18 Feb 2024  |   06:30am IST

Stalemate continues: Goa delays declaration of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as Tiger Reserve

Two crucial issues faced by Goa are still in limbo thanks to lackadaisical approach by the State government as environmentalists strongly demand that notifying Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as Tiger Reserve will help protect River Mhadei as neighbouring Karnataka is desperately trying to divert its waters. Vithaldas Hegde and Anil Kumar Mishra look at the current status of these two issues, which are vital for future of the coastal State
Stalemate continues: Goa delays declaration of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as Tiger Reserve

Even seven months after the High Court of Bombay at Goa directed the State government to notify Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve within a three-month period, the order is yet to be implemented - on the contrary, the issue is now hanging in the balance in the Supreme Court.

There have been several requests, but the Goa government has not declared Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve. On the contrary, the government has remained opposed to it, claiming that the decision will lead to a conflict of interest between the forest dwellers and the advocates of conservation.

The issue came into the limelight when a tigress and three cubs were found dead because of alleged poisoning in January 2020. The NGO Goa Foundation moved the High Court, citing that there was inaction on the part of the State government. In July 2023, the High Court of Bombay at Goa directed the State government to declare Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary as a Tiger Reserve within three months.

In its 94-page order, the Court issued several directions, including the preparation of a tiger conservation plan as per the Wildlife Protection Act, and submitting the same to the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) within the same time-frame.

“In the universe, man and animals are equally placed, but human rights approach to environmental protection in case of conflict, is often based on anthropocentricity. Man-animal conflict often results not because animals encroach human territories but vice versa…This Court cannot blink at the reality that often at the State level, regional, parochial, anthropomorphic, and times, even narrow political considerations would prevail over the more significant national interests involved in conserving and protecting the tiger and the tiger habitat,” the division bench comprising Justices Mahesh Sonak and B P Deshpande observed.

The Goa government had cited the recommendations of Goa’s State Board for Wildlife, which had rejected the idea of setting up a Tiger Reserve in the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary stating that the decision was not feasible.

Chief Minister Pramod Sawant too had claimed that the Wildlife Act and the NTCA’s guidelines were not fit to be implemented in Goa, which is a small State.

After the State government failed to notify the Tiger Reserve within the three-month deadline set by the High Court, Goa Foundation has again approached the High Court seeking a direction to issue a notice under the Contempt of Courts Act.

The High Court, on July 24, had directed the State government to notify the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and other specified areas as a Tiger Reserve within three months, i.e., by October 24, 2023.

However, the government filed a miscellaneous civil application before the High Court seeking an extension of time to notify the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounding areas as a Tiger Reserve.

Earlier, the Goa government had approached the Supreme Court to nullify the order of the High Court. However, on September 25, 2023, the Apex Court refused to stay the High Court order and issued notices to the Goa Foundation, Ministry of Environment and Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Goa State Board for Wildlife, Goa Forest Department, and the Chief Wildlife Warden.

However, the Apex Court did not completely throw out the State’s case as it issued notices to Goa Foundation, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), and the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) in the matter.

Dispute over Mhadei water continues unabated between Goa and Karnataka

Even after 40 years, there is no clear sign of resolution of the Mhadei river water dispute with Karnataka. The neighbouring States of Karnataka and Goa have been at loggerheads over the water. The contentious issue has been a subject of intense legal scrutiny for years. The dispute between the two States dates back to the 1980’s. It resurfaced in 2002 again when Karnataka declared its plan to design a number of dams, canals, and barrages to route the Mhadei river water to its Malaprabha basin. The Karnataka government claimed that channeling the Mhadei water into the basin of Malaprabha, a tributary of the Krishna, would meet the requirements of water-scarce districts of Bagalkot, Gadag, Dharwad, and Belagavi.

This became a reason for concern for Goa. Seeking redressal to the dispute, the coastal State sought the constitution of a water disputes Tribunal. In 2006, it moved the Supreme Court with the demand. Its sustained efforts fructified in 2010 when the Mhadei Water Disputes Tribunal was set up.

Before the Tribunal, the Goa government contended that its population depends on Mhadei’s natural path and any move to divert the river would affect its fragile ecosystem. Its contention is that the ingress of saltwater into the river will kill the mangroves and green belt of the State. Mhadei is Goa’s lifeline, and water cannot be diverted from the deficit Mhadei basin to the surplus Malaprabha basin.

On the other hand, Karnataka’s claim was that it will divert surplus water from Mhadei into the deficit basin in Malaprabha. This will meet the drinking, irrigation, agriculture, and power generation requirements of the State’s water-parched districts.

But Goa claimed that it itself is a water-deficient State and if the water supply is restricted then it will adversely impact agriculture in the State.

In 2018, the Supreme Court stayed the construction of dams and canals by Karnataka on the Mhadei river basin. However, Goa expressed its apprehensions that Karnataka may stock excess water in its reservoirs to use it for irrigation in other parts of the State.

In August 2018 itself, the Inter-State Mhadei Disputes Tribunal announced its verdict, giving Karnataka a total of 13.42 thousand million cubic feet of water against a total of its claim of 36.558 thousand million cubic feet. The Tribunal awarded 24 thousand million cubic feet of water to Goa, which has the largest chunk of the river basin and 1.3 thousand million cubic feet of water to Maharashtra, which has a small part of the basin.

The decision, however, was challenged by both Karnataka and Goa. Goa has been opposing the diversion of waters of Mhadei which originates in the Western Ghats of Karnataka. Goa approached the Supreme Court, arguing that the Mhadei water should not be diverted by Karnataka.

Meanwhile, the Central Water Commission (CWC) approved Karnataka’s revised Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the contentious Kalasa-Bandura water diversion project last year. This put the BJP government in Goa in a tight spot.

On June 27, 2023, the Supreme Court agreed to list an application filed by Goa challenging the Central Water Commission’s approval of the Karnataka government’s detailed project report for the construction of dams on the Mhadei river which will lead to the diversion of Mhadei river water into Karnataka.

The Mhadei PRAWAH (Progressive River Authority for Welfare and Harmony) or the Mhadei Water Management Authority, tasked with implementing the award of the Inter-State Mhadei Water Disputes Tribunal, met for the first time on February 13, 2024.

In the recently held Goa Assembly session, Fatorda MLA Vijai Sardesai raised concerns about the drastic drop in water levels in Sattari areas due to Mhadei water diversion. He expressed worry about the low water levels in rivers, especially in Bicholim and Sattari taluka, stressing the anxiety among the people of Goa.

Sardesai demanded that government counsels push for the Mhadei matter to be prioritized in the Supreme Court’s docket. He also called for an investigation into the expenditure on frequent conferences related to the Mhadei river organized in Mumbai.

However, the Water Resources Minister Subhash Shirodkar refuted claims of a decrease in river water levels, asserting that Sardesai’s concerns were aimed at highlighting the issues surrounding river Mhadei.

The Minister informed that the House Committee, dedicated to studying Mhadei river issues, has met twice in the past and will convene again before February 29.

However, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant has affirmed on many occasions the government’s steadfast commitment to the Mhadei issue, emphasizing the rigorous efforts being undertaken.

Sawant had stated recently that the Karnataka government had not yet submitted any paperwork and that Goa had a strong case before the Supreme Court.

More than two-thirds of Mhadei, which stretches 111-km, lies in Goa. The river is considered to be the lifeline of the coastal State as it is one of the few sweet-water sources at Goa’s disposal. The river has 11 important rivers, but most of them contain saltwater. Thus, the Mhadei ensures not only water security to the State but also an important place to source fish.

The river originates in the Western Ghats from the Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary in Khanapur taluka of Karnataka’s Belagavi district and enters from Sattari taluka of North Goa district. In the course of its journey, it is joined by a number of streams.


Iddhar Udhar