Elections On The Horizon, Mahanadi Takes Political Centrestage

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The clever politician that he is chief minister, Naveen Patnaik realizes the emotive value of Mahanadi dispute. Hence he is keen to keep the issue alive one way or the other. The launch of the recent Green Mahanadi Mission was yet another opportunity for him to push the issue to the political centrestage.

With election clouds hovering on the political horizon chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, who also happens to be the president of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), has taken some significant decisions. While in a move likely to expand his reach among the poor he has sought to bring around 35 lakh people outside the ambit of Food Security Act within the food security net by launching a scheme of his own, he is also doing everything possible to keep the sensitive Mahanadi issue alive.

It is with this intention that he recently launched the Green Mahanadi mission which ostensibly aims at soil strengthening and creating a green belt along the banks of state’s mightiest river. The real purpose of the mission, however, is to remind people of the state’s long standing dispute with neighbouring Chhatisgarh over the sharing of Mahandi waters.

It is worth mentioning that Chhatisgarh is going to have assembly elections later this year and winning the polls has become a prestige issue for the BJP government of the state which has built a number of barrages over the river on its side, thus obstructing the flow of Mahanadi water into Odisha. Though the Centre has formed a tribunal to settle the dispute following a sustained campaign by Odisha a solution nowhere seems to be in the sight.

For a regional party like BJD it is an important issue to whip up popular passions and chief minister, Naveen Patnaik has already made it known that this would be his party main poll plank in 2019. No wonder despite inclement weather, Naveen flew to Boudh and Sonepur districts in western Odisha on July 24 to launch the mission on which the state government plans to spend Rs. 500 crore in the next five years.

Naveen launched the mission from the banks of river Mahanadi at the Budharaja plantation site in Sonepur and  at Manamunda in Boudh district on the banks of Tel, a tributary of  Mahanadi, by planting saplings.  Opposition Congress and BJP have accused Naveen of playing politics with elections in mind but the chief minister couldn’t care less.

“Mahanadi is the most important asset of the state and we need to save it at any cost. The government has taken up a massive drive to ensure plantation along the banks of Mahanadi and other rivers,” Naveen said while launching the mission.

The apparent objective of the scheme is to create a green belt within 1km width of Mahanadi and its tributaries–Tel and Ib. This would help recharge groundwater along the Mahandi banks.

During the presentation of last state budget Naveen Patnaik government had announced to launch the mission after it felt that the water level of the Mahandi was dropping following the closure of gates of Kalma barrage located in the upstream of Mahanadi by the Chhattisgarh government.

Though Naveen Patnaik government had urged the Chhattisgarh government to open the gates, the latter blatantly ignored the request. The issue took a political turn.

Apart from launching the Green Mahanadi mission Naveen on July 24 also flagged off the state Green Mahanadi Mission Ratha and inaugurated the Green Mahandi Abhijan logo.   “The mission is aimed at protecting and nurturing Mahanadi which in turn will bring development to at least 15 districts of the state”, he said.

The mission aims at taking up plantation in over 20,000 hectare (ha) along the banks of Mahanadi River this year. It has identified at least 1,303 villages close to Mahanadi for the plantation drive along the river that is considered to be the lifeline of the state. Similar initiatives will be undertaken on the banks of Ib and Tel rivers and subsequently extended to all major rivers in the state.

Forest minister Bijayshree Routray said the massive plantation will recharge ground water along the Mahanadi and would prevent the river from going dry. Routray also said that forest cover in the state had grown by 2,500 sq kms in the past 10 years and the forest protection committees have been formed at the village level to save the trees.

The importance of the occasion was evident from the presence of senior  BJD leaders from western Odisha including Speaker Pradeep Amat, Water Resource, Housing and Rural Development Niranjan Pujari, Bolangir Lok Sabha member, Kalikesh Narayan Singhdeo and Birmaharajpur MLA Padmanava Behera.

Though Congress and BJP described the mission as a political stunt enacted to gain public sympathy on the Mahanadi issue the BJP defended the move staunchly. “The BJP has no moral right to talk about  Mahanadi. They had earlier opposed the demand for a tribunal to settle the water sharing dispute. What’s wrong in creating a green belt along the river,” said its BJD spokesperson.

The development is significant considering that BJP, the main rival of BJD in the state, is focusing on consolidating its support base in western Odisha which cannot survive without Mahanadi.

“There is no denying our desire to have a strong foothold on the coast but we consider it strategically more prudent to consolidate our position in western Odisha where we have a good presence. Remember eight out of our ten MLAs in the state assembly hail from this belt,” said young BJP  MLA, Pradeep Purohit underscoring the region’s importance in  BJP’s scheme of things.

BJP national president, Amit Shah had toured Kalahandi and Bolangir, the districts considered to be the political nerve centers of western Odisha, in April addressing public meetings and holding closed door interactions with party leaders and workers to gear them up for the next elections that are barely a year away.

Purohit said that the party would seek to highlight pertinent issues like farmer suicides and lack of irrigation facilities in the state’s western districts, some of which are part of the KBK belt infamous for droughts and starvation deaths. “ This region is lagging behind even in the field of healthcare with hospitals wallowing in neglect and doctors playing truant. With unemployment rampant migration of labour has become an annual phenomenon in districts like Kalahandi and Bolangir. The government has done nothing for the people here,” alleged the legislator who has been organising meetings in blocks and panchayats to mobilize people on these issues.

Kuchinda MLA and party’s Scheduled Tribe Morcha chief, Rabinarayan Naik echoed similar sentiments and said that his party would turn the issue into a major poll plank in 2019.

Ruling BJD general secretary, Bijay Nayak, however, rubbished the allegations of BJP leaders asserting that his party stood  for regional balance with its government according equal importance to all the areas as far as developmental initiatives were concerned.

It is in this context that BJD’s strategy to keep the Mahanadi dispute in public focus assumes significance. It is certain to thwart any attempt by the BJP to win popular support in the state, especially in the western districts.

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