Sandeep Sahu

The mask has fallen off. The Narendra Modi government at the Centre has proved that for all its talk of ‘cooperative federalism’, partisan party considerations outweigh its commitment to federalism, the bedrock of Centre-state relations in India. Instead of acting as the ‘neutral umpire’, it has acted in a manner that is designed to protect the interests of Chhattisgarh, where the BJP is in power, at the cost of Odisha.

Even for those skeptical of the Centre’s intentions in the dispute between Chhattisgarh and Odisha over sharing of Mahanadi water from the very beginning, the affidavit filed by it in the Supreme Court today flatly refusing to form the much awaited and much delayed tribunal on Mahanadi came as a bolt from the blue. After all, it had made a solemn commitment to the apex court only on October 9 this year that it would form the tribunal by November 19. The deadline came and went without the Centre acting on its commitment.

The reason cited by the Centre while declining to form the tribunal has to be taken with a bagful of salt. The tribunal cannot be formed since the Odisha government had not furnished the required ‘facts and figures’, counsel for the Union government Wasim A. Kadri told the media. The question that inevitably follows is: was the Centre not aware of this when it made the commitment on October 9? If it was, why did it not say so then? It does not take rocket science to understand that the specious excuse has been cooked up to wriggle out of its commitment to the Supreme Court. One can only hope that the apex court will see through this unabashed act of partisanship and ask it to form the tribunal. Four months earlier, on July 25, 2017 to be precise, the Centre had told the apex court that the draft of the tribunal was being prepared.

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It is also clear that the counsel’s contention that the dispute can be solved through talks between the two states is an afterthought that amounts to flogging a dead horse. That the row cannot be solved through talks was made abundantly clear a year back when the Odisha government filed the complaint petition in the Union Ministry of Water Resources asking for formation of a tribunal. This was after a meeting between the chief secretaries of the two states, followed by a tripartite meeting brokered by the MWR that was attended by the Chief Ministers of the two states, failed to arrive at any consensus on the issue. Any hopes of a negotiated settlement were put to rest when the Odisha government rejected the unilateral formation of a joint committee by the Centre and skipped the two meetings convened in March and May this year.

It is not as if the Centre was not aware of the fact that negotiations had reached a dead end. On August 1 this year, Union Minister of state for Water Resources Sanjeev Kumar Balyan had told the Rajya Sabha that the Centre was in the process of forming a tribunal since it was convinced that the negotiations had failed. The revival of the negotiation option at this stage is thus a desperate exercise in obfuscation on the part of the Centre with the sole objective of delaying things.

In hindsight, it does not seem all that far-fetched to surmise that the idea of a ‘permanent tribunal’ was floated by the Centre primarily as a ploy to avoid having to constitute the tribunal on Mahanadi. After the Centre filed the affidavit in the Supreme Court today, it is also clear that Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s assertion in December last year that the Mahanadi dispute would be dealt with by a ‘single tribunal’ to be formed under the existing system was nothing but a face saving exercise.

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The least the Centre could have done to prove its credentials as an honest broker in the Mahanadi dispute was a direction to the Chhattisgarh government to stop all construction work on barrages on Mahanadi pending a settlement of the vexed issue – something that the Odisha government has been demanding since the very beginning and the Union and Chhattisgarh governments have resisted till the very end.

BJD leader and spokesperson Pratap Keshari Deb may well have a point when he, in his reaction to today’s affidavit, sought to link it to the Assembly elections in Chhattisgarh in the middle of next year. The BJP led Modi government indeed looks determined to help Raman Singh win a fourth consecutive term in office. But in the process, it is unwittingly ruining whatever little chance it had of coming to power in Odisha – Mission 120 be damned! May be it has already realized it doesn’t stand a chance against the Naveen Patnaik juggernaut and hence feels that backing Chhattisgarh would be a better bet!

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