in Odisha to push its point across.

Given its acts of omission in the past, the best that the Odisha government can hope by way of an outcome at the September 17 is a commitment to have a relook at the ongoing projects. But even that looks a far cry in view of the Chhattisgarh government’s determination to go ahead with the projects and the Centre’s less then even-handed approach to the issue.

In short, Odisha is fighting a losing battle.

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