The Polavaram multipurpose project has faced rough weather with non-compliance of environmental assessment and large-scale displacement

The Union Cabinet’s resolution last week — to clear the proposal for constituting the Polavaram Project Authority (PPA) — has attracted cautious criticism from the Odisha government. With the general election in full swing and Telangana set to come into being, it is obvious that political parties would leave no stone unturned to gain political mileage. It is not very important to read between the lines on the timing of the PPA. Instead, what is pertinent now is to understand how prepared the Odisha government is to tackle inter-State water disputes.

The Union government’s compulsion to form the PPA is logical with the formation of Telangana. To resolve any inter-State water dispute, the government can resort to conflict resolution through the Interstate River Water Disputes Act, 1956, apart from regular dialogue and negotiation. The PPA is not a constitutional body unless approved by Parliament. Assessing the thorny road ahead after June 2, when Telangana will become the 29th State of India, the Union government pressed for keeping the project under the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) as a national project. This has proved to be one of the worst examples of coordination between the Union and State governments under UPA-2, as both Chhattisgarh and Odisha had objected to the project in the Supreme Court.

Purpose of the project

The purpose of the PPA is to overcome the project’s hurdles and generate investment. But it is not the PPA, but the riparian States or the apex court that must approve the project. A transboundary environmental impact assessment should be mandatory, which India has been flouting so far. In 2009, following the request of the Andhra Pradesh government, the PPA became a central project following MoWR guidelines. The Andhra government submitted a revised budget of Rs.16,010.45 crore, which included the budget for protective embankments in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. However, in 2012, the Prime Minister’s Office directed the Planning Commission to withhold any financial clearance until the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Odisha government’s case against the project. No verdict or stay order against the construction of the project or against declaring it to be a national project has been pronounced by the Court so far. Should the PPA then represent the Union government in pending cases related to the project in the apex court? This is a legal issue.

On May 5, the Odisha government, after ‘reading’ the Union Cabinet resolution, responded through the media that it will resort to the apex court on the rationality of the PPA. It should be noted that the Supreme Court appointed an inspection panel in 2011 to find out if the construction of the project was being carried out according to the terms of the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal (GWDT) Award, 1980. The panel concluded that the project had not violated the GWDT. In principle, while the viability of the project is clear, ministries have not given their clearances, and the Supreme Court’s verdict is awaited.

Issues being contested

Interestingly, it’s not the quantity of water-sharing between the riparian States that is the bone of contention but the height of the dam and submergence of areas in Odisha. The aspect that remains unanswered is this: Will the riparian States really oppose the project in the interest of the people of their State, or oppose it for the sake of opposing it? Does Odisha have any plans of mitigating problems of submergence of vast forest areas and parts of Malkangiri district? The State government must know the exact number of people who will be displaced and the forest areas that will be submerged in order to substantiate its argument, not only in courts but in the public domain.

The Indira Sagar (Polavaram) multipurpose project has faced rough weather with non-compliance of environmental assessment, proper surveys, lack of abidance with existing laws and large-scale displacement and submergence of forest and inhabitants. Without protective embankments, four villages and 648.05 hectares of land will be submerged in Odisha, and eight villages and 795.59 hectares of land will be submerged in Chhattisgarh (as per the Andhra Pradesh government’s submission on February 2014).

Can the Odisha government refute or substantiate this? Odisha should revisit all inter-State agreements, drawn or not drawn, to plan for the future. This will certainly pave the way for settlement of water disputes and for comprehensive development of the water sector in the State.

Since 1946, the leaders of Odisha have successfully negotiated with neighbouring States on inter-State water disputes. The government must find a long-term approach within its Department of Water Resource to deal with such skirmishes in the near future.

(Avilash Raul is senior fellow at the Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict.)

More In: Comment | Opinion