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The Mahadayi water war, and why it is again becoming an issue around election season

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The dispute with Goa is over 40 years old, and involves Karnataka’s demand for 24 tmc ft of water to be diverted from the Mahadayi for its drinking needs.

Bengaluru: For decades, Karnataka has found itself locked in water wars ​with neighbouring states. The Cauvery water dispute has always been ​an election trump card in​ ​Tamil Nadu and Karnataka​, while Puducherry and Kerala play a more minor role. There was a dispute over the river Krishna with undivided Andhra Pradesh, which is considered ‘solved’, although neither Telangana nor Andhra Pradesh are happy about it.

The other water war Karnataka is fighting is with ​Goa​, with Maharashtra also having a say​. This is over ​river ​Mahadayi​, called Mandovi in Goa and Mhadei in Maharashtra, which is being heard ​by ​a tribunal​. Karnataka​ is ​asking for 24 ​tmc ft​ ​(thousand million cubic feet) ​of water​, of which 7.56 tmc ft is for drinking in the parched areas of north Karnataka.

Ahead of the final arguments before the Mahadayi Water Disputes Tribunal beginning Tuesday, here’s all you need to know about the dispute.

The crux of the issue 

The river Mahadayi has its origins ​at Kankumbi​ ​ ​in Belagavi district of Karnataka. Mahadayi is essentially a rain​-fed river​ that flows over 111 km. Its waters have been a bone of contention between Karnataka and Goa since the 1980s​, when Karnataka decided to build a dam and two canals on the ​Kalasa and Bandori nala ​tributaries of the river, to address the irrigation and drinking water shortage in​ Dharwad, Gadag and Belagavi districts.

The idea was to divert​ water to the parched Malaprabha region. Goa raised strong objection​s​ to this, stating it would ​cause a shortage of drinking water ​and affect its fragile ecosystem.

Twists and turns

The Mahadayi meanders between Karnataka, Goa, and briefly through Maharashtra, before finally emptying into the Arabian Sea. The dispute has resembled the course of the river, with its numerous twists and turns.

In the early 1980​s, Karnataka Chief Minister ​R. ​Gundu Rao set up a committee under the then opposition leader S.R. Bommai to assess the situation. The committee recommended that if the drinking water issues needs to be solved​,​ the rivers Mahadayi and Malaprabha need to be linked.

In 1989, when Bommai was CM, he convinced his Goa counterpart Pratap Singh Rane to sign a memorandum of understanding to allow the dam. But the project could not take off as Bommai’s government fell in eight months.

During S.M. Krishna’s term ​as CM ​in 2002, an attempt was made revive the project​, ​with the approval of ​then-​Prime ​M​inister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Goa CM Manohar Parrikar appealed to the Centre to stop the project, and also sought the intervention of a tribunal.

Several attempts at negotiation between the two parties failed, and finally, in 2006, Goa approached the Supreme Court seeking the setting up of a tribunal, which was done in in 2010.

Goa appealed to the tribunal to bring the Kalasa​-Banduri project to a stop. But the court dismissed the petition. A fresh plea was filed by Goa seeking the stalling of the project till the final verdict is delivered. The interim order passed by the court​ agreed to this.

Under the ​current ​Siddaramaiah government in Karnataka​, where farmers in the affected regions have been protesting now for over two-and-a-half years. In January 2017, ​the tribunal said the states should talk to each other and try to resolve the issue with an out-of-court settlement.

Siddaramaiah wrote several letters to ​Goa CMs Parrikar​ and his predecessor Laxmikant Parsekar​​ of Goa and Devendra Fadnavis ​of Maharashtra ​to ​hold a meeting. It almost happened, before Parsekar backed off, stating that he was unwell.

​With elections to the Karnataka assembly due in two months, the issue took on a purely partisan hue. Parrikar, upon intervention by BJP national president Amit Shah,​ w​rote a letter to the party’s leader and CM face in Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa, saying he would not oppose giving water to Karnataka for its drinking needs. Parrikar, however, refused to hold a dialogue with Siddaramaiah​, ​stating that he does not trust the Congressman.

What will Karnataka’s argument be? 

Karnataka will argue that the ​M​ahadayi river has around 220 ​tmc​​ ft​ of water, of which it is seeking​ just ​24 tmc ft for drinking water and power generation. The rest of the 190​ tmc ft can be used by Goa. Goa has a population of around 15 lakh and nine tmc ft of water is used by the state. The rest drains into the sea.

Also, Karnataka admits that the Malaprabha dam built in north Karnataka under the Krishna water project failed. It was built for a capacity of 47 ​tmc ft, but has been managing to store only around 27 ​tmc ft due to rain deficits. The state says if some of the water from ​M​ahadayi is diverted to the Malaprabha, it will quench the thirst of the farmers​.

What will Goa’s argument be?

Goa has been steadfast in its stand that it would be a huge ecological catastrophe ​i​f the Kalasa​-Banduri project is given a go-ahead. Goa will argue that it is an ecologically fragile state. If the salinity of the sea water is not balanced by fresh water from the Mahadayi, aquatic ​creatures will face extinction.

The aspect of the right to human life and livelihood will also be put forth​, ​as out of the 12 ​taluks in the state, six are totally dependent on water from the ​M​ahadayi river for drinking purposes. With nearly 43 per cent of the population dependent on the river for potable water, it is unfair for Karnataka to divert the water for itself, Goa will argue.

Will it cause ecological imbalance?  

Ecologists who have been working along the ​M​ahadayi basin argue that Goa has six wildlife sanctuaries and one national park that the river provides for. The vegetation along​side thrives on the flow of water from the river, and deflection could threaten life.

Goa has been declared an ecological fragile state, and so the project will be nothing but ecological suicide.

Scientists from the ​Na​tional ​I​nstitute of ​O​ceanography (NIO), a central research body, have declared that the flow of fresh water from the river is essential to maintain the ecological balance of the state.

Differences with the Cauvery dispute

The Mahadayi and Cauvery water wars differ in passions, demographic dependency and quantum. Karnataka has not been as passionate​ ​when it comes to the four-decade-old Mahadayi dispute, unlike Cauvery, which has lasted over 100 years.

The quantum of water demanded by ​K​arnataka is more than the allocated 300 tmc ft in t​he Cauvery dispute, but it just about 24 tmc ft when it comes to the ​Mahadayi.

But the common thread between the two is that they have been used time and again to whip up passions during the elections.

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