08 Jan 2023  |   06:28am IST

Dam(n)ing evidence: Kalasa lost; will Karnataka be allowed to steamroll its way across Bandura as well?

The dispute over the life-giving waters of the Mhadei river has for the past two decades steadily soured Goa’s relationship with neighbouring Karnataka. In the meantime, little is being done to harvest and preserve rainwater, reclaim urban wastewater and stop the pollution of freshwater bodies within the heavily-burdened tourist State. While a resource so essential and so precious needs to be safeguarded and shared amongst all humanity to prevent suffering, the question that arises is whether our policy-makers and elected representatives have it in them to reach a peaceful resolution and ensure environmental security for the people they represent. In Herald TV’s weekly debate Point-Counterpoint, Avit Bagle attempts to detangle and de-politicise the issue, and break it down to the bare bones — can the waters of the Mhadei be shared amicably between the two States without changing the course of the river?
Dam(n)ing evidence: Kalasa lost; will Karnataka be allowed to steamroll its way across Bandura as well?

With climate change wreaking havoc on the environment and the global population and its needs growing steadily, the sharing of potable water is probably one of the most common and terrifying conflicts the world over. Water scarcity and the consequent effects of famine, infectious diseases and the decimation of wildlife is a very real threat. We have already seen the results of countries competing for water, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Wars over the sharing of water have left thousands dead and displaced countless others. Closer to home, activists in Goa have been fighting tooth and nail since 2007, to thwart the Karnataka government’s attempts to divert the River Mhadei, which caters to a majority of the State’s irrigation, domestic and industrial needs.  

Former Congress Minister and one of the founders of the Mhadei Bachao Andolan, Nirmala Sawant says her fight started in 2006, when the then MLA of Khanapur, a constituency in Karnataka’s Belgaum district, informed her about his government’s plans to divert the Mhadei river in Kankumbi. Back then, most Goans were unaware that the Mhadei and the Mandovi were one and the same, the name ‘Mhadei’ held no significance as people dismissed it as some obscure river originating in Maharashtra.  

“We started written communication with the Karnataka government appealing to them not to divert the flow of the river as it is the lifeline of Goa. The irrigation minister even came to us but we refused to back down. It's only after they laid the foundation on October 2, 2006, people realised that something is going on. But since 1996 till that point, nobody really took it that seriously,” she recalls.  

“The then Goa government of Congress went to the court on November 16, 2006, followed by us, the Mhadei Bachao Abhiyan, in 2007. But as an organisation, we could not speak about the water as distribution of the same is a state subject. We informed the CEC that it is a violation and they cannot go ahead with the construction. We brought it to their notice that it is a violation but the Karnataka government's stance was that their project is worth less than Rs 100 crore and so, they do not require the permission of the Central government,” she says.  

Sawant, along with a group of environmentalists and activists engaged the services of advocate Bhavanishankar Gadnis, who managed to convince the court that Karnataka’s proposed project was a violation, and would also cost more than Rs 100 crore, requiring them to seek the Centre’s permission.  

“That is what prevented Karnataka from continuing their work. Their advocate said, and I quote, ‘Learned counsel of Karnataka says that no construction is going on in the area in question, that is Kalasa-Bandura project and that no construction will be carried out. In this view, nothing further survives. This application is disposed of accepting the statement of the learned counsel for the state of Karnataka’,” she explains. “That meant that they had completed the work of Kalasa but were yet to begin with Bandura. Holding on to this, we went to court as it was contempt of the court to now allow Karnataka to build Bandura. However, our voice was limited to just the environmental implications, as water-sharing is a State issue. The aforementioned statement is from the August 2017 order so, when the Tribunal gave the decision in 2018, the Government should have shown them the previous statement,” Sawant points out.

Congress spokesperson Tulio De Souza added that water, as a State matter, was still an issue of national importance. “The Central government has failed in delivering justice to Goa. Because under Article 262 of the Constitution, inter-state water disputes are to be resolved by the Central government, headed by the honorable Prime Minister. So the double-engine sarkar of Goa and Delhi, which could have delivered justice to Goa straightaway, had to be sought through the portals of the court,” he laments.

Giriraj Pai Vernekar, State Spokesperson for the BJP was quick to interject and point out that the ‘double engine sarkar’ at the time, at the State and the Center, was formed by the Congress party. “The major construction happened during their regime. We are supposed to find the solution for this as Goans, united. But Congress' problem is that they are always looking for someone to blame,” says Vernekar.

 In 2010, the then Congress government led by CM Digambar Kamat withdrew the case and gave a Tribunal. “If the case had not been withdrawn it would have probably stayed in our favour,” admits Sawant.

“The judgement that was given by the Tribunal was neither looked after nor given any importance. The copies of the DPRs (Detailed Project Report) of any project proposed in the river basin for which no tribunal award or inter-state agreement exists, cannot be given compliance. How were these projects given compliance?” questions Sawant. De Souza clarified that when these compliances were submitted, they were on the original DPR application of the Karnataka government, in 2020.

As per the Tribunal's verdict, Karnataka is to receive 13.42 tmc of water while Maharashtra and Goa are to receive 1.33 and 24 tmc water, respectively. Karnataka’s current stand is that as per the Tribunal, they are allowed 5.5 tmc for drinking, 8.02 for hydro-electricity. And out of that, they say they are acquiring 3.8 tmc water from Kalasa.  

“We visited the site in 1998 and noticed that seven dams would be built at seven different tributaries of the Mhadei. The Mhadei originates at Degao and enters Surla as Kalasa and Bandura tributaries merge together. Whenever we open the taps in Panjim or elsewhere, the water that flows out is from the Mhadei,” explains heritage activist Prajal Sakhardande.  

“Karnataka can divert the Bennihalla tributary towards Dharwad for drinking water or humanitarian purposes, whatever they claim it to be. That will serve their purpose and there will not be any need to divert neither the Kalasa nor the Bandura. Technically, they cannot carry out the construction, but they will find other ways and if they do, we will suffer,” he adds, appealing to Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant to prevail upon the environmental aspect of the diversion, with the Centre. “Kalasa's work is already going on but we can prevent them from constructing Bandura. We should use these points to our advantage,” he asserts. 

Vernekar points out that the Goa government welcomed and accepted the Tribunals’ award of 3.9 tmc of water, but at that time, Karnataka was demanding ten times more. “In 2019, we went to court, and in 2020 we filed a contempt petition as Karnataka was not stopping work on the dam. Then we went to the Tribunal again to clarify whether Karnataka was allowed to use the 3.9 tmc of water or whether it was allowed to divert it,” he says.  

Vernekar calls for Goans of all political affiliations to set their differences aside and put forth a united front to prevent the diversion of the Mhadei. “The government is not saying that the approval given to the DPR is right. We have been saying all along that we need to go to the Central government as one, as Goans. Karnataka's biggest advantage is their unity. But when the Goa CM today appealed to take an all-party delegation to the Centre, the response he got was ‘don't make us part of the blame game’.” 

Sawant however faults the State government for not making a strong enough case to put an end to the dispute.  The project lies in the highly eco-sensitive Western Ghat area and a team of officers had carried out a site inspection to ascertain whether any project work has been done in the forest area. The work was done in violation of the Forest Conservation Act 1980. “The Government should have brought this to the notice of the court. Or they should have told the Tribunal that as per the verdict of the Supreme Court, Kalasa cannot be touched. They would not have allocated the water then,” she points out.

 “On one side, the government is saying that the environment needs to be protected, and on the other, doing something else. Sahyadri is a biodiversity hotspot and if it is not protected, neither will Karnataka  get the water, nor Goa,” she asserts.  

Echoing Sakardande’s argument, she points out that the Bennihalla river, which is only 48 km from Dharwad, is thrice as big as the Mhadei. “So why is Karnataka not taking their drinking water from there? We have been working on the ground level for years and yet, the government has not used all this data in their defense. That is why we doubt the intentions of the government, because they are so silent and laidback,” says Sawant.

 When the Rhine river in Europe was polluted, different States of 9 countries came together and the pollutants were removed, she says. “If the national leaders of that many countries can come together, why not the administration of two states from the same country come together? Why is Bennihalla's water not utilised? They are not only building the project but diverting the flow of the river itself which is against nature. The government, regardless of which party it is being ruled by, has to think and has to be vocal,” she stresses.

 But does the BJP-led government in Goa not have the advantage of the Central government calling upon the Chief Ministers of both States?

Vernekar responds, “We all know the functioning of the courts. Sometimes it's in our favour and sometimes it's not. After the fact, we cannot go back in time. If we lived in an ideal world then we could have sat together but if we did that, then the same activists will go and say that we settled things out of court and sold Goa.”

 He seems confident that the cards will fall in favour of Goa. “Even the CM tweeted the other day that under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, they will not get the EC clearance. We will ensure to use all the remedies available. We will demand for the Mhadei Water Management Authority to be established. Some of the MLAs from Karnataka have vowed to change their names if they fail to complete the project. I think they should prepare to change their names because we as a State and as a party are fully committed to save the Mhadei,” he says.

 The bravado may come a little too late however, as Sakardande points out that the Karnataka government has already laid down stones and obstructed the flow of the river, causing it to flow backwards. 

“We have already filed a contempt petition for that as well. In the end, the policy-makers in Karnataka will fight for their cause the way we are fighting for Goa. I feel the solution will come from the Central government or the courts. Having the CWC order means nothing unless they get all the other approvals. We will fight tooth and nail with all the provisions we have,” says Vernekar.

 Yet, one cannot forget that the Kalasa project has been completed, irrespective of whether the approvals were issued or not, Sawant points out.

This is a serious lapse on the part of the government, says De Souza. The government needs to take certain executive decisions, and if they cannot do so, they should step down, he adds.

“The Congress party demands that a special session be convened in the Assembly, as it is the highest temple of democracy. And we have to pass a resolution regardless of the ones we have passed before. The Mhadei issue is of prime importance to all Goans and the Central government should adjudicate under relevant provisions of the Constitution in the wake of what has happened,” De Souza says.

“The honorable AG has gone on record recently, saying that we have a water-tight case in this matter.  Then why have we fallen short in getting justice?” he questions. “On December 18, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change wrote to Karnataka that the clearance dated October 17 has been kept in abeyance. But on December 24, Union minister Prakash Javadekar writes to Basavraj Bommai, the then minister for home affairs and cooperation of Karnataka, saying that the Government of India has not kept the clearance in abeyance and that Karnataka can start the work,” says De Souza.  

The Goa government had in December 2017 told Karnataka that they were ready to help them with sourcing drinking water. “Is it really for drinking water? The government should clarify. And has Karnataka ever extended an olive branch to us? The CM should tell us when he is meeting the PM and reversing the approval given to the DPR,” asserts De Souza.

Even with scores of activists and even the common man lending their voices to the cause, the ball is now firmly in the court of the Goa Chief Minister and his cabinet. “Now the whole of Goa is looking up to our Chief Minister to bring about a solution that will be in favour of our Goa,” concludes Sakardande.