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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 24 New Delhi June 1, 2019

Floating Boat of Politics and the Skeletal Mahanadi

Saturday 1 June 2019

by K.C. Ratha


The major thrust of the article is to explore how river-dependent communities around the basin are bereft of minimum living support including safe drinking water and irrigation on the one hand and the political parties are engaged to make Mahanadi a poll issue for electoral gains remaining unconcerned with survival of people and its ecological entity on the other.

Odisha and Chhattisgarh are at loggerheads over a dying river. The Mahanadi river is dying as its natural flow is interfered with and the water level is coming down in a consistent manner. Since the 1990s there has been an unfaltering decline in water flow. Water experts believe that the dams and barrages affect the natural flow of rivers. But they are not the sole and exclusive reasons for the dying of a river; rather there are multifarious factors behind it. The death of a river is a challenge to the existence of a civilisation. Both availability and quality of water has gradually declined in the Mahanadi. Neither Odisha nor Chhattisgarh constantly worked on the catchment area management regardless of coal mining and deforestation leading to degradation of the water catchment area.

Chhattisgarh wants to increase its revenue generation by taking advantage of the Mahanadi water for industrial use. It continues to privatise, colonise and sell the Mahanadi water to industries instead of utilising it for the sake of drinking and irrigation purposes on the basis of priority. On the same lines, Odissa also allocates water from the Hirakud project to industries which precipitated a strong struggle of farmers in Odisha. In October 2006, about 25,000 farmers had formed an 18-km-long human chain around Burla near Sambalpur in Odisha expressing strong objection to the government’s decision to provide water from the Hirakud reservoir on the Mahanadi to upcoming industries. The farmers had focused their attention on the adverse impact on farming.

This clash between farming and industrial interests was also noticeable in Chhattisgarh at that time, where similar allocations were being made to thermal power plants. Both the States have been treating the Mahanadi as a commodity and not a natural resource. The hardship of the Mahanadi water scarcity is not only being felt by the Odisha residents but also by those from neighbouring Chhattisgarh. As Mahanadi is totally dry in their area too, they have no alternative. They are compelled to come to Odisha to catch fish from the Hirakud reservoir and earn their livelihood.

Where people around the basin are bereft of minimum living support including safe drinking water and irrigation, this fight for the Mahanadi water is more of a competition between too States in fulfilling the promises to industries without fail.

Political Mileages

The ruling BJD has adopted the issue as a major plank. It has raised two issues of regionalism and Central neglect to counter anti-incumbency in Odisha keeping political rivals at bay. The BJD claimed that Chhattisgarh’s dams would block the Mahanadi, reducing the river into a mere stream. Then it asked for the establishment of a water dispute tribunal under the River Water Disputes Act 1956 to determine the sharing of non-monsoon water between Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The BJD already turned it into a poll issue through rallies and padayatras, telling the people how the Centre was giving up Odisha’s interests in support of neighbouring Chhattisgarh. There was no point in discussing the issue with Chhattisgarh as the Centre had not asked the neighbouring State to put a halt to the construction work along the upstream of the river Mahanadi. As the Chhattisgarh Government has closed all the gates of the Kalma barrage for the last several days, the Mahanadi river has become dry on the Odisha side. Further, it alleged that the Centre was intentionally holding up finalisation of the Terms of Reference (TOR) of the tribunal to benefit the BJP Government in Chhattisgarh in view of the Assembly elections scheduled towards the end of 2018. Power generation from the Hirakud dam reservoir decreased due to the alleged reduced flow in the river. Lambasting the Centre for extending tacit support to Chhattisgarh, the BJD warned that the water crisis in the Odisha side will become more acute in the days ahead. The BJD had been striving to treat the Mahanadi issue as a political weapon against the BJP for quite sometime.

The BJP claims that the State Government’s declaration to build seven barrages and 22 irrigation projects on Mahanadi was nothing but a political gimmick for electoral politics and only meant to turn away the people’s attention from its failure. For years together, the ruling party was in deep slumber and its sudden show of urgency smacks of political motive rather than the genuine concern for the people of Odisha. The BJP leaders claim that the Odisha Government was well informed about the neighbouring State’s activities. The Congress, on its part, holds both the BJD and BJP liable for the sorry state of affairs. Right from the formation of the tribunal, the Odisha BJP had lashed out at the BJD for politicising the issue instead of focusing on the tribunal. The BJP had on the contrary targeted the BJD for allowing 53 per cent of Mahanadi waters in Odisha to run out into the sea without any necessary utilisation and for its failure to build irrigation projects.

Truly speaking, politicians of either party are fully engaged in finding fault with each other just to eke out political mileages and are least concerned with the ecological entity of the Mahanadi. Instead of establishing a bridge between river and civilisation and realising the gloomy future, politicians of the State are simply involved in casting malicious slurs on the opponents to harvest political advantages in the forthcoming elections. The lack of concerted efforts on the part of both States to make the basin climate resilient has also pushed the issue into the arena of apprehension.

On the Brink

The river Mahanadi is the lifeline of thousands of people living in Raghunathpur, Tirtol, Kujang and Paradip in the State of Odisha. The river-bed has dried up at a number of places in the district. The villagers make use of the stored water for cultivation of crops and daily activities. Over the years, the decreasing water levels have made the livelihood of farmers and fishermen at the losing end in these areas. People are deprived of water for cultivation affecting farming in the villages. Thus, groups of people from Tarapur and Achyutpur started digging up small pits on the dry bed. Similar pits were found in villages by the side of river Mahanadi. People dig up the pits in the evening and wait for water to seep in by the next morning. Villagers often use this water for drinking too.

More than 5000 fishing families residing in Siddhamula, Kantilo, Karabar and Manipur Gram Panchayats have been seriously affected due to water scarcity. While some fishermen have already departed from their traditional occupation and started working as bonded labourers, others are still in quest of work to earn a living. Drying up of the Mahanadi river has put the fishermen community in a state of uncertainty. The fishermen were provided with various fishing tools, including nets and boats by their district administration. But since water has dried up in several water bodies, they are now forced to search for alternatives. The unfavourable impact of the ongoing construction of barrages by the neighbouring State is now being felt in Nayagarh district. As per reliable sources, the river water flowing in several water bodies in 10 Gram Panchayats of Khandapada block in the district has dried up putting the fishermen in trouble.

The river Telen, which was the lifeline of the Kolabira block in the district, has dried up completely. The river is a tributary of Mahanadi and merges with the river Bheden at Salepali. Mechanical drawing of water by industries displaying a complete lack of forethought and good sense has resulted in the complete drying up of Telen leaving the villagers in a troublesome situation. However, widespread destruction of green cover upstream has caused gradual decrease in the flow of river and it dried up this summer. The decrease in flow over the years and decline in rainfall has transformed the geography of the river and there are no more pits which can hold water. The drying up of the river bears upon the ground water level of other available sources in these villages. Although women of these villagers have been digging pits in the dry river bed to collect water, it takes a very long duration of time for water to trickle down and accumulate in the pit before it is collected for drinking. Pits on the river beds have also started drying up and women have to swirl about for new spots to dig pits. Moreover, water seeping into the pits is black in colour indicating the pollution of the river and demands long hours to become compact. Even the water level at the deep bore well located in close proximity to the river has gone down further intensifying the problem. Although a sand barrage could have stocked up some water, absence of foresight of the district administration has led to the water crisis in Salepali and other villages, which are located along the river.

Residents of a Sukhasoda, a small village, who had been helpless without the Mahanadi for generations, have started leaving their village in search of other livelihood because the river has dried up. Sukhasoda under the Remta gram panchayat is the first village in Odisha, located 12 kms downstream of the Kalam barrage constructed by Chhattisgarh. In the midst of despair and despondency hanging over the flow of water, the boats are left without anchor as their owners are least worried about those being washed away. The dry river has not only wiped out smiles from the faces of the fisherfolk but also hit the farmers who have stopped cultivating the rabi crop. Fishing in the river, a legacy left behind by their forefathers, has come to a complete halt and they are occupied with odd jobs to maintain their families. Many families have also migrated to Chhattisgarh to earn a living rather than suffering from prolonged lack of food in their village close to river Mahanadi. [Pani, 2017]

Perennial Bheden, one of the tributaries of Mahanadi, was considered one of major tributaries of the river Ib and had never withered. But nowadays, the river has gone dry and the green cover along its banks venished while rampant sand mining has made it a stretch of shallow water. Besides, use of explosives for stone quarrying, exploitation of water by industries and brick kilns along the river and discharge of effluents from industries have indeed invited the fluvial disaster of the river. Not only has the water flow in the river stopped, the country boats which were once noticed transporting people or fishing are in a state of non-existence. The villagers were of the opinion that there were wide and deep points in the river bed capable of holding water upto 40 feet deep. Locally known as ‘darha’, these waterholes came to the aid of the villagers to meet their needs throughout the year. The villagers claimed that in the last one decade, more than 10 ‘darhas’ have disappeared. The few darhas that have survived are Ghughar Darha, Khami Darha, Laida Darha, Samlai Darha and Bagdi Darha. But the water storage in those places has come down drastically.

Prior to the edifice of the Kalma barrage, people of the village were engaged farming during the rabi season while others eked out a living by fishing in Mahanadi. Water scarcity was unheard of then. However, ever since the Kalma barrage was built, myriad miseries have struck the villagers with fishermen being the hardest hit. Apart from Kalma on Mahanadi, the Chhattisgarh Government has also built barrages and anicuts on Maini river which has affected the flow in the Ib which joins the Mahanadi near Sapne ahead of the Hirakud Dam Reservoir. Experts claim that Ib will also meet the same fate as Mahanadi. The drying up of Ib has also affected villagers dependent on the river for irrigation and fishing. With the river approaching a premature death, the villagers are looking for alternative options to maintain their families. While both the perennial rivers have dried up, the villages situated along the Mahanadi now face a terrible water crisis.[The New Indian Express, 2018] 

By 2051, it is expected that Odisha and Chhattisgarh will need 36.18 MAF and 27.48 MAF water per year from Mahanadi respectively. The total availability of water from the river currently stands at 40 MAF. This will only go down over time. The total catchment area is 1.41 lakh square kilometres (45.73 per cent in Odisha and 53.9 per cent in Chhattisgarh). [Mohanty, 2018] Over three crore people are presumably to be affected throughout the expanse of Chhattisgarh and Odisha.


1. Mohanty, Debabrata, 2018, ‘Mahanadi row gains political significance in Odisha’, Hindustan Times, January 8.

2. Pani, Ratan K., 2017, ‘Fate of an Odisha village, so close to river, so far from water’, The New Indian Express, June 11.

3. The New Indian Express, 2018, ’Kalma sucks IB bone dry’, May 15.

Dr Keshab Chandra Ratha is a Lecturer in Political Science, Pallishree Degree College, Chichinda, Sambalpur University, Bargarh, Odisha. He can be contacted at e-mail: keshab_ratha[at]

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